January 24, 2014
Empire's Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan
by Ian Weniger
When Hamid Karzai asked the Loya Jirga, Afghanistan’s Council of Elders, in November 2013 to approve the near-permanent stationing of foreign troops, he wasn't talking about Canadians. Karzai didn't need to, because Liberal and Conservative governments have had Canadian bureaucrats, diplomats, and soldiers, embedded in Afghanistan's political and economic leadership for a decade. A collection of essays in Empire's Ally explains why Canadian troops went to Afghanistan, what they actually did - and didn't do, how they're still there today, and the inspiring actions activists achieved against this act of imperialism.
Despite Canada’s formal military withdrawal in 2014, this large academic analysis of the "mission" to Afghanistan remains relevant because Canadians are still there to ensure imperialist goals are achieved by other means, and because Marxists have never before put their analyses together in one place and so clearly. (Spoiler alert: read this book in reverse, starting with Derrick O'Keefe and then Benoit Renaud and Jessica Squires discussing how making peace on the ground in English and French Canada can and must happen.)
Part One, Afghanistan, Empire, and the "War on Terror," sets out how the world's superpowers tried to colonize this tiny mountain region over thousands of years. John Warnock tells us every major trading power wanted to control the Silk Road's path through Central Asia, and how what is now Afghanistan was a pivot point in one of the world's most important land trade routes. Today it remains critical as the same physical geography now encourages oil companies to plan oil and gas pipelines. The frail government that exists today is a legacy of conquest; no successful regime could manage self-sufficiency, and leaders who wanted to avoid occupation made deals with Indian, Soviet (as they were then), and US imperialists.
Adam Hanieh follows with the tale of how the US merged Afghanistan with Iran, Iraq and the Gulf States since 1979 to ensure an efficient intervention for oil security. Then Michael Skinner shares the details of the US-led neo-liberal conversion of Afghanistan in "The Empire of Capital and the Latest Inning of the Great Game", which, on the part of the Canadian state, consists of exploitation of the Global War On Terror to find an insidiously influential niche for military forces in the Afghan state, beyond NATO’s mandate, and the use of that engagement to allow for Canadian firms' domination of significant industrial and natural resource opportunities. Lastly, Jerome Klassen shows the deliberate and pernicious undemocratic nature of so-called liberation in "Methods of Empire: State Building, Development, and War in Afghanistan", revealing that capitalism could not defeat the Taliban but can, in fact, live with a revitalized enemy as long as it doesn’t interfere in an economic occupation. Klassen also begins a discussion of the built-in co-optation of NGOs and the war crimes committed by Canadian soldiers.
Part Two, "The Political Economy of Canadian Foreign Policy", provides the facts that debunks the (English) Canadian myth of ‘Canada The Peacemaker’. When socialists argue for an aggressive reduction in military spending, we can draw on the work of Paul Kellogg in "From the Avro Arrow to Afghanistan: The Political Economy of Militarism," detailing decades of the Canadian military-industrial complex, to demonstrate the wealth wasted on arms by successive governments. Todd Gordon's "Canada in the Third World: The Political Economy of Intervention" reminds readers that foreign aid and development has always been about imperialism, long before the current government's open foreign policy mission to conduct all international relations as business opportunities. The dismantling of the former icon CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) and its embedding into the Foreign Affairs ministry is just one of the moves Greg Albo explains in "Fewer Illusions: Canadian Foreign Policy since 2001".
In part 3, "Canada's War in Afghanistan," Canadian troops come to the foreground as part of an aggressive Canadian ruling class intervention in the post 9-11 world. The authors here put the spotlight on government strategy, both Liberal and Conservative, on the infamous "3D" embedding in the Afghan government and economy: defense, diplomacy and development, to either beat the Taliban, or buy them off. Angela Joya, one of the few women in this collection, contributes "Failed States and Canada's 3D Policy in Afghanistan", which helpfully debunks Canada's "middle power" status of benevolent international actor to reveal it as the stealthy partner of US occupations to save poor countries from themselves, from Afghanistan to Haiti.
From there, Anthony Fenton and Jon Elmer spell out the uncharacteristic, aggressive Canadian preparations for its longest war in history, in "Building an Expeditionary Force for Democracy Promotion." This section will surprise many Canadians not only for the bipartite support for military action over 13 years, but also our leaders' level of commitment to democracy at the end of a rifle. Another surprise is Justin Podur's revelations of the unexpected frustrations of a Canadian warrior in "Incompatible Objectives: Counterinsurgency and Development in Afghanistan." We discover General Rick "Kill the Scumbags" Hillier relishing his effective day-to-day, behind-the-scenes management of Afghan economic development - yet angry that Canadian politicians will not, and cannot, buy him more soldiers to defend more aid workers and advance NGOwashing of the occupation. The editors conclude with the public-relations of war in Canada, in "From the Somalia Affair to Canada's Afghan Detainee Torture Scandal: How Stories of Torture Define the Nation." Sherene Razack picks up on the consequences of what Jerome Klassen wrote about; the appropriation of humanitarian aid for military and economic gains, and presents the governments' successful deflection of public horror and disgust at supposedly un-Canadian crimes.
