Canada’s Tragic Legacy in Afghanistan

Published on Al Jazeera English on June 23rd, 2014

When Graeme Smith, a former Globe and Mail correspondent, first took on the job of covering the war in Afghanistan, he thought that “civilisation” was finally coming to one of the poorest countries in the world. Smith thought of the old Western cartographers who gazed at the blank spots on their maps with hopeful trepidation, and wondered if Canada, too, was going to be part of a historical effort to bring an afflicted nation into sync with the rest of the world.

Mapmakers during the age of Western exploration used drawings of sea monsters and dragons to signify the uncharted swathes of the world. A soldier conversing with Smith used this as an analogy. He said that unless such areas are unveiled and brought to heel, the dragons will eventually “bite” the rest of the world “in the ***”.

Several years later, with Afghanistan’s infrastructure and security not much better than when the invasion began, Smith openly acknowledges that the coalition troops “messed up“. Bringing the “basket of civilisation to Afghanistan” is tougher and more complex than the experts thought it would be. The United States is usually cast as the primary reason why Afghanistan is closer to civil war than a stable peace today, but the superpower’s coalition partners also deserve much of the blame.

Canada, specifically, had around 2,500 soldiers stationed in the province of Kandahar in 2006, and was at the forefront of the counterinsurgency effort at the time. Some 158 Canadian troops have died since 2002, more than any other conflict since The Korean War. Canada may have turned its eyes away from Afghanistan, much like the rest of the world, but its legacy in that country remains bloody and troubled.

The damage of sustained optimism

Smith’s compelling account of his time in Afghanistan, as laid out in his excellent war memoir The Dogs Are Eating Them Now, recounts how early optimism distorted complex realities. Coalition troops fighting near villages in Kandahar wanted to convince Afghan civilians that the foreign presence wanted to fend off the real invaders: the Taliban. As laughable an idea as that may sound now, Smith’s writings show that the notion didn’t seem so far-fetched at the time. Of course, the Afghans weren’t exactly on the same page. They didn’t buy the hearts-and-minds campaign, and soon expressed their dismay against the invading forces.

Smith notes how disappointed he was when he recognised, as a journalist, the gap between this reality and public perception of the war. The Canadians led two battles in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar, the second being Operation Medusa, which Smith writes about in length. Smith’s optimism was further tested when he realised how many Afghans fighting against the coalition troops had little affiliation with the Taliban. He began to realise that the foreigners knew little about how tribal feuds would complicate the “Good Afghans vs. Taliban” dichotomy. The lofty ideals of nation building and delivering democracy to Afghanistan gave way to the reality of internal discord and confusion.

In Greg Shupak’s excellent analysis of how progressive intellectuals and analysts encouraged the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, he notes that more children now die in Afghanistan than in any other country, according to the CIA’s 2014 estimates. He also notes that the Afghan state is weak, and that Afghanistan still remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The Asia Foundation reports that around half-a-million Afghans say that the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) have subjected them to violence. In 2013, three scholars from Yale and Princeton published a study in the American Political Science Review that show why ISAF violence leads to support for the insurgency, but not vice versa.

Despite these depressing realities, the United States and its allies are all about saving face and exiting quietly. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is too busy these days planning for the upcoming federal elections to say too much about Afghanistan. But when he and his cabinet have talked about Canada’s role there, it was quite obvious that, in their minds, honesty wasn’t always the best policy.

Complicity in torture

One of the darkest aspects of the coalition’s role in Afghanistan is their relationship with respect to the torturing of Afghan detainees. The handing over of detainees by Canadian Forces (CF) to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) resulted in these detainees being systematically tortured.

Law professor Amir Attaran from the University of Ottawa sparked the controversy when he obtained documents in 2007 (via access-to-information requests) from the Department of National Defence that show how Canadian military police saw injuries on the bodies of detainees after being questions by Afghan interrogators.

The Globe and Mail then published its own investigation that year, where Smith interviewed 30 men who “were beaten, whipped, starved, frozen, choked and subjected to electric shocks during interrogation” in Kandahar’s infamous prisons. A 2011 report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan states that investigators found “compelling evidence” that 46 percent of the detainees who were interviewed “experienced interrogation techniques at the hands of NDS officials that constituted torture, and that torture is practiced systematically in a number of NDS detention facilities throughout Afghanistan”.

In 2009, Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin, who served in Afghanistan for 17 months, testified to Members of Parliament that Canada’s “complicity in torture” severely damaged its effort in southern Afghanistan. Colvin testified that he began to report his concerns about torture to his superiors in 2006, and was met with what can only be described as sustained indifference.

The response from Harper and his cabinet was underwhelming to say the least. Then Minister of National Defense Gordon O’Connor stated to Parliament that the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent were responsible for ensuring that abuses of detainees didn’t occur. The Red Cross took exception to this statement by accusing O’Connor of misinterpreting its actual mandate, and that the aid organisation had no role in overseeing the detainee transfer processes between Canada and Afghanistan. O’Connor eventually apologised to Parliament and a new detainee transfer agreement was negotiated later in 2007.

