AFGHANISTAN: When Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor explained their decision to extend Canada's military commitment in Afghanistan to 2009, the tone they set was the hard-nosed defence of Canadian interests.
"Our rationale for being in Afghanistan is clear," Harper told the House of Commons in the debate last May 17 that preceded the extension vote. "It is in the interests of this country."
O'Connor put it more boldly 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."
Their position was meant to be practical and tough, but when we receive home the bodies of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan the language of self-interest fails us. When the ultimate sacrifice is asked and courageously given we appeal to the more fundamental values of justice and a common global humanity. In that same May 2006 debate, when 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, during the recent anniversary of the battle for Vimy Ridge in France, Harper announced the deaths of more Canadian soldiers, he said: "When the cause is just, Canada will always be there to defend our values and our fellow human beings."
That these Canadian values 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 honour and frequently betray our myths, but in places like Afghanistan that should be our aim -- and it surely is our responsibility, to muster the resolve and the skills to effectively serve the values of justice and peacemaking that our national story invokes.
And the lessons of history, notably the international community's considerable experience in post-Cold war peace-building in complex human emergencies, tell us that winning the peace is primarily a political, social, and economic enterprise that in some circumstances needs to be supported by military force. In Afghanistan, despite the extraordinary sacrifices, the political component of peace-building has by all accounts fallen apart, and the social and economic components have fallen seriously short of Afghan expectations.
The Afghan government that the international civilian and military operations support has for a variety of reasons - some self-inflicted, some owing to the failure of the international community - lost the confidence of many Afghans. And for those Afghans who believe the government does not serve their interests, the military operation feels more like an effort to impose peace than to build it. It is an effort in serious danger of failing because too many Afghans, especially in the south, believe that entrenching the current government as it is now constituted will lead neither to harmony nor the fair rule of law.
The sacrifices asked of Canadians in Afghanistan will ultimately be betrayed if they are not matched by a more energetic and credible peace process. The role of military force in a complex human emergency is to support a multi-faceted peace-building process, not to become a substitute for it.
So, how does the world community restore a credible peace process? Well, there are some good ideas around. Increasingly the talk about negotiating with the Taliban is getting serious. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has asked a group of former Taliban to mediate with rebel Taliban - an initiative that needs international support to generate a political culture of inclusion, rather than sticking to a strategy of exclusion. The lessons of the Dutch in Afghanistan are also gaining credence - that is, an intervention that focuses less on fighting the spoilers and more on making their cause irrelevant. The ongoing need to generate economic opportunity is well understood but still needs to be well funded.
All this has to happen in a dangerous environment, reminding us that vulnerable Afghans will look to external security assistance for some time to come. As a result, Canadians will continue to make sacrifices, and when our political leaders acknowledge those sacrifices they will be right to focus on universal values rather than Canadian interests -- values that may be romanticized in the constructed myths of Canada as a peacekeeping and peacemaking nation, but values which we are duty-bound to give substance.