Empire's Ally ends with "The Anti-War Movement in Canada," to show that, despite aggressive war propaganda, Canadians have not been entirely fooled by state propaganda that the war in Afghanistan was good because it was liberating women or providing religious freedom. Many readers will be surprised to discover in "Québec Solidaire and the Anti-war Movement," by Benoit Renaud and Jessica Squires, that not only are French-Canadians at the head of anti-war actions in every case, but that the exact arguments within the movement, especially about Islamophobia, are relevant across the country ten years after they were first raised.
The last chapter, "Bringing Ottawa's Warmakers to Heel: The Anti-war Movement in Canada", gives the final word to Derrick O'Keefe of Vancouver's StopWar Coalition. O'Keefe first sets out the pro-war positions of both opposition parties. The NDP may have formally demanded immediate withdrawal of Canadian forces, but in practice provided neither a lead nor practical support to antiwar activists. He then reviews Canadian business opportunities in Afghanistan, and the humanitarian paradox of aid by our Islamophobic government. In spite of the demoralization following the beginning of the 2003 war on Iraq, however, O'Keefe tells us that antiwar protesters managed to do quite a lot, including keeping the Canadian government formally opposed to that war; raising public awareness about the rise in anti-Muslim racism in all levels of Canadian society; and defending US soldiers taking refuge as war resisters. Most importantly, O'Keefe also documents the lack of civil disobedience; that the antiwar movement did not develop tactics, for example occupying MPs' offices, as the next stage of the mass protests that failed to stop the war. Instead, he looks to environmental activists' banner drops and internet spoofs for inspiration when traditional dissent runs dry.
On the whole, I was pleased to see that, while some authors wrote of Afghanistan and Pakistan as "client states," no one claimed Canada had taken subordinate or junior positions as loyal supporters of US imperialism. In spite of some authors' statements that Canada is still a "junior" partner of US imperialism, all contributors support the notion that Canadian generals, politicians and bureaucrats have devised and enacted full-spectrum stealth dominance that US leaders jealously covet. Here, Canada is repeatedly and clearly described as an engaged, ambitious ally of the modern empire of global capitalist market placement and not the empire of classic colonialism by a single nation.
I'm also pleased to report that "Empire's Ally" is the first account to expose Canada's economic projects hidden behind a veneer of NGOs with military backbone. All the details provide ample connections that antiwar activists need to broaden the struggle among Idle No More, climate justice campaigners, etc.
There are two weaknesses, in my opinion. First off, for Marxists, these researchers barely touch upon class in their analysis. Only the writers in the final section touch on unions in the struggle. In Québec, Renaud and Squires trace the beginning of the antiwar movement from a provincial by-election campaign of a retired labour activist running as a candidate for the PQ in a traditionally working-class riding of Montreal. This chapter traces an inspiring growth of peace activism compared to The Rest Of Canada, but the authors explain this support as stemming not from class-conscious activism but from traditional Quebec opposition to English-Canadian imperialism and revulsion at Islamophobia in a culture that has struggled to include non-Francophones in the sovereignist movement.
Second, while O'Keefe acknowledges the necessity of civil disobedience, he doesn't examine the ultimate in non-violent direct action: industrial shutdown by workers. Not a word appears to describe the role of Canadian labour in the war. I would have hoped to hear at least the CLC's official position or endorsements of rallies by particular unions. Classic Marxists would look to education campaigns showing that workers' interests do not lie in supporting a war, but that their employers' neo-liberal futures did rely on smashing Canadian wages and social services as well as privatizing the Afghan economy. The absence of a class dimension in the antiwar movement, let alone the lack of an overt class analysis in “Empire's Ally” would have made this observation out-of-context at best.
At worst, however, O'Keefe missed an opportunity to remind us of the successes of revolutionaries in fighting and defeating allies of empire, from how the Russian Revolution successfully ended half of World War One in 1917. He could have mentioned US soldiers' anti-war newsmagazines and the war resisters' movement during the war in Vietnam, to Portugal's withdrawal from Africa following the fall of the Salazar dictatorship, and even the Canadian role in US soldiers' refuge during the war in Iraq and beyond.
I'm glad to know how deeply allied Canada is to empire and how hard it is to resist; but we also need to know when we beat the warmakers and how, so that I can tell people that opposing war is not just “the good fight” but the winning strategy.
Albo, Greg and Klassen, Jerome, editors, Empire's Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.
Material on this Web site is licensed by socialistsolidarity.ca, under a Creative Commons (by-nc-nd 3.0) license, except for articles that are republished with permission. Readers are welcome to share and use material belonging to this site for non-commercial purposes, as long as they are attributed to the author and socialistsolidarity.ca.