Thursday, July 27, 2006

Canadians in Afghanistan

A few years back, in the last days of the run-up to the Iraq War, the local food bank in my hometown sported a rare political message on one of those movable-type electric roadside signs in front of its offices. Passers by were greeted with a quiet but pointed message: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”

The food bank director (a respected member of the community, who was granted an honorary degree by my university the year I graduated) no doubt understood that she took a risk in doing this—not just in alienating a few potential donors but in politicizing a relatively apolitical charity.

I’ve had this in mind recently as Canadians in Afghanistan (civilians as well as soldiers) have begun to die in greater numbers. I wonder—I’ve wondered for a while—if we as Canadians have for too long been morally high minded about war in general, as we either decline to participate in them or do so in the ethically easy guise of peacekeeping.

My worry isn’t exactly that we’ve allowed ourselves to get dragged into bad wars (although we may yet prove to have in this instance). And it sure as hell isn’t that that we’ve ‘failed to support our allies’ (one in particular) by rightly staying more or less out of Iraq.

My worry is that we’ve begun to see war in general as someone else’s problem. Equipped with a nonexistent military and a reduced international standing, we’ve simply decided that war belongs at arm’s length on the evening news, and that our hands are best kept clean. Staying out of Iraq was the right thing to do, but was maybe not much more than a political necessity for the liberal government of the day. My real worry is that we are too content having a warm and fuzzy international reputation to try seriously to help anyone else solve their problems. We’ve proven unable to provide peacekeepers in a number of other contexts recently when the UN has asked us. Despite his ringing endorsement of recent Israeli actions, Stephen Harper has been cool to the idea of providing Canadians to replace the IDF troops preparing to occupy southern Lebanon. Surely an international force, while imperfect, would be preferable to Israelis or Hezbollah. And yet, we seem to think that foreign wars are just that—someone else’s problem.

I don’t know what the way to peace in Afghanistan is. In any event the Canadian body count, tragic though it may be, is a fraction of the country’s rising violence. But if Afghanistan becomes more like Iraq (as seems to be the trend) than Canada will finally find itself where it really REALLY didn’t want to be—it the middle of a war it can’t see the end of. Peacekeeping shouldn’t be a favor you do the neighbors when they’re in a tight spot internationally, and it shouldn’t be a nice idea we came up with but can’t practice. It should be a real and serious effort to help prevent the spread of war, and provide others with the security necessary for decent quality of life.

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