What is Canada’s role in Afghanistan?

According to Kris Kotarski’s February 23 column in the Calgary Herald, the answer is simple: “We’re supporting the Americans. Period.”  Any discussion of democracy, development and women’s rights is nothing but “rhetorical window dressing.”

I profoundly disagree, and I suspect that the six million children (including 1.5 million girls) who can now attend Afghan schools would support me. As would Afghans who are once again able to work in businesses, newspapers and television stations that were shut down by the Taliban. And those who now have access to medical care or have regained their farmland.

Kotarski’s thoughts may echo those of many Canadians, but they also reflect the ignorance of a public whose governments (both Conservative and Liberal) have failed to persistently remind us of why we are there. Seven years after we sent our troops, we have little memory of why we bothered.

Contrary to Kotarski’s claims, it is in our national interests to keep terrorists out of government. If the Taliban should regain power, it will once again become a haven for al-Qaeda and terrorist training camps. From there, terrorists will target nations in the West, Europe and Asia—as they already have.

It’s easy to forget who’s responsible for these attacks when they occur elsewhere, but the reality is that Canada is fifth on al-Qaeda’s list of targeted nations. Others on that list (Spain, England and Australia) have already been attacked and al-Qaeda just claimed responsibility for kidnapping a Canadian diplomat in Niger, so we’re naively ignoring reality if we believe Canada is immune to attack.

We’ve forgotten that the Taliban is a terrorist group that is responsible for an estimated one million deaths and that it ruled through the violent oppression of rights, fear and intimidation. Anybody remember the videos of public executions (portrayed as public sport) that routinely took place in Afghan soccer stadiums? Or the stoning of rape victims and amputating of limbs for minor infractions of the law? Or the public hangings?

Two weeks ago, a Polish engineer was taken hostage by the Taliban, who then hacked his head off with a knife. As part of their mandate to intimidate, a video documenting the event was sent to the media and subsequently circulated on the Internet. But in a move that speaks more to our desire to be insulated from the evil realities of the Afghan war than the desire to protect this man’s dignity, the gory beheading was scrubbed from the tape before public viewing.

We’ve forgotten that Canada is there on a NATO-led mission to stabilize Afghanistan. We initially supported the Americans as they toppled the Taliban government, but since then it’s been a NATO mission, not a U.S. mission. Thirtyeight other countries are also involved. Finally, we’ve forgotten the basic peacekeeping axiom that “peace doesn’t keep itself.” There’s no point in blindly hoping it will if it means we knowingly abandon Afghans to an unjust, barbaric regime that has no concern for them or the value of human life. Where’s the peace in that?

My thoughts about Iraq have always been affected by the words of an Iraqi reporter who was forced to publish anonymously under the reign of Saddam Hussein. He begged the UN to take action and mocked the notion that a U. S. invasion of Iraq would “open the gates of hell.“He said Iraqis would respond by saying, “Good. We’d like to get out.”

I suspect many in Afghanistan feel the same about the presence of NATO and Canada. Khorshied Samad, a former Fox News journalist, is now married to Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Canada, Omar Samad. She says she is often approached by Canadians who say “Do you hate us?” or “Aren’t our soldiers killing innocent civilians?”

Her answer? “Absolutely not. If you were to take a poll in Afghanistan, 95 per cent (or more) . . . desperately want Canadians (and the) international coalition there . . . they don’t want the Taliban returning.”

I have no problem with Kotarski’s suggestion that Canada re-evaluate its strategy and goals in Afghanistan; periodic assessments and readjusting goals are part of any successful mission. But Canada’s reason for being there is more than window dressing. We have a noble, just cause—and that will never change.

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