Military police were later tasked with investigating whether the Canadians were negligent when it came to transferring detainees to Afghan officials. Eight investigators were involved in this inquiry, and were overlooked by the Military Police Complaints Commission (MPCC). The commission came out with a report of its own in 2012, revealing that the Harper administration actively tried to thwart the original investigation.

Furthermore, indifference among Canadian officials wasn’t exclusive to the Conservative Party. In 2010, the CBC reported that diplomat “Eileen Olexiuk, who arrived in Afghanistan in 2002 and was second-in-command at the Canadian Embassy in Kabul, said she told the Liberal government then in power that the transfer agreement didn’t do enough to protect detainees”. Then Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, along with his entire administration, didn’t respond to Olexiuk’s warnings in any meaningful way.

A deeply ambiguous legacy

As opposed to the invasion of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan is still portrayed as the “good war” for US President Barack Obama and his allies. But feel-good ideas like ridding the world of terrorism and delivering a stable democracy to Afghanistan have given way to reality. The West isn’t just leaving a country when it comes to Afghanistan. It’s leaving a conflict.

Just as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) romp through Iraq, the Afghan insurgency will continue to challenge the Afghan government. Though it’s unlikely that the Taliban will overtake the country and regain its pre-9/11 status, its rivalry with the Afghan state is still a source of great violence. Having gone through an election at this particularly difficult juncture, allegations of electoral fraud have yet again plagued the Afghan political system, a structure that the West has invested in and helped prop up. Meanwhile, it’s the Afghan people who are stuck between the indiscriminate violence of both the Afghan forces and the Taliban.

Canada’s role in this bloody debacle cannot be overshadowed by the thin propaganda of how “good” a war Afghanistan is supposed to be, or by the now-anachronistic representation of Canada as a peacemaking nation. As the main Western combat mission in Afghanistan draws to a close, the world seems to have forgotten about the troubled nation, along with the hubris and misunderstanding displayed by global interventionism in the months immediately after 9/11. Western hubris claimed that a foreign presence in Afghanistan would eventually turn Afghan popular opinion against the Taliban. That was and has never been the case.



The Problem with Irshad Manji

Published on May 30th, 2014 on Loonwatch.com

From Cleaver to Manji:

By the 1980s, the former black power activist Eldridge Cleaver had completed his transformation from an outspoken radical to a Bible-quoting conservative Republican. Having served time in jail for rape in the 1960s, Cleaver became Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party. After a period of exile overseas, he returned to the U.S., embraced Mormonism, and in 1986, tried to seek the Republican nomination in California to become a senator—and lost.

Despite his many personal and political failures, Cleaver clung onto his eventual claim-to-fame as a reformed black radical who stopped participating in what was portrayed as an “extremist” movement. He characterized his former murderous hatred for Ronald Reagan and “white America” as the kind of emotion that animated the black power movement. So he moved on and became an anti-welfare Republican.

Regardless of what one thinks of his remarkable about-face, Cleaver’s trajectory affected the American public’s perception on race by drawing a line within the African American community. The line separated those “good blacks” who didn’t want to alienate systems of power, from the “radicals” who believed that state power couldn’t be trusted. It’s an old story: the right kind of minority versus the wrong kind. Cleaver represented the former camp, “dissidents” who are able to denounce their radical counterparts and embody an image of moderation.

But the black community isn’t the only one to have experienced such a phenomenon. Similar to the way Cleaver helped the American public distinguish good blacks from bad ones in the 1960s, there are figures in today’s post-9/11 West that fulfill a similar function. The playing field has changed, as have the players, but it’s still the same game. The game is fear, and in the 21st century, the most fashionable kind of fear is, of course, the fear of the Muslim (and of Islam). There has been no shortage of figures to fulfill the Cleaver-esque role of the “good Muslim,” a lone voice of dissent in a sea of “extreme backwardness.”

In that sense, there is no better Muslim in this day and age than the irrepressible Canadian writer and TV personality named Irshad Manji.

Filling the Vacuum:

A vacuum of frustration and confusion within the Western public is just one of 9/11’s painfully entrenched legacies. Anger at the murder of over 3000 people in downtown Manhattan prompted public discourse in the West to focus on Islam and Muslims. The imagery of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, so alien to Western sensitivities, filled parts of that vacuum in a seemingly inevitable way. Others who became “experts” on Islam in short order also jumped at the opportunity to explain the religion to the masses via sound bites and newspaper columns.

Among them is Irshad Manji, who, along with a host of other individuals, has taken the opportunity to explain Islam in a way that squares with the public’s crudest ideological assumptions. It’s indeed difficult to imagine, in retrospect, a public sphere that tolerated anyone who could explain the religion without hostility in the immediate years following 9/11.

