Mission impossible?

The country that most Canadians couldn’t have found on a map five years ago is sparking controversy, challenging patriotism and putting military men and women into a spotlight that has eluded them for more than a decade. We can’t get Afghanistan out of the news, off our minds, away from our tax dollars. What do we think we’re doing in a quite primitive country half a world away that seems to be bent on self-destruction?

The simple answer is this: we’re helping them to rebuild, as we promised we would in the Bonn Agreement in November 2001 and protecting ourselves, as we’ve discovered we must, in the traumatized aftermath of 9-11.

In the days that followed that horrid wake-up call on Sept. 11, 2001, the pundits said it over and over again – “We’ll never be the same.” That may be the single silver lining in the very dark cloud we’ve been living under ever since. We must never be the same. Not in the way we dismiss terrorism as something that happens to other people who live in other places. Not the way we presume those other people can endure the horror of civil war, the abuse of fanatics, the social, medical and educational conseqences of being forgotten by the international community.

Addressing that truth has become the dubious distinction of the Canadian military, best known as peacekeepers, now seen as the force that can turn around the Titanic that Afghanistan has become. But the cost is mighty – at press time, 36 Canadian soldiers dead, $2 billion spent in military operations and $100 million a year pledged until 2011 to rebuild. As a result, hard questions are being asked about whether our troops ought to be there in the first place and whether we should just let the Afghans fight it out among themselves. As much as the hue and cry is spurred by compassion for the men and women who serve Canada in the military, it also comes from erroneous presumptions about the people our soldiers have been sent to protect.

First, the Taliban insurgency is confined to the four southern provinces of the country. While the other 28 provinces have confounding challenges to overcome – out-of-control warlords, drug barons, human rights abuses, ancient tribal customs that defy modernity – it’s fair to say that apart from the insurgency in the south, the rest of the country is marginally better off with an elected government, a human rights commission and an infrastructure that’s starting to improve.

Next, who are the insurgents? While there can be no doubt that the Taliban and al-Qaida are yoked together through fanaticism and financial support via Saudi Arabia and Pakistan among others, they are not entirely ideologically bound. The Taliban want a medieval theocracy for Afghanistan. Al-Qaida wants to take the war to the rest of the world. Both groups have hijacked their religion for political opportunism, claiming they act in the name of God and using an astonishing array of revisionist history and ancient myths to distort the facts and feed fanaticism.

This movement to make politics sacred isn’t new. Charles Allen’s new book, God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad, examines its beginnings in 1827 in British-controlled India and what the British referred to as the Hindustani or Fanatic Camp, a secret organization bent on getting rid of the British and restoring the glory days of Islam that had been in decline since about 1200.

That movement clung on like a festering sore until 1989 when the Soviets withdrew in defeat from Afghanistan, and world events elsewhere brought players from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Jordan together like the perfect storm in Afghanistan. With the Cold War over, the international community that had made its presence felt along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan for 10 years took off like a school of minnows, suddenly and all together and left a vacuum the fanatics immediately filled. By 1994, the triad was ready – Mullah Omar, the one-eyed leader of the mostly illiterate Taliban; Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi who sees violence, oppression and fear as the pathway to world-wide jihad and Muslim domination; and al-Zawahiri, a disgraced Egyptian doctor and radical Islamist who founded al-Qaida. Their jihad was bolstered by 30 years of Madrassah mania in Pakistan where schools full of boys were taught hatred and revenge and became the foot soldiers of the movement that now has venomous tentacles around the world.

By the time the Taliban defeated six other factions in a fratricidal bloodbath in a post-Soviet Afghanistan, the country had become a pariah state – ruled by fanatics and drug lords and financed by people whose goal was to punish the West for every perceived insult since 1200.

While al-Qaida was well-organized and highly financed before 9-11, the same cannot be said of the Taliban who relied on tried and true Afghan methods of denouncing the opposition by accusing opponents of heresy. In fact, by the winter of 2001, the infighting within the Taliban had begun and rumours were spreading that Omar didn’t have control of his troops, that it was only a matter of time before they fell.

Then Sept. 11 happened. The invasion of Afghanistan began on Oct. 7, and the Taliban government was toppled. The United Nations now admits it was a mistake to presume they would slither away back to their tribal villages and accept defeat. The Taliban were small, disorganized and ineffective after defeat, but instead of wiping them out, the UN ignored them, a dangerous position to take with fanatics. Today, they have joined al-Qaida and pose a major threat not only to the people of Afghanistan but to any country that has western values (a.k.a. democracy) and secular governments.

The ace that Canadian soldiers and the Afghans hold is explained by author Charles Allen: “History teaches that fundamentalist theocracy does not work because people will simply not put up with it.”

That’s where we are today. It’s a contest between villagers deciding whether or not they will put up with the fanatics and the Afghan government getting the time it needs to build a functioning democracy. The Canadian military, whose job is to rid the country of Taliban forces and ease the people into democratic rule, has become the captain in this waiting game.

Brig.-Gen. David Fraser, the Canadian in command of the fractious southern region, says that time is near. “The Taliban’s window of opportunity has started to close.” He says the international community has put twice as many troops on the ground in recent months and “that doesn’t bode well for the Taliban. My mission is to support the people in Southern Afghanistan, every one of their leaders and the Minister of the Interior. I’m here to help them bring capacity. We’re not here to impose a western way but, rather, an Afghan solution.”

