What Mission Accomplished? 10 Years Later, Canada’s Role in Afghanistan and Global War (Part I)

If the objectives of invading and occupying Afghanistan, as Western leaders claim, are to liberate Afghans and especially Afghan women from a tyrannical and misogynistic government, eliminate terrorism, and provide greater global security for most people, then the mission is a dismal failure. None of these purported objectives have been accomplished to any satisfactory level. None are likely to be accomplished in the foreseeable future. It is inconceivable any of these objectives could be accomplished by launching a global war.

 Many Afghans desperately wanted to believe the promises of liberation were true. However, their hopes were soon dashed.

In fact, the occupying forces replaced the Taliban government with a government dominated by the repressive mujahideen warlords of the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (UIF). The UIF is better known by its euphemistic name used by Western media – the Northern Alliance.

The UIF warlords differ from the Taliban primarily in their willingness to do business with Western governments and corporations. They differ little from the Taliban in their disregard of human rights, women’s issues, democratic governance, and myriad other key social concerns, which many supporters of the invasion might have hoped would have been instituted in Afghanistan within a decade of occupation.

In 2001, Special Operations Forces from the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand allied with the UIF warlords to seize control of Kabul from the Taliban. The Bush administration called this invasion Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). This name is still used by the aggressive occupation force that operates in parallel to the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) that was sanctioned by the UN shortly after the OEF invasion. Canadian Forces participate in both the unsanctioned (thus illegal) OEF and the UN sanctioned ISAF.

The political and military leaders of this small OEF coalition – the Anglo-American Quintet – knew full well who they had allied with when they chose to back the UIF warlords. After all, the US had been supplying arms to many of these mujahideen warlords since the Afghan Islamic rebellion in 1979 – a deliberate provocation, according to Zbigniew Brzezinski, which drew the Soviet military into Afghanistan later that year.

Despite warnings from Afghan and international human rights activists, the leaders of the Anglo-American Quintet chose to maintain the longstanding American alliance of convenience with the warlords. This alliance was further cemented by the Bonn Accord of December 2001, which rewarded the mujahideen warlords for their military exploits.

The events of the past decade demonstrate that the unheeded warnings of the human rights activists were accurate. The Harper government has been scrambling for years, including by shutting down Parliament, in an effort to obfuscate Canada’s complicity in war crimes and violations of International Humanitarian Law, which are routinely committed by the warlord infused Afghan government and security forces.

Focusing attention on the Canadian government’s complicity in war crimes committed on the battlefield is extremely important, but it should not divert criticism of Canada’s role in the illegal OEF invasion of Afghanistan. Nor should it be allowed to divert attention from critically analysing Canada’s roles and objectives within the American-led OEF and NATO-led ISAF operations.

The torture of prisoners in Afghan custody, according to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, has decreased in recent years. This war crime, however, is merely a symptom of larger systemic problems.

The promises to establish a democratic regime that respects human rights, including women’s rights, evaporated years ago. In its 2009 White Paper, the Obama administration dropped all pretense of establishing democratic governance in Afghanistan.

The official American objective now is merely to keep a government in power that is willing to cooperate with the pursuit of American interests.

Is life any better for Afghans after a decade of occupation?

It depends on who you ask.

Life is much better for those who profit from the warlord hierarchy secured by the occupying forces. Some Afghans have become incredibly wealthy and powerful since 2001.

Life is marginally better for some Afghans who benefit from the entirely inadequate patchwork of humanitarian projects financed by foreign governments and NGOs.

It is evident most of the education, healthcare, and various other human development projects never actually materialised. Canadian government officials who for half a decade proudly proclaimed two million Afghan girls were going to school now quietly admit the real number might be a vague few hundred thousand. Nonetheless, life has improved for some.

However, for most Afghans life is worse. The UN reports that 96 percent of Afghans have been negatively affected by the war. The Red Cross observes that current conditions are the worst in 30 years.

The true numbers of dead, injured, and displaced Afghans has never been fully calculated. The true cost of the ongoing war in human terms is incalculable.

The Canadian media reports about the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suffered by Canadian Forces personnel after their six-month tours of duty. PTSD is a very real problem; affected soldiers deserve proper treatment.

