Myth-making, peace-making, and sacrifice in Afghanistan

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor explained the decision to extend Canada’s military commitment in Afghanistan to 2009, the tone they set was one of hard-nosed defence of the Canadian interest.”Our rationale for being in Afghanistan is clear,” Mr. Harper told the House of Commons in the May 17/06 that preceded the extension vote. “It is in the interests of this country.”

Mr. O’Connor put it this way in the same debate: “The bottom line is that the mission in Afghanistan supports one of the enduring goals of Canada’s foreign and defence policy: to protect Canada ‘s national interest. We must commit to seeing our mission through. Our national interest is straightforward: to ensure the security and prosperity of the Canadian people. This government has summed it up in two words: Canada first.”

It was a very practical kind of talk, but when we receive home the bodies of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan, the language of self-interest fails us. In these moments we quite properly reach for a larger and more ennobling purpose. When the ultimate sacrifice is asked and courageously given we are drawn to the more fundamental values of freedom and a common global humanity. In that same May 2006 debate, when Mr Harper spoke of sacrifice, he said ” Canadians accept risks when those risks are in the service of a greater good.” Some Canadian interests may well be included in that greater good, but they certainly don’t define it. And when, from the recent Vimy anniversary event in France, Mr. Harper announced the deaths of more Canadian soldiers, he said that “when the cause is just, Canada will always be there to defend our values and our fellow human beings.”[i]

The inadequacy of appeals to self interest when thinking about Canadian peace-making efforts abroad is also highlighted in the opening entries of a compelling on-line debate on peace support operations currently hosted by the Canadian Peacebuilding Coordinating Committee (CPCC).[ii]

Doug Bland, Chair of Defence Management Studies at Queen’s University, and Peggy Mason, Chair of the Canadian Peacebuilding Coordinating Committee and a former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament, both agree that the current ISAF operation in the south is “war.” Mr. Bland calls it a “stability campaign” by means of “warfare” and argues that Canada should join such campaigns/wars when the fight is in “our interests and those of our close allies.” But I find it interesting that when he makes a strong statement in support of Canada’s role in Afghanistan he calls it a “war of liberation” consistent with Canadian “traditions,” not interests.

There is no question that Canadian interests are involved, inasmuch as it is broadly within our interests to promote a rules-based international order that serves the well-being and safety of people, but when we ask our fellow citizens to make the extraordinary sacrifices that await them in Afghanistan, we quite rightly find we can’t bring ourselves to do it on the basis of the national interest. Instead, we appeal to more enduring values, all of which, we should be proud to acknowledge, find resonance within Canadian traditions.

That these traditions live within a national story of constructed mythologies is not in doubt, but the point of creating a national story is the expectation that it will help shape our action when it matters most. Collectively, we sometimes honor and frequently betray our myths, but it is still our aspiration and responsibility in particular circumstances like Afghanistan to muster the conviction and especially the skills to effectively serve the ideals of protecting fundamental rights and peacemaking that our national story invokes.

And that’s where Mason’s detailed attention, in the CPCC hosted debate, to peace processes comes in – to define the kind of intervention that is needed if we are to have any chance of meeting those ideals. Bland includes a description of continuous warfare, and it really proves Mason’s point that you don’t win the peace by entering one side of an ongoing civil war and fighting it out. Her argument and the lessons of peacebuilding make it clear that winning the peace is a political, social, economic, military enterprise – and the most immediate problem in Afghanistan is that the political component has fallen apart, and the social and economic components have fallen seriously short of expectations.

The Afghan Government that the ISAF operation supports has for a variety of reasons – some self-inflicted, some owing to the failure of the international community – lost the confidence of Afghans to such an extent that the essential ingredient of “a credible peace implementation process” is no longer present, certainly not in the south. Hence, the military operation has become an effort to militarily impose order – as Bland puts it, “to create ‚Äòharmonious law-based conditions'” – but it is predictably proving to be impossible because too many Afghans, especially in the south, believe that the particular Governing order that the foreign military intervention supports will lead neither to harmony nor the fair rule of law.

So, how to restore a credible peace process? Well, there are some good ideas around. Increasingly the talk about negotiating with the Taliban is getting serious [iii] and needs international support to generate a political culture of inclusion, rather than sticking to a strategy of exclusion. The lessons of the Dutch are also gaining credence – that is, focusing less on fighting the spoilers and more on making their cause irrelevant. The ongoing need to generate economic opportunity is well understood and needs to be well funded.

All this has to happen in a dangerous environment, reminding us that the resort to lethal force will remain a part of the reality for some time to come. Calling for a switch from a military to a diplomatic/humanitarian strategy, or focusing debate on military withdrawal deadlines, will not yield the strategy and insight needed to integrate the political, social, economic, and military elements of peacemaking in Afghanistan. But you can do what Peggy Mason counsels, and that is to “find the proper balance between coercion and consent” – recognizing that producing consent is a political process.

The key in peace operations is to ensure that the resort to military force is a support to the peace process rather than a substitute for it.


[i] Bruce Cheadle, “Harper breaks sombre news of deaths in Afghanistan on eve of Vimy anniversary” (http://www.brooksbulletin.com/news/world_news.asp?itemid=61829), Sunday, April 08, 2007.

[ii] http://forum.peacebuild.ca/content/view/13/27/

[iii] Afghan President Hamid Karzai has now asked a group of former Taliban to mediate with rebel Taliban. Terry Friel, “Only peace talks can save Afghanistan – former rebel,” Reuters, April 12, 2007 [http://today.reuters.com/news/CrisesArticle.aspx?storyId=SP206760].

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