Canada has roughly 2,300 soldiers working under a NATO umbrella in the Kandahar region. Thirty-six soldiers and one diplomat have been killed since Canada deployed to Afghanistan in early 2002. One of those who died was Capt. Nichola Goddard, a courageous woman who was eulogized by her father, Professor Tim Goddard who teaches post-conflict studies at the University of Calgary. To a hushed congregation and an equally moved television audience, Goddard recounted a story about a conversation he’d had with Nichola. He told her that education was the only way out of the trouble a country like Afghanistan was in. Nichola agreed with her father but explained that without security, education was impossible. Indeed, during the four months she served in Afghanistan, dozens of girls’ schools were firebombed, teachers were murdered and parents were warned in threatening “night letters” – distributed anonymously – not to send their girls to school. Tim Goddard quoted his daughter as saying, “I do what I do so you can do what you do.”

Indeed, that’s exactly what our military men and women are doing in Afghanistan.

On the ground at Kandahar
The Canadian soldiers live on a massive base south of Kandahar City. It’s like a moonscape – all gravel ground cover in the middle of a desert with daytime temperatures soaring into the 50-plus Celsius mark and the incessant reminder of war – Apache helicopters taking off and landing 24-7, armoured vehicles like the famed LAV IIIs and Nyalas and G-wagons that have saved so many lives from suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – rumbling through the camp and rocket attacks from the outside that have landed perilously close to the tents the soldiers work and live in.

Despite the headlines at home about outdated equipment and low morale, the truth of this mission defies the critics. Says Lieut. Mark McIntyre, “It’s amazing how funds are made available when our lives are at risk. The Nyalas are arriving here with the paint barely dry.” What’s more, the exceptional training of the Canadian soldiers has put them in the leader category among other militaries. One American who doesn’t want to be named says, “The Canadians bring a peacekeeping sensibility to a combat mission … we [Americans] are more of a blunt instrument.”

The job is divided into two categories: a combat mission to fight the Taliban and a humanitarian one to rebuild damaged infrastructure in the villages, bring medical help and ask what the villagers need, the aim being to win the hearts and minds of the people and give them the confidence to refuse refuge to the Taliban.

Col. Chris Vernon, chief of staff for Regional Command South, returns from a forward operating base dusty, tired and somewhat frustrated with the suggestion that Canada is doing America’s dirty work in Afghanistan. “We’re not here as an occupying or invading force. This is not a high-intensity war, it’s a counter insurgency. Any counter insurgency is about who gets support from the people. There are a lot of people in the southern provinces who haven’t decided which way to go – the Taliban or the Afghan government. It’s always about the people. That’s why we’re here.”

While the soldiers are treated to Alaskan crab legs and Atlantic lobster on Saturday nights at the base and do have many of the amenities of home – Tim Hortons, new release movies – the living conditions are at best difficult. But in classic Canadian style, the soldiers take to it not unlike the way Canadians dig out of snowstorms at home. Cpl. Sharnee Trafford is taking her lunch hour to sunbathe in the 52-degree heat when I catch up with her outside the tent she’ll call home until February. The tattoo across her shoulders is Egyptian hieroglyphics that spell out Bailey – her seven-year-old daughter’s name. A signal operator, the 27-year-old Trafford sees her job as the chat network and the 911 call centre for the soldiers outside the wire of the military camp in any of three forward operating bases. The daughter of author Tyler Trafford and librarian Judy Trafford, the Calgary native says, “I feel blessed to be able to help, especially the women who are so destitute. It’s heartbreaking. Their husbands have total control over whether they live or die.”

Her civilian colleague Erin Dwyer, 29, is with the Canadian Personal Support Agency and runs fitness and recreation programs for the off-duty soldiers. When asked why on earth would she leave her work in peaceful Gagetown, N.B., for this dangerous mission, she admits the challenge and the danger pay were an incentive but adds, “I feel fortunate to be here doing my part to help the soldiers do their job.” She “gets away from it all” by cycling at dawn around the perimeter of the base, a time when streaks of sunrise blur the military hardware and the heat of the day hasn’t taken its blistering grip on the inhabitants. The silhouette she makes – bike and girl – riding through the toughest terrain in the world at first light speaks volumes about the commitment the Canadians have to the task they’ve been assigned.

The problems with the rest of the country, while overshadowed by the insurgency in the south, are immense. In the absence of a clear win over the Taliban, warlords who have enjoyed immunity from prosecution and even cabinet posts in President Karzai’s government are bolstering their militias, as though standing by for a power grab in case the government collapses. The disarmament program is in tatters, there’s restless discontent among people who were promised a better life with the arrival of the international community. In sum, the situation in Afghanistan is dependent on the coalition forces if not defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida – an unlikely outcome – at least driving them back into the caves they started from and keeping them there until the fledgling government can get on its feet.

Says Dr. Sima Samar, chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights commission, the single stunning success story in post-Taliban Afghanistan, “Human security is a basic requirement for everything else.” She wants war crimes – many of them committed by warlords – prosecuted. She describes a justice system that is dysfunctional and admits the rights of women and girls are only marginally better than they were in the past. “But accountability, justice and security must work together for peace,” she says. Acutely aware of the difficult and dangerous role Canada is playing, she says, “Stability here will help security throughout the world. Security here means law enforcement and a decrease in training camps for terrorists, maybe even a decrease in poppy growing (used in the production of opium and heroin). These are problems for everyone in the world, not specifically Afghans.” She also sees Canada as the country that can pull off this confounding mission. “Canada doesn’t have a history as a colonizer. It doesn’t have ambition to control or rule or occupy another country. The international community knows that. So do Afghans.”

And she adds in an ominous warning, “If Afghanistan is not safe, Canada is not safe.”

That’s why we’re in Afghanistan. Lest we forget.