Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan concluded two years ago. Since then, we have, thankfully, had only one fatality due to enemy action, despite the fact that we still have more than 900 soldiers deployed there as trainers.
This training mission is due to conclude in March 2014, and already the government spin-machine has kicked into high gear to paint our 12-year deployment in Afghanistan in the best possible light.
No one in their right mind would try to portray the mission as a victory, but the usual suspects will attempt to tell us that our soldiers’ sacrifice and taxpayers’ billions of dollars were not entirely in vain.
We will be fed vague assurances that no matter what the cost, Afghanistan is a better place now than it was during the Taliban era. We will be told of how many schoolhouses were built, how many wells were dug and how many children were vaccinated during our commitment.
The problem with most of these claimed advances is that they are temporary at best, propped up by the continued presence of NATO troops and the NATO-trained and equipped Afghan security forces.
Despite the length of the NATO deployment and the magnitude of the international aid money that has been poured into Afghanistan, we have failed to affect any meaningful cultural shift. The heady pronunciations by former U.S. president George Bush and former British prime minister Tony Blair, trumpeting Afghanistan as “the world’s newest democracy,” following the 2004 presidential elections proved premature and false.
The sham of that election process only confirmed U.S.-chosen Hamid Karzai as president, and provided the facade of a democratic mandate to entrench the power base of the former Northern Alliance warlords. These warlords were former mujahedeen fighters who had defiantly resisted the Soviet Union occupation under the banner of Islamic fundamentalism.
Few Canadians realize that while our soldiers fought — and died — to prop up the Karzai regime during the past 12 years, it remains constitutionally punishable by death for an Afghan to convert to Christianity.
It was also under the Karzai government that a law was passed to allow a husband to withhold food from his wife should she not perform her matrimonial duties in the bedroom. This was denounced widely in the West and labelled the “rape law,” but was successfully passed by Afghan lawmakers in 2009 prior to a second attempt at presidential elections.
Because its passing kept former warlord Ustad Muhaqiq and his Hazara minority within the Karzai fold during the elections, the international community quietly shelved its objections.
As for advancing women’s rights, with the deadline for the NATO troop pullout next year looming large, many Afghan women are voluntarily choosing to don their burkas again. In areas where the Taliban are openly operating a shadow authority, girls have already stopped going to school.
In a recent court case in Kabul, a conviction of torture and attempted murder was overturned on appeal and the defendants set free. The victim in this case was a 13-year-old girl sold into marriage, which she refused to consummate. Her would-be in-laws locked her in a basement, burned the girl with hot wires, pulled out her fingernails and twisted her skin with pliers over a period of several months.
Her tormentors — the mother-in-law, father-in-law and sister-in-law — were originally convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Their release upon appeal has set off a wave of reaction from women’s rights activists across Afghanistan, yielding little action.
Another culture shock that our troops encountered during their deployment was the fact Afghan security forces — trained, equipped and mentored by us — employed the services of batcha bazis (dancing boys). These boys, many as young as 12 or 13, are taken from their families to entertain male audiences while wearing wigs and lipstick. The dancing frequently ends with sexual assault.
To date, the Defence Department has collected more than 30,000 pages of testimony from 87 Canadian Forces witnesses during a five-year investigation into this activity. However, they admit that the nature of their inquiry into batcha bazis is “complex.”
Without a doubt, it will be tough for the government to spin our complex Afghanistan deployment into anything but a well-intentioned utter failure.