Afghanistan’s real legacy

“President Obama has stated quite clearly what we all believe.”

That was Defence Minister Peter MacKay earlier this week suggesting that Canada’s position on Afghanistan is the same as that of the United States.

This was in response to U.S. President Barack Obama saying last weekend that the American military could reach out to members of the Taliban and try to bring them into the Afghan government.

It wasn’t that long ago when this same Conservative government severely criticized anyone who opposed the continuing Canadian involvement in Afghanistan as unpatriotic and maligned opposition leaders, such as the NDP’s Jack Layton as “Taliban Jack” for saying the very same thing.

How times have changed.

Now that there is a new administration in the White House and a new direction with regards to the war in both Afghanistan and Iraq, our government’s direction and public pronouncements have also changed. And we didn’t even have an election.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper started all this when he said on U.S. television two Sundays ago that the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable.

Speaking as a guest on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS (for Global Public Square, by the way, one of the best public affairs programs on U.S. television – CNN Sundays at 1 and 5 p.m.), Harper said this: “Quite frankly, we are never going to defeat the insurgency…My reading of Afghanistan history is that it’s probably had an insurgency forever of some kind.”

We have been saying for more than two years now that the West cannot and will not win that war because of our understanding of Afghanistan’s history and what we know of its people. Most Canadians have been of similar mind. Harper should have read the country’s history a little earlier – maybe before extending the mission to 2011.

So, the question now is: If we can’t win the war, why are we still there? Why are we still sacrificing the blood of our military men and women in a futile effort?

This week, the body of the 112th soldier killed in Afghanistan was returned to Canada. A few days earlier, three other bodies were brought home. A Canadian diplomat and two aid workers have also been killed. And, we expect there will be others.

What should really be of grave concern to Canadians is the bold-faced politicization of this war. When George W. Bush was in power and gung ho on ‘taking the war to the enemy’, we marched in lock step. Now, with the new direction, we have MacKay saying that what the U.S. president states is what we all believe. Since when?

We were right to join the U.S. initially in what we believed to be its efforts to find and bring to justice (or kill) those who were responsible for the devastating attacks on New York and Washington D.C. on 9/11 – Al Qaeda and their Taliban supporters. We could have done no less. However, when the Bush administration turned its attention to Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11, we were left holding the bag. So, we adjusted the mission to focus on providing security; helping to bring democracy; building schools so that girls could be educated; helping to bring about equality for women and to help in the rebuilding of the country. Al Qaeda itself was virtually ignored.

Our continued presence in Afghanistan was not much more than an effort to placate the Bush administration by showing ourselves as strong and dependable allies. Now that the new administration’s priorities have changed, so have ours.

The truth is that our troops were sacrificed so that we could maintain a strong relationship with the U.S., our closest neighbour and our largest export market. Now, if that relationship is ever threatened as a result of U.S. protectionism, for example, we could point to the sacrifices of our men and women on the battlefield on behalf of America.

Even those of us who have been against the war since its mission changed would have felt a sense of pride when President Obama publicly acknowledged our friendship and the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform when he visited us in February.

In this time of severe economic uncertainty, where our fortunes are more or less linked with those of the U.S., a closer bond between our two countries as a result of our soldiers’ sacrifices in Afghanistan may be this war’s only true legacy.

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