Self-identifying as a Muslim, Manji’s critiques not only aligned her with the times, but also inherited the kind of credibility that only a “Muslim refusenik” can provide.  She often uses the term “refusenik” to demarcate herself as one of the few Muslim voices that refuses to “join an army of robots in the name of God.” By “robot army” she means all of mainstream Islam as practiced throughout the world, upheld by key institutions, and cutting across geographical and ethnic lines. With this as her starting point, Manji’s “refusenik” status was solidified for good after the 2004 publication of her much talked about book, The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in her Faith, (originally, simply titled The Trouble with Islam) which has been translated into 30 languages. It was lauded across the board by many in the Western press who fear a rising “Muslim threat.”

Without going into the 1400 or so years of Islamic scholarship and thought that have grappled with the revelatory content of the Holy Quran and Prophetic traditions, Manji neatly presents to the world the state of Islam as she sees it. And as the world has come to expect, unfortunately, it’s not a pretty sight: intolerance, domestic abuse, petty sectarianism, etc. The picture she paints is a reflection of public fears. Having confirmed this, Manji also consolidated her own position as a foremost dissident in the Islamic world, courageous enough to shun orthodoxy and interpret scripture on her own. A modern day Martin Luther of sorts.

A closer look at how Manji constructs her arguments (insofar as they can be referred to as such) reveals that her conception of the Muslim world doesn’t amount to much more than an extrapolation of her own (mostly bad) experiences with it. It’s a sporadically anecdotal account. Her negative experiences with family members who were supposed to be good Muslims and her frustrating encounters with mosques and Islamic schooling, combined with a host of other disillusionments, led her to conclude that Islam as a system of interpretation and understanding needs to be changed. It follows, then, that the mainstream Muslim community also needs to be fixed (hence The Problem with Islam Today), and it’s up to “reformers” like her to lead the effort.

Nevermind the Facts:

Parts of the Muslim community in North America and Europe have since caught up and tried to explicate, with data and evidence, that the Muslim world is not “one big family of backward barbarism.” Over the years, many leaders within the Muslim community with gigantic followings have made convincing arguments that disrupt the received notion that violence, sexism, and intolerance are the central characteristics of Islamic orthodoxy.

In a 2008 public conversation with analyst and commentator Dalia Mogahed at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Manji was simply unable to counter Mogahed’s argument that Muslim extremists reside outside the magisterium of mainline Muslim scholarship. That is, extremist violence doesn’t jibe with orthodox Islamic jurisprudence as honed over a thousand years inside traditional schools of thought.

As the Chair of Gallup’s Centre for Muslim Studies at the time, Mogahed also led serious surveys of the global Muslim population. The findings directly contradict the broad-brush portrayal of lived Islam as a cesspool of intolerance and extremism, characterized mainly by violence and hatred for women. That much was clear enough even for George Bush, who had the sense to seek advice from American Muslim scholar Hamza Yusuf in lieu of his “War On Terror.” It’s probably safe to say though that the ex-President didn’t take Yusuf’s words too seriously.

The more interesting phenomenon here is how the post-9/11 climate was affected by Manji’s (and other “refuseniks,” Islamophobes, etc.) self-characterization as a Muslim dissident who, against all odds, had the guts to be liberal and independent. The empirical evidence, as it turns out, are stacked up against her. Muslim communities in the West don’t criticize her because she’s too “pro-West.” They criticize her for reinforcing those broad stereotypes that have become so entrenched in the post-9/11 era, and for casting herself as a dissident reformer when she hasn’t proved that Muslim communities around the world actually need her version of “reform.”

Islam and Public Opinion:

There’s not much overlap between the post-9/11 era and the 1960s and 70s, but Eldridge Cleaver and Irshad Manji share the ability to brand themselves in the most conformist ways with respect to the conventional wisdom of their times. In that sense, they belong in the same ignoble tradition of dishonest self-aggrandizement at the expense of critiquing concentrated power.

They draw a circle around themselves small enough to make the public believe that they’re dissidents, dividing their communities into the “acceptable” and the “extreme.” They keep such a division legitimate in the eyes of the public by peddling old, played-out stereotypes.

Meanwhile, the actual grievances of the community they say they belong to become overshadowed by the assumptions made about them—assumptions that the likes of Manji help reinforce. By juxtaposing themselves against the false portrayals that they help erect, the public is taught to revere their “refusenik” attitude.

Hucksters and charlatans are good at influencing public opinion if those with better answers and explanations don’t effectively strategize to breakthrough the media and cultural blackout of mainstream Muslim voices. Islamophobes capitalize on peoples worries and confusion in the post-9/11 era, wondering if Muslims really are as bad as they are portrayed on television and in movies. If mainstream Muslim institutions and their allies in the fight against xenophobia and marginalization don’t take this battle for public opinion with a serious sense of urgency, the likes of Irshad Manji will continue to fill the public void for them.

The praise and success Manji has received for her “dissenting” position outweighs any resulting backlash. Dissent is supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to anger mainstream society by casting doubt over entrenched assumptions. Manji doesn’t represent this kind of doubt. Her legacy is built on her alignment with the most popular of unquestioned suppositions.