Canada should pull its troops out of Afghanistan. The West's mission there is no less a "march of folly," to use historian Barbara Tuchman's phrase about the U.S. war in Vietnam, than was the Soviet attempt to impose a regime in Afghanistan with its invasion in 1979.
That invasion was the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire. Sixty years earlier, in 1919, the British decided that their own imperial effort to dominate Afghanistan was doomed and withdrew to the other side of the Khyber Pass.
In our day, the United States is involved in an unwinnable struggle for hegemony in Iraq, Afghanistan and much of the rest of the Middle East and Central Asia. Canada should stand aside.
In Afghanistan, Canadian troops are not engaged in peacekeeping. They are involved on one side in a civil war. While Canadians have been rightly proud of this country's decision to stay out of Iraq, they have paid insufficient attention to the fact that the former Liberal government drew us ever more deeply into Afghanistan. The mission now entrusted to Canadian and other coalition troops in southern Afghanistan, under the command of Canadian Brigadier-General David Fraser, is no less a war mission than the campaigns being fought by the British and Americans in Iraq.
When President George W. Bush paid a surprise visit to Kabul this week, he spoke, as always, of his determination to prosecute the war on terror. The so-called war on terror is really a struggle in which the United States and its allies are trying to impose their hegemony on a large part of the world. (The rejoinder that the Americans had to invade Afghanistan to retaliate against the 9/11 attacks is a non-starter. They had as much reason to invade Saudi Arabia, from which much of the financing of the attacks and most of the hijackers came.)
In the process, the values that are most dear to us - democracy, human rights, equality for women, freedom of speech and the right to publish our thoughts - are being preached in a contest that has little to do with any of these. In many regions of the world, democracy, freedom and human rights are seen as cynical slogans, Orwellian doublespeak, mouthed by those who want oil and other natural resources, and the strategic pathways, such as Afghanistan, that lead to these resources.
In 1900, Mark Twain offered a warning about phony humanitarianism that still rings true. "I said to myself," he wrote about the American intervention in the Philippines, "here are a people who have suffered for three centuries. We can make them as free as ourselves, give them a government and country of their own, put a miniature of the American constitution afloat in the Pacific, start a brand new republic to take its place among the free nations of the world. It seemed to me a great task to which we had addressed ourselves.
"But I have thought some more, since then ... and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem ... And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land."
If Canada and the other Western powers pull out of Afghanistan, what will be the consequences for that country?
The struggle involving the government in Kabul, the remnants of the Taliban and regional warlords will continue. At the end of the civil war, the regime that emerges is unlikely to look much like a democracy that practises human rights. It could even be a fascistic theocracy.
On the other hand, the presence of Western powers, perceived in this region of the world as the forces of imperialism, will never succeed in imposing a Western-style system in the country. For centuries, the Afghans have shown an ornery tendency to throw out foreign invaders. And when, years from now, the people of the West decide to pull out of Afghanistan, withdrawal at that late date could leave an even more battered country and an even more tyrannical regime in its wake.
In the 19th century, the Europeans thought it was only natural that their empires should rule much of North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. In the 21st century, the Americans have not yet learned that this is folly, although recent public opinion polls in the U.S. suggest that the truth is dawning on them.
Not least, Canada should pull its troops out of Afghanistan for an old-fashioned, even politically incorrect, reason. It is not in our interest to put our young men and women in harm's way in a struggle that will not be won.
Written by James Laxer, a professor of political science at York University.
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