Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Monday, September 04, 2006

This post contains no opinions

Bloggers tend to be opinionated people, and I'm certainly no exception. But one of the advantages of having an "occasional lengthy opinion piece" blog instead of a "daily news" blog is that I don't feel forced to come up with an opinion on something I'm just not sure about. Sometimes I simply don't know enough about a subject to really grapple with all the information--and other people's opinions--that I'm subjected to. Sometimes I feel conflicted about an issue and can't reach a pat conclusion. And sometimes the issue in question falls into one of the areas where I know I have a tendency to knee-jerk into opinions that have more to do with me and my background than they do with the issue at hand. In all of those cases, I simply shut up. My blog's readership doesn't need to be subjected to my half-baked ideas when there are plenty of people around who actually have smart things to say.

Canada's mission in Afghanistan--i.e. whether or not our military should be there at all, and if not, whether we should withdraw troops soon or at some later point--falls into all three of those categories for me.

In an effort to dig through all the baggage and figure out what I really think, I've listened to opinion after opinion on the subject. By doing that, I've learned two things. One is that no matter how much the ideologues want to make this a clear-cut situation, it's pretty clear that there are smart people on both sides of the debate. The Liberals don't agree on the issue, and even in the NDP--the party that its detractors would like to paint as being more about knee-jerk outrage than about well-thought-through positions--there's plenty of room for disagreement. The other thing I've learned is that most people--from bloggers to politicians, and regardless of which side of the issue they come down on--tend to simply state their opinion without voicing a concrete argument or explaining how they reached those conclusions. Oh, sure, there are plenty of empty statements: everything from "help spread democracy" to "support the troops" on the one hand, and "wrong mission for Canada" and "blindly following the U.S." on the other. But there's appallingly little substance, and few concrete facts that might help people figure out what they think when they're not quite sure. The incredibly disappointing "debate" on this issue in Parliament epitomized this.

One of the few exceptions has been Kuri from Thought, Interrupted. She agrees with Layton's statement, but her words actually speak to me far more than his did:

This was a lesson we all should have learned in Somalia. You don’t use military tactics to get non-military results (e.g. “spreading democracy”) and you don’t go in without a goal that’s realistically achievable by military means, at least not without some kind of a strategy to “cut and run,” as they now say in propaganda-speak. That used to be called an “exit strategy” and it used to considered reasonable.
That...makes an incredible amount of sense to me. It's short, but it's not pat: it contains a clear statement of what exactly she believes is wrong with the Afghanistan mission, and why. I can sink my teeth into that. But is it my own knee-jerk discomfort with military operations that's behind wanting to agree with her? I'm honestly not sure.

I know there are a lot of people who read this blog who disagree with Kuri about this. So tell me why she's wrong.

[Update: Kuri expands upon her position in this post. Whether you agree with her, disagree with her, or remain unsure, it's pretty clear that she's damn good at this blogging thing we do.]


eugene plawiuk said...

"This was a lesson we all should have learned in Somalia. You don’t use military tactics to get non-military results"

That is exactly the reason. And I like her comment on Exit Strategy. You both are far more reasonable on this than I am. Frankly Afghanistan was a failed mission the moment the U.S. cut and ran to Iraq. The rest of us were left holding the bag.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Frankly, I don't have enough of a clear-cut opinion to be either reasonable or unreasonable on this issue. But I'm working on it.

And then there's the other half of this issue: even if you and Kuri are 100% right on the mission being a failure, should that automatically translate to "withdraw the troops as soon as possible"? The people who want an immediate withdrawal have a tendency to bring up that "they don't want us there," but how do we know that? And who's "they"? Kuri suggests that we should be "listening to and supporting the people who are actually fighting for human rights within the country," but what would that entail?

I'm not trying to trap anyone, here; I'm really asking.

Andrew said...

I attempted to explain my support for the mission here:

My starting point was to counter the NDP's rejection of the mission.

It's no where near as simple as Eugene has stated here & again over on my site. There are a lot of good reasons to be in Afghanistan - but I think a lot of it will depend on what you think Canada's place in the world is.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I actually read your post immediately after posting mine. It was a tad too polemic for my taste (Layton is "spouting off" "every time a soldier dies" when he only reiterated his statement once after the death of a Canadian; equating an anti-Bush statement with "anti-Americanism"), but there were definitely some good points there. Unfortunately, they brought me no closer to a position of my own. I suspect that's more my failing than yours.

If you wanted to take a stab at answering my question, though--i.e., explaining why you think Kuri is wrong--I'd appreciate it. (If you think that'd be too close to repeating yourself, of course, I'd understand.)

West End Bound said...

Sorry, IP:

I can't tell you why Kuri is wrong as she makes a lot of sense to me. Her comment on "Cut and Run"/"Exit Strategy" is particularly right on target.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

west end bound,

Heh. Okay. *grin*


Sorry, a couple of things occurred to me after I responded to your comment.

In your post, you make a pretty good case for the idea--which you restate here somewhat less polemically--that how you feel about this issue depends on what Canada's place in the world is. That's actually quite insightful, and goes a long way toward explaining why there are smart people on both sides of this one. But surely part of it isn't just ideological, but also practical? Don't we need to figure out whether Canada's aims of "eliminating the Taliban and helping Afghanistan rebuild their shattered nation" are actually achievable before we ask our soldiers to make the sacrifices they're making? Doesn't the Canadian government have the duty to demonstrate that they are?

What if the goal isn't helping to rebuild Afghanistan at all, but preventing possible future terrorism? I'm not saying that it's necessarily the case, but that would certainly explain why the Conservative side of the debate in Parliament was all about empty rhetoric, as well as why military expenditures have been so much higher than those for humanitarian initiatives. Isn't that goal far more problematic (not to mention even less achievable)?

And in terms of Canada's place in the world, I doubt you would say that our role should be that of the invader. But whether we count as invaders or as rescuers depends on whether the Afghani people want us there. I've heard very conflicting reports on that front, and no concrete evidence on either side. Do you know for a fact that they appreciate what we're doing and want it to continue?

Kuri said...

Thanks for the link! :) A part of me was a bit disappointed that there was only one dissenter.

As for whether "they" want us there: I'm coming to the conclusion that there isn't actually a single "they" to speak about that. Some of this comes from reading about some of the more independent Afghan ethnic groups. (I think there was an article in The Walrus a month or two ago about a nomadic group is southern Afghanistan.) This makes me think that what we're trying to "build" is a more centralized Afghan state than is really feasible.

Secondly, as for whether they "want" us there: The biggest challenge in any examination of a culture that's suffered multiple invasions is determining what is authentic. I have a certain faith in RAWA because I know that they've maintained a coherent organization for several decades and have brought women from different ethnic groups together to articulate a feminist identity that doesn't merely mimic what western feminists say about othered cultures. These women grew up in Afghanistan and they've been pretty consistently anti-imperialist and anti-fundamentalist. I recall a professor stating that they might not be genuine because they learned some of their positions (like their Marxism) from former occupiers. I don't really