The February release of a poll on the war in Afghanistan spread panic among our political and military leaders. The Strategic Counsel poll, taken between Feb. 16 and 19, reported that 62% of Canadians opposed having Canadian troops in Afghanistan, and that 73% wanted a full parliamentary debate on Canada’s role in the war.
To turn public opinion around, our political and military leaders, with the enthusiastic support of the mainstream media, embarked on a massive propaganda effort. Chief of Defence Staff General Hillier made speeches, held press conferences, and talked to the editorial board of The Globe and Mail. Prime Minister Harper and his senior cabinet ministers launched major attacks on those who would undermine support for our troops and their mission, implying that to even debate Canada’s role in the war was an act of disloyalty and an abandonment of our young men and women facing daily danger and death. He then reinforced his pro-war message by paying a surprise secret visit to the troops in Khandahar, vowing Canada will never leave Afghanistan until its commitment to the “war on terror” there is finished.
Canadian causalities, whether from combat or road accidents, became lead stories on national TV news broadcasts, and got huge front-page spreads in newspapers, day after day, featuring sad interviews with family members and pictures of the ceremonial returns of the wounded and the dead to Canadian soil.
Well, it appears that the propaganda effort is paying off. A later Ipsos-Reid poll reported that 52% of Canadians favoured continuing with our troops in Afghanistan. While this was a dramatic turnaround in public opinion, the numbers still revealed a nation haunted by doubt about the wisdom of joining the Americans in fighting this war.
Canadians are being told we are there to rebuild the country (which the Americans bombed into rubble), to help it achieve a civilized democracy, and to defend Canadian values in the global war on terrorism. This is hokum. Our troops are fighting and dying in Afghanistan to support the American empire and its geopolitical aspirations for domination in the region. The U.S. bombardment, invasion, and occupation of Afghanistan was and remains an illegal war of aggression, violating the UN Charter.
After failing to get UN support to help in the occupation and battles against Afghan resistance, Bush went to NATO. Now it is a NATO operation. What is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization doing in Afghanistan? It is certainly not defending Europe and North America from a war of aggression. But it is fighting an American imperial war for hegemony in the region.
It won’t work. The insurgency will go on endlessly, just as it has in the past. Every great modern empire has tried and failed to gain control of Afghanistan. The British empire, bloodied and battered, finally gave up in 1919 after wars in 1839-42, 1878-80, and 1919. The Soviet empire invaded in 1979 and retreated, humiliated, in 1989. The Afghan debacle contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Now the American empire is also trying to do the impossible.
Why Afghanistan? First, insurgents continue to resist American domination. Second, pacifying Afghanistan is essential to American plans for oil and natural gas pipelines through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea from the now independent and oil-rich Muslim republics in the former Soviet Union.
This American imperial adventure is not worth one drop of Canadian blood, and we should bring our troops home now, before the death toll begins its inevitable climb. We have already squandered too many lives of young Canadians.
General Rick Hillier has crossed the line into politics in this affair, and should be fired. No prime minister should accept Hillier’s aggressive political advocacy and posturing. Generals–and the top military brass as a group–in a free and democratic society cannot be permitted to abuse their office and their rank by indulging in open public political advocacy.
Not only has Hillier brazenly intruded into the area of setting Canadian military and foreign policy, but he also has made clearly partisan remarks against the former Liberal government and in favour of the current Conservative government. Hillier, in a very public way, is basically instructing the government on Afghan policy and clearly advocating a long-term commitment of Canadian troops to the misadventure. Equally as serious, his characterization of the governments of Prime Ministers Chrétien and Martin as “a decade of darkness” is quite simply unacceptable.
Military and foreign policy should be set by Parliament and the democratically elected government of the day. While the advice of the Chief of Defence Staff is sought, such advice is given privately and secretly to the prime minister and the cabinet. A democracy cannot countenance a Chief of Defence Staff who goes on the hustings to win public support for a particular foreign and military policy.
Prime Minister Harper’s duty to Canadians and to Parliament is clear: He should fire General Hillier and bring our troops home.
(John Conway is a political sociologist at the University of Regina.)