Afghanistan's moral reality

  • February 18, 2008

{mosimage}The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan by Robert D. Crews and Amin Tarzi eds. (Harvard University Press, hard cover, 430 pages, $30).

If Canada is going to have a debate about what its soldiers are doing in Afghanistan, or what Canada as a country should be doing in Afghanistan, that debate need not be conducted on the basis of vague mythology.

Some time soon Canada’s Catholic bishops will enter the debate over Canada’s military role in Afghanistan, as they should. Whenever a nation puts guns in the hands of its young people and asks them to risk death that nation has taken on a moral enterprise. Whether it finishes on the side of good rarely depends on the decency or good intentions of soldiers or the nations they represent. It depends on decisions made with a firm basis in reality. America in Vietnam was reality challenged on several fronts.

It’s the bishops’ job to try to point the way to moral reality — as opposed to strategic reality — to contribute a Christian moral sense to a secular debate.

{sa 067402690X}The Manley report — 55 pages of speculation, guesswork and augury by political veterans more notable for their connection to Washington than deep knowledge of Afghanistan — is unlikely to form the basis for a reality-based discernment over Canada’s role in Islamic central Asia. The tribal elders from Bay Street’s board rooms who served four months on the panel don’t speak Pashto or Dari, and spent less than three weeks in Afghanistan entirely encased in the bubble of ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force.

Fortunately, Canadians don’t have to rely on the expertise of Pamela Wallin and Paul Tellier (a newsreader and a railway executive) for a clear-eyed view of Afghanistan. The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan brings together serious academics who speak the languages and have spent years on the ground listening to Afghanis. They conclude that the West is not the solution but the problem in Afghanistan.

The nine contributors are mostly U.S.-based scholars working for such institutions as the Marine Corps University, Stanford University and the University of Michigan. They are a very long way from being apologists for jihad. But the history they examine and the evidence they assemble does not lead to the conclusion that Western forces are about to triumph over the Taliban.

Where the Manley report talks about the Taliban as though we know who they are and what they want, Armin Tarzi tells us of a neo-Taliban of disparate groups with diverging agendas and various sources of money and weapons.

“Examining the current Afghan reality through the Taliban looking-glass fails to capture the complexity of the emerging resistance,” Tarzi writes.

 It’s a complexity that 1,000 extra soldiers, a few more helicopters and some grit and determination will not defeat.

M. Nazif Shahrani shows us how this complexity is rooted in 250 years of Afghan history. Reading Shahrani’s analysis of the origins of the Taliban and Talibanism does not lead to any hopeful notion that if we build a couple more schools and a hospital with our soldiers keeping the forces of darkness at bay success will be ours.

“Any comprehensive attempt to ring a just and lasting peace for all the peoples of Afghanistan must seek to find a long-term solution to the tragic consequences of the history of state and society relations in this beleaguered country. Sadly, the post-Taliban political trends, at least so far, do not appear very promising, to say the least,” Shahrani writes.

Over and over among these scholars we read of Afghanis choosing between self-determination and foreign occupation, between a future which affirms their identity and ideals as Muslims and alien ideas that devalue their sense of creed and community.

In the 1990s the Taliban did not succeed because they had better weapons or tactics. They succeeded because they represented a Pashtun sense of pride and honour which they projected into a future for Afghanistan. What can 2,500 Canadian soldiers claim to represent for the future of Afghanistan?

Our soldiers can certainly win gun battles with lightly armed, illiterate tribesmen. But they can’t win a war of ideas in a landscape of ethnic allegiance and religious meaning that is as familiar as the dark side of the moon.

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