[This editorial appears in the November-December 2009 issue of This Magazine, in subscribers’ mailboxes, and available on newsstands, the first week of November. We preview it here today to mark the eighth anniversary of the Nato invasion on October 7, 2001]
The unhappy nation of Afghanistan had a bad year in 2009. For a country of such epic misery, violence, and corruption, that’s really saying something. Every day that Canadian troops remain on the ground there, we are complicit, and it’s time to stop. We should end our combat involvement at the earliest possible moment.
It’s been a year since the November 6, 2008, bombing of an Afghan wedding party at Shah Wali Kot in Kandahar, where a reported 37 civilians were killed. Over the last 12 months, such air strikes have killed an increasing number of Afghan civilians: in the first six months of the year, UN estimates recorded 1,013 civilian deaths, a marked increase over the same period a year before. The majority of deaths caused by coalition forces are due to air strikes, in which NATO ground troops identify targets and then call in bomber planes to hit them with missiles. The effect of this strategy has been a disaster. Not only do air strikes kill dozens of people indiscriminately, they also destroy infrastructure, leaving survivors without homes, clean water, or passable roads. The story has been repeated throughout 2009: the “Farah massacre” on May 4, 2009, when a U.S. missile killed an estimated 147 people, 93 of whom were children; the September 4, 2009, incident in which as many as 90 people, mostly civilians, were killed when an F-15 jet dropped two 225-kilogram bombs on the tanker truck from which they were siphoning fuel.
The few hearts and minds won by Canadian troops in Kandahar vanish with each new bombing. It takes months of trust-building to secure a single village, and fractions of a second to demolish that work. This is a losing proposition, and sure enough, we are losing. The UN reports that violence not only continues in the south, west, and central regions, but is now flaring up in “formerly relatively tranquil” areas of the north and northeast.
Doubling down on this situation by maintaining Canada’s troop commitment through 2011 will result in more death and despair for Canadian troops and Afghan civilians alike. Staying the course—out of a delusional belief that Afghan democracy is just around the corner, or some misplaced sense of national honour—is no longer viable.
“Each day,” Senator John Kerry, then a young Vietnam veteran, told the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee in 1971, “to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam, someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can’t say we have made a mistake. How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
We have made many mistakes in Afghanistan, and the entire world knows it. The current calculation—two more years (at least) of civilian and solider deaths, for the sake of a little face-saving—is disgusting and inhumane.
End the NATO combat mission. Send in UN peacekeepers. Begin negotiations between the civilian Afghan government, regional powers, and, yes, the Taliban.
We can’t prevent dishonour; it’s too late for that. But we can prevent further senseless death.