A new medical study indicates even the children of American military personnel serving in the war suffer increased rates of mental illness.

But what about the PTSD of Afghans who have lived their entire lives immersed in war? How do we treat the collective PTSD of an entire society? We cannot even call this disorder post-traumatic because the trauma causing it continues and is escalating.

Despite the obvious failure of the humanitarian mission, has the Global War on Terror at least eliminated terrorism and provided greater global security?Absolutely not.

Rather than eliminating a small band of al Qaeda terrorists, the actions taken in the name of a Global War on Terror enraged people around the world, generated greater unrest leading to more widespread violent and nonviolent resistance, and generally reduced security for most people everywhere. There have been no further terrorist attacks in the US anywhere near the scale of the 911 attacks, yet after the attack in Fort Hood Texas, Americans have to face the fear that even their own military officers might be ‘security threats.’

A mission with a different set of objectives – globalisation and geopolitical advantage

If, however, the objectives of fighting the Global War on Terror are to expand liberal markets, gain unfettered access to resources and labour, secure the rights and property of investors, and ensure geopolitical advantage for the US and its closest allies, then the war is achieving some success.

Within weeks of the American led unilateral invasion of Afghanistan, the UN installed an interim government amenable to America’s objectives for Afghanistan and north-western Pakistan. Afghanistan is open for business and American-led forces are dug into a strategic bridgehead in the heart of Eurasia to secure and further expand liberal capitalism.

Fulfilling at least the promise of the first two words in its name, the Bush administration expanded the Global War on Terror from its initial battlefront in Afghanistan, into Pakistan, Iraq, and, by George Bush’s own count, other overt and covert operations in as many as sixty countries.

Bush promised the Global War on Terror would be a war for freedom and named the invasion force that still occupies Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).

The 2002 US National Security Strategy, popularly known as the Bush Doctrine, identifies America’s strategic objectives. In a chapter titled, “Ignite a New Era of Global Economic Growth through Free Markets and Free Trade”, the Bush Doctrine proclaims free trade is “real freedom” and a “moral principle”. America’s morally just mission, according to the Bush Doctrine, is to globally expand this “real freedom”.

However, the supposed “real freedom” of free trade is a freedom shared exclusively by investors at the expense of exploiting almost every other human being and unsustainably exploiting the natural environment.

In its official documents, the Obama administration rebranded the Global War on Terror, calling it Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO).

The OCO moniker better reflects the contingent nature of an imperial war machine capable of global reach and battles on multiple fronts. This is a war machine primed and ready for any action to forcefully pursue American interests. Warfare waged by this empire is contingent on events as they arise. Opportunities for forceful expansion might arise anywhere due to unpredictable events ranging from terrorist attacks to popular rebellions.

Liberal imperialism – in business to serve business and the state since 1600

It’s worth briefly recounting the past four centuries of liberal imperialism in order to understand the context of the Global War on Terror, or OCO, or whatever euphemism the spin-doctors next invent to describe imperial warfare. (The Obama administration now uses “kinetic military action” to avoid using the word war to describe its recent attack on Libya).

Queen Elizabeth I granted the East India Company its royal charter, in 1600, to begin the British Empire’s incessant advance northward throughout the Indian subcontinent.

During the next few decades, Elizabeth’s successors granted charters to similar British companies around the world including companies in the Americas such as the Hudson Bay Company and the Virginia Company.

In this 17th century mode of private-public partnerships, the British monarchs granted private companies the right to maintain armies to secure access to foreign markets, resources, and labour. Labour at that time of course included slaves, indentured servants, feudal peasants, and corvée workers in far greater numbers than waged or contract workers.

The conquered peoples, universally referred to as Indians, regardless whether their homeland was in India or the Americas, sometimes blocked corporate development purposefully. But often they were simply in the way of “progress” living on their land as they always had.

The “Indians” might be persuaded to comply with the imperial/corporate agenda with offers of trade and friendship. Sometimes formal treaties were struck. Sometimes these contracts were honoured, but often not. The “Indians” might also be genocidally exterminated, displaced, or subjugated. The imperial overlords used whatever means they deemed necessary to coerce compliance in order to exploit resources and labour.

