Comment: Whistling in the graveyard of foreign invaders

Re: “Military support for Afghanistan urgently needed,” comment, Oct. 6.


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Chris Kilford’s plea for “just a little more” Canadian involvement in Afghanistan came as no surprise. It is only the latest verse of a song the military establishment has been singing for decades, with the U.S. as choirmaster.

If not singing, Kilford is surely whistling in the graveyard of foreign invaders. Since 1838, the British twice, the Russians and the U.S. have failed to subdue a people who stubbornly insist on settling their own disputes, sadly often with violence.

Kilford labelling everyone not on the U.S. side as terrorists is a tired device that will not work this time. There is little to choose between the Taliban and the collection of warlords the U.S. assembled.

The history of Canada in Afghanistan reveals just how misguided is Kilford’s position. Canada was lured into the most dangerous area, Kandahar, by a three-part bait-and-switch formula that the U.S. is still using today in Iraq.

Part 1, Bait: Appeal to what Canadians think they are — humanitarians and peacekeepers. Canada was initially offered what was billed as quasi-peacekeeping work in relatively safe Kabul. Then-defence minister Art Eggleton described it as a stabilization mission to assist in opening corridors for humanitarian assistance. Then-prime minister Jean Chrétien chimed in: The principal role that we hope to play … will be to make sure aid gets to the people who need it. Of course, we don’t want to have a big fight there.

Part 2, Switch: Use the undue influence of the military establishment to get Canadians into “real fighting.” Canada’s generals are deeply integrated with and envious of their American counterparts. The defence ministry chief of staff during the height of the war observed that Canadian brass have always been preoccupied, almost obsessed with their relationship with the U.S. military. Canada’s generals and admirals tend to be more concerned about their relationship with their American counterparts than they are with their own political master in Ottawa.

That concern played out in questionable conduct by Gen. Rick Hillier. In 2005, the Kabul mission was due to end. Hillier wanted a combat role for Canadian forces. He had candidly reminded us all, remember, that Canadian forces were not a social-service agency. Their job is to kill people.

Then-prime minister Paul Martin was more concerned with Darfur. Before he would consider Hillier’s plan for Afghanistan, he demanded a guarantee that Canadian forces could perform both missions. Hillier gave it, but reneged. Soon, the bulk of the fighting, dying and alienating civilians was in the hands of only the U.S., the U.K. and Canada. Other NATO nations put restrictions on use of their forces.

Part 3, Justify: Emphasize whatever element of the formula seems to work at the time. Cabinet minister Bill Graham went on a speaking tour explaining that Canadians were rebuilding a troubled country, winning hearts and minds as “warrior diplomats.” At the same time, Hillier was touting the mission as one to “kill detestable murderers and scumbags” in Kandahar who threatened western societies. As late as 2011, then-governor general David Johnston was assuring us with Part 1. Canadian forces were rebuilding schools and ensuring the peace that would permit boys and girls to have an education.

Kilford’s pitch is a bit of a hybrid: Let’s support Donald Trump’s campaign to kill “detestable murderers and scumbags” by re-involving the Canadian military — but only to help the Afghans help themselves. (Of course, we don’t want to have a big fight there.)

Don’t buy it. Canadians did build schools in Afghanistan. Canadian troops often did try to help civilians. The recently unveiled monument here emphasizes that and is a welcome change from the misleading war memorials that dominate the landscape. But that is not why we were in Afghanistan.

Graham gave the real reason after Canada declined to send troops to Iraq or join the Ballistic Missile Defence Program: Foreign Affairs’ view was that there is a limit to how much we could constantly say no to the political master in Washington. All we had was Afghanistan. On every other file, we were not onside.

Kilford laments that “domestic political considerations” keep us from “doing the right thing.” Let us hope so. With an increasingly delusional leader to the south, this is no time to fall for the formula again.


Retired law professor William Geimer is a U.S. army veteran and the author of Canada: The Case for Staying Out of Other People’s Wars.

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