>by Chris Arsenault
Gagetown, NB — When some 2,500 people braved snow and ice to form a massive Canadian flag at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown as a part of an emotional farewell to soldiers departing for Afghanistan, it seemed like patriotism at its best.
There was only one problem: many attendees were forced to participate in the rally.
An e-mail to base employees stated, “All military and civilian personnel not in an essential service position or undergoing training are required to attend the ceremonies.”
On January 26, 708 soldiers from CFB Gagetown began deploying for Afghanistan as part of Canada's 3rd rotation.
“I support the military 100 per cent, but when someone tells me I am required to do something, I get up in arms,” said one long-time base employee who didn't want to be named for fear of professional reprisal. “I will not support our men going over to fight and die in a war we have nothing to do with,” added the employee in an interview.
Forcing staffers to attend an event, which clearly confuses support for the troops with support for the war, is crucial for the home-front public relations offensive military officials are waging against an increasingly skeptical population.
“A lot of the time they [soldiers] don't have a choice,” said 17- year-old Shayley Jestin as she volunteers at a table passing out yellow ribbons. “Supporting the troops is different from supporting the war,” says Jestin, whose father is in the military.
At the January 19 rally, scampering kids munch hot dogs and blue cotton candy, politicians make pro-war speeches and soldiers hold their loved ones. For some families, this will be a last caress. Word around the base is that one in ten soldiers will die in Afghanistan; media reports say one in six are expected to be injured.
“It's like feeling every emotion at the same time,” said Sapper Bruce MacCleary who will be deployed to Kandahar in February. “Anyone who says they aren't worried is lying,” says MacCleary while holding his 16-month-old daughter.
During my interview with MacCleary and his wife Samantha, public affairs officer Lieutenant Desmond James, a clean-cut Navy man with sharp eyes, watches closely. After asking the standard questions about training, feelings and worries, I try something a little different.
“In 2005, Major General Andrew Leslie went on record saying 'Afghanistan is a 20-year venture' because 'every time you kill an angry young man overseas, you're creating 15 more who will come after you.' By this logic, don't you think the occupation is misguided?” I ask.
Sapper Bruce MacCleary answers the question intelligently. We shake hands and walk our separate ways. MacCleary starts talking to public affairs officer Lieutenant James. Moments later MacCleary returns and asks to withdraw his answer.
“Soldiers don't comment on policy or rules,” said public affairs officer James, when asked why Mr. MacCleary wasn't allowed to give his opinion on the subject for which he's risking his life.
It's ironic that average soldiers, support staff and their families can't talk about the politics behind the mission; they generally understand the situation better than the politicians and generals.
Take this statement from Defense Minister Gordon O'Connor's Gagetown speech. “The Afghan economy has tripled over the last five years.” This may well be true, but only one domestic sector is growing: heroin. Last year, Afghanistan produced more drugs than ever before, according to American government figures. The country now supplies 90 per cent of the world's heroin, according to the Washington Post.
Strangely, O'Connor is giving economic accolades to a narco-state while we are still officially fighting a war on drugs. The military brass doesn't want soldiers to comment on the mission or geopolitical issues, because even a grade school student can see the contradictions between rhetoric and reality.
“The Taliban don't want heroin production to be brought low,” said Veterans' Affairs Minister Greg Thompson who takes the stage after O'Connor and quotes people like Thomas Paine in his speech. Thompson would do well to remember that the Taliban, while imposing fundamentalist religious law, were the ones who curtailed heroin production in the 1990s.
Western forces haven't embarked on a Colombia style aerial eradication campaign on heroin poppies for fear of crippling the Afghan economy and driving tens of thousands of average farmers towards the insurgency.
“It's in our national interest to deal with terrorism where it is bred,” said Gordon O'Connor, as Canadian flags wave on tele-screens behind him. The arch-terrorists operating in Afghanistan were once part of this national interest: Osama Bin Laden and his mujahedeen were trained and armed by the CIA and its western proxies during the 1980s when they launched a jihad against Soviet occupiers.
The West loves to create monsters like Osama and then whine when they knock down a few of our buildings; it seems geo-politics in the Middle East and Central Asia is planned in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory.
In 2005, General Hillier made headlines after calling Afghan enemies, “detestable murderers and scum bags.” For all his bombast, Hillier is correct on this. The Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other groups leading anti-occupation activities are anything but freedom fighters. They are detestable.
However, President Hamid Karzai's Kabul based cabal government, isn't great either. By and large, they're a motley crew of drug dealers, regional warlords, religious fundamentalists and remarkably corrupt hacks.
“The population hates the government, hates the Americans and hates their friends because they are all liars,” said Ahmad Shah Khan Achekzai, the MP for Kandahar, where Canadian troops are stationed, in an interview with non-embedded journalist Chris Sands.
These sorts of statements would be considered normal from the Taliban, but more and more they are coming from the government we are supporting. “If the jihad starts,” said the Kandahar MP, “of course I will join it — it's natural.”
“I believe the media have been focusing on the negative stuff too much,” said Sapper Bruce MacCleary, as the public affairs officer nods in agreement. Soldiers can give their opinions when they intersect with the party line, but the government doesn't support or trust the troops enough to let them speak freely. “Families would like to see and hear more about the reconstruction,” said MacCleary.
Afghan families would also like to see more reconstruction. But the money hasn't been forthcoming to make this happen. According to the NDP's Jack Layton, “For each $1 we're spending in Afghanistan, only 10 cents goes to aid and reconstruction, while the other 90 cents goes into combat,”
“Five years after the overthrow of the Taliban, Kabul [the capital] has only three hours of electricity per day and unsanitary and inadequate drinking water,” Christian Parenti writes who reported from Afghanistan for The Nation in 2006. Average Afghans know how much money has poured into their country and they know its helping enrich a tiny and notoriously corrupt pro-western elite. The Taliban, hated though they may be, are at least perceived as honest.
Canada's core strategy for subduing Afghanistan is based on the three block war: defense, diplomacy and development. However, according to NGOs working on the ground, the focus on defense is undermining other aspects.
The fate of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), one of the world's most respected humanitarian groups who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, illustrates this situation perfectly. MSF assisted the people of Afghanistan from 1980-2004, until they were forced to pull out after five of their staff were murdered.
According to MSF, “The violence directed at humanitarian aid workers in Afghanistan comes amid consistent efforts by the U.S.-led coalition to use humanitarian aid to build support for its military and political aims ... The organization has also spoken out against the military's attempt to usurp humanitarian aid.”
Towards the end of the Gagetown event, I slip outside for a smoke and a coffee and start chatting with a mother whose son is heading over to Kandahar this week. “There are a lot of sides to it,” she said, as the snow pelts down. The woman, who didn't want to be named, drove up from Nova Scotia to attend the event. She's worried about her son, but “it's his job, we can't be all doctors and lawyers.”
When asked about the occupation itself, she takes a classic unassuming tone. “I'm really not educated enough to say if I am for or against it, but I wouldn't want foreign soldiers coming here and telling us what to do.”