Saturday, October 11, 2008

Should We Stay in Afghanistan?

Do you think we should keep our soldiers in Afghanistan, I was asked recently. The short answer is yes. The long answer is not so easy. If it was, the five political parties would all agree on what to do.

It all started when Al Qaeda declared war on the US and her allies by flying passenger jets into the World Trade Centre towers. Canadians, not just Americans, died. Intelligence already knew that the Taliban of Afghanistan were harbouring Osama bin Laden, and NATO returned fire by invading Afghanistan. Its mission: find bin Laden and get rid of the Taliban, the primitive ignorant theocratic rulers of Afghanistan that harboured bin Laden and fomented anti-western hatred and outright aggression against the US and six other countries, Canada among them (others were Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Australia, and eventually Spain).

But long before this war started Sally Armstrong of Homemaker's Magazine, of all publications, wrote about the wretched existence of women under the Taliban. Hidden under burkas when outside, shut up inside dwellings with blacked-out windows lest they be seen through glass, denied education and liberty, beaten for showing an ankle or being outside without a male relative, they rotted under the crush of extremely ignorant woman hatred. The west was not prepared to save these women, after all the CIA had created the Taliban in the first place when they armed and funded their founders to resist the invading Russians. The women had to wait for thousands of Americans, Canadians, and other westerners to die in towering, falling infernos before they were rescued as a side benefit to the war in Afghanistan.

As members of NATO, we sent our Canadian Armed Forces to Afghanistan soon after 9/11. Our soldiers began the war in that dusty country ill-equipped, not even having the appropriate uniforms. They stuck out like green thumbs in their traditional, outdated camouflage. The public and changing political leadership in Parliament changed that. Parliament, after their shameful, boastful cancellation of the Campbell government's purchase of helicopters that led to soldiers dying, finally realised that our men and women in the field looked amateurish and were easy targets and that they needed to open up the purse strings to equip them properly for a war in a landlocked country. It was no longer okay for our soldiers to die just because we didn't want to spend any money on military equipment so as to perpetuate the myth that we only did peace keeping, we never engaged in wars and battles. From uniforms to armoured vehicles, our Canadian Armed Forces slowly regained their strength and their morale. We are a country founded by a tough people who had to weather harsh conditions -- summer and winter -- in order to create a civilization here. We are a country that forged its identity in the hellish trenches of WWI. We are a country that forded great divides to create unity. Our military, its creativity, its flexibility, its intelligence, played a part in our founding and in keeping us together. A military that knows when not to engage is just as important as one that knows how to engage. That's the uniqueness of us and our military. That's why our military is so needed in a land divided.

Our soldiers are proud of what they have accomplished so far. They understand that bang bang bang is not going to win the war in Afghanistan. They are prepared to fire to protect Afghanis (and us) from the Taliban and their supporters. But they are also training Afghan soldiers and police to protect its own populace; contributing to the reform of the justice system; building roads; providing literacy training, so important after years of being deprived of a good education under the Taliban; vaccinating against polio; providing therapeutic feeding to children; and creating an environment in which girls and women can go to school. Its known that societies that have educated women do better than ones
with women kept in the dark, figuratively and literally. An educated
populace is generally a healthier populace.

What kind of a people do we want to be? The answer to that will affect your answer to the question of whether we should stay in Afghanistan. Our own self-interest demands we help rehabilitate Afghan society so that it is resistant to the Taliban regaining control and to harbouring Al Qaeda. But this is a country decimated by the Russians and the Taliban, a country that needs help to regain its former civilization. Its women particularly need our support. In an area of the planet that is so hostile to women, our mere example, the mere presence of our women soldiers who walk freely and dress similarly to the men shows the girls and boys a different way of looking at women. It won't change attitudes overnight, but it will plant a seed. That's how change starts.

We should stay in Afghanistan because our soldiers are protecting us by not allowing the Taliban to regain power and harbour Al Qaeda. We should also stay in Afghanistan because our men and women have made a difference to Afghani women, have liberated them from their dank prisons. A country that declares itself a socially responsible one and holds up medicare as a symbol of how we take care of the poorest, cannot then abandon these women before the job of liberating them is done.

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