The ultimate purpose of the imperial system was to increase the wealth of British investors and strengthen Britain’s geopolitical advantage. The British companies generally out-competed their rivals. The British military secured the global transportation network and provided backup whenever the private company militaries could no longer subjugate the local population.

This system of imperial expansion worked very well for the British for centuries. A few imperial apologists, like Niall Ferguson, still argue that on balance the empire even benefited the conquered peoples.

Yet, despite three Anglo-Afghan wars fought between 1839 and 1919, the British never managed to pry Afghanistan open for business. In 1919, Afghans finally halted the steady northward advance of the British Raj that had begun in 1600.

British prospectors surveyed enough of Afghanistan during the 19th and early 20th centuries to recognize its great wealth of geological resources. However, faced with the combination of an Afghan population fiercely resisting subjugation and the Russian empire just over the northern horizon threatening war against the entire British Raj, the British never began industrial-scale mining.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Afghanistan served a more useful geopolitical function as a barrier: first, separating the rival British, Russian, and Persian empires; and then during the Cold War, separating the rival American and Soviet empires.

Throughout the early Cold War the Americans and Soviets competed within Afghanistan by building development projects. These projects effectively diverted the accountability of Afghan leaders away from their constituents toward their respective imperial patrons.

These development projects also indebted Afghans to the imperial powers.

Building the Helmand Arghandab Valley Authority (HAVA) – a series of dams and irrigation canals built between the late 1940s into the 1960s in Helmand and Kandahar provinces – enriched the American contractor Morrison Knudsen. However, long before the project was completed, the Afghan government was already indebted to the contractor for more than the entire GDP of Afghanistan.

The HAVA project displaced farmers and shepherds destroying the agricultural and pastoral social systems at the base of the Afghan export economy. Waterlogging, salinisation, and calcification caused irreparable soil damage in areas that had been farmed for millennia.

It is bitter irony that where lush fruit and nut orchards and vineyards once formed the backbone of the Afghan economy, opium poppy is now one of the few salt-resistant crops that can grow in soils damaged by the irresponsibly planned HAVA. The Dahla Dam, which the Canadian contractor SNC Lavalin is rebuilding as Canada’s signature project, was originally built by Morrison Knudsen as part of the HAVA.

Many Afghans perceive the HAVA as a destructive project that debilitated the Afghan economy and was one of many factors that caused the famine of 1972, and eventually the collapse of the constitutional monarchy. Thus the HAVA was one of many factors that led to the republican coup of 1973, and the subsequent socialist coup of 1978.

On Christmas Day 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan to back the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) led government’s defence against an Islamic rebellion that had begun in March 1979. Since July 1979, the US had covertly funded the Islamic rebels’ anti-socialist jihad.

Soviet officials boasted Afghans would self-finance the military occupation. Afghans did indeed pay for much of the cost by exporting natural gas to the USSR. However, Soviet developers were unable to implement more extensive development plans including numerous industrial-scale mining projects before they were forced to retreat along with the Soviet military, in 1989.

With the end of the Cold War, Afghanistan was no longer needed as a barrier. Instead, it became extremely valuable as a bridgehead to reconnect Eurasia via a contemporary equivalent of the ancient Silk Road. As an added bonus, the vast untapped resources of Afghanistan, which competing American and Soviet prospectors had been surveying since the 1920s, could finally be exploited.

All that was needed to do business in Afghanistan was to replace the uncooperative Afghans with cooperative Afghans.

Instituting a liberal democratic government respectful of human rights might have been one option. Nevertheless, installing a compliant government and giving it sufficient power to control its population is all that is necessary to win what President Obama has called the “necessary” war. 

• Part II will be published on July 8

• Part III will be published on July 11

Michael Skinner is a researcher, human rights activist, musician and composer. For a decade he was a National Education Facilitator for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Since 2006, he has been a Researcher at the York Centre for International and Security Studies at York University. Skinner is currently writing his Ph.D. dissertation titled, Peacebuilding, State-building, & Empire-building: The emerging Empire of Capital and its interventions from Central America to Central Asia. Michael Skinner recently returned from his second research trip to Afghanistan.