Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Ethics of Afghanistan

While our Con$ervative government prepares the feel-good propganda machine to sell Canadians on all the wonderful things our troops are "accomplishing" over there, it seems a good time to take a look at the insanity of Canada trying to intervene in that country.

The ostensible argument is that Canada is present in Afghanistan to help establish a democracy. Fine, fair enough.

First, we must recognize that the geography of the region has resulted in a region which is aligned along traditional tribal lines. The very concept of a nation-state called Afghanistan is somewhat suspect at this level, much less having a coherent sense of equality. Inter-tribal rivalry stems not just from competition for resources, but also from the more subtle issue of the tribes treating one another as "The Others" instead of as equals.

Second, it is also important to recognize that the social norms of the region simply do not correspond well with Western social norms. Western society has moved away from the extended family and/or tribal notion of society into a much more individualistic model which substantially influences our notions of civil rights, and what "civil society" should look like. This view of society is dramatically at odds with the perspective held through much of the Arab world.

Third, even though we may see the trappings of democracy, we should be cautious about assuming that those trappings are in truth only the surface features of a western-style democracy. The very model itself makes some very strong suppositions about equality among citizens, and substantially less rigid social hierarchy than is common in Afghanistan.

From my perspective, we have to be cognizant of the simple reality that even though our politicians may naively claim that they are "bringing democracy to Afghanistan", the odds of any short term intervention producing anything close to a recognizable democracy. It will take generations to effect the kinds of changes to society that will result in a sustainable democratic society. (I will point to the steady degradation of democratic principles in Putin's Russia as an example of the problems that "spontaneous democracy" faces)

So, what does that mean for any military occupation in the area? Two things. First, we must recognize that our forces will become the focal target for groups that would otherwise be rivals for political control. Second, the other key point to recognize is that while our troops attempt to control geography, they are unable to become part of the local society. The very structure of military garrisons places the military forces at a psychological distance from the people, which further complicates the issue of influencing society in the desired direction.

Moving along, we must then begin to address the question of Canada's involvement in Afghanistan. The simple point is that right now, our forces are the focus of the various power brokers that are seeking to fill the power void that is echoing around in Afghanistan. Second, it's likely to take several generations to establish any recognizable democracy in Afghanistan. (As an example, I will point to India, which was occupied by the British Empire for over a century)

The questions that echo through my mind at this point are multiple:

1) Should Canada be involved in taking sides in what now amounts to being a civil war?

2) Can Canada afford the kind of resources that must be committed in order to maintain what amounts to an "empire-style" intervention in the region that will last not years, but decades?

3) Is there any reasonable expectation that the direction that tribal Afghanistan and the culture of Islam will adapt well to the kind of democracy that we are trying to foster?

Our current involvement in Afghanistan is social engineering of the most dramatic form. We are attempting to radically alter an entire society and its mores to enable a form of government that we understand to function.

Do we have any right to attempt such a radical intervention, or are we simply "tilting at windmills"?

Personally, I suspect the real answer is that just as the United States found in Vietnam, or is now finding in Iraq, that we do not have any right to impose such a dramatic change upon another society. We arrogantly assume that we are "moving things forward", but we do not appear to have the backing of the people whom we are supposedly "helping" - which means that changes will remain superficial - doomed to vanish with the departure of the last troops.

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