Canada is fighting the right war

Together, self-defence, the duty to protect, and the invitation of an elected, if weak, government serve to legitimize our armed presence in Afghanistan. By any measure, these factors together constitute what philosophers call "right intention."

NON à l'aventure afghane

The sudden shocking death of six Canadian soldiers in one roadside explosion in Afghanistan this week has renewed calls, from some quarters, for a quick Canadian pullout from that turbulent country. These appeals are not appropriate, because casualty tolls are not the proper test of the merits of our involvement.
Six more families are devastated today because of that one blast, six more circles of friends are mourning, six more hometown neighbourhoods are saddened. Every single death is a genuine disaster. But the number of injuries to our soldiers should never be the sole factor in deciding for or against a military endeavour. There is, in fact, something odious about the way New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton uses each incident that kills a soldier to demand the recall of our troops. And his assertion that "all major conflicts are resolved, ultimately, through peace-oriented discussions" is absurd. Has he read any history at all?
It is true that a Laytonesque Canada would have been spared the horrors of, say, Vimy Ridge 90 years and three months ago, where more than 3,500 Canadians died, or of the drive southward from the Normandy beaches after D-Day in 1944. More than 5,000 Canadians died in that campaign.
And it's true that the "why we fight" of the First World War, not much questioned at the time, seems hard to fathom today. The Second World War, however, still seems to most people to have been a "good war" for Canada and the Allied side. Layton, it's worth noting, has called for Canadian military intervention, as part of a UN force, in Darfur. Would six, or 66, casualties there cause him to demand a Canadian withdrawal?
The men and women of the Canadian Forces deserve respect and gratitude from us all. And we should all remember that it is politicians, not soldiers, who decide where the forces will be used. Politicians and their bosses, the voters, should never use the toll of dead and wounded to determine whether a given military action is legitimate and appropriate. The proper test, we believe, is more complicated than that.
Self-defence has long been seen, in law and philosophy, as a just reason to fight. Remember that Afghanistan under the Taliban was an incubator for international terrorism. On that basis, some argue that fighting Islamic fanaticism in Helmand makes more sense than fighting it in Canada. In that sense, at least, our fight there is in self-defence.
Then there is the newer notion that the international community has a "responsibility to protect" populations against systematic human-rights abuses. Canada and allied countries are in Afghanistan at the request of the legitimate government of that country, fighting against an insurgent movement bloodily contemptuous of human rights and eager to regain power.
Together, self-defence, the duty to protect, and the invitation of an elected, if weak, government serve to legitimize our armed presence in Afghanistan. By any measure, these factors together constitute what philosophers call "right intention."
The next test of the rightness of fighting in Afghanistan is this: Is there a hope of winning? Polls show Canadians skeptical about this, but public opinion is not reality. Survey findings released last November by the Asia Foundation found that by a margin of better than two-to-one, Afghans think their country is going in the right direction. They cited more jobs and electrification - just the kind of development Canada is supporting - as the most pressing issues, after security. So Canadians might be too pessimistic about progress in Afghanistan. There is likely more hope of winning there than in Darfur. We do wish, however, that more of our NATO allies would acquire the necessary backbone to share the risks and financial costs of this struggle.
True, while Pakistan's border areas remain lawless, it will be difficult to flush the Taliban and their "foreign-fighter" allies out of southern Afghanistan. But much of the fighting by Canadians in recent months has been in areas once considered insurgent strongholds; if we are carrying the fight to the enemy, who can argue that they are beating us? The Taliban's recent shift to Iraq-style guerrilla tactics - car-bombs, suicide bombers, roadside bombs - has increased the death toll among foreign soldiers and among Afghan civilians, but it is hardly a sign of Taliban military dominance.
As to the rightness of our methods, much has been said about the "three D" approach - defence, diplomacy and development. It's easy to say that defence must come first of these, but it is an over-simplification. Diplomacy is of little use with the Taliban itself, but Afghanistan's neighbours, prosperous potential aid-donor countries and other governments all must be consulted and encouraged to help. Meanwhile, development must go in parallel with defence, and our government has stepped up efforts in that direction. The challenge is to permit and assist Afghan economic and social development as a way of securing civilian support. We are there to help the elected government put down roots in the population, build up services, allow business to create a modicum of prosperity.
In this context, something really has to be done to stop U.S. forces, in particular, from bombing everything that moves. The insurgents reveal their moral and military weakness by hiding their "fighters" among civilians, but it is equally a sign of U.S. moral weakness to respond by killing both kinds of Afghans in job lots.
This is a question of the means being proportional to the goal, which is another test of the rightness of a decision to fight. Air strikes reduce U.S. military casualties, but at a cost in civilian lives that could be considered disproportionate and therefore unjust, and which is also politically damaging.
Canadian Forces try to operate otherwise. Putting "boots on the ground" in these circumstances will always increase the casualty rate, but offers a far better medium-term prospect of political victory.
Do 66 Canadian deaths - or 76, or 100 or more - constitute a reasonable cost to earn us the prospect of success we now appear to have? This is a brutal calculus. We know how the families of those soldiers would answer that question. But if Canada is to be a force for good in the world, it must be a force. Perhaps we need better-armoured equipment for our soldiers, or different tactics. But being in Afghanistan, in our current role, is the right thing for Canada to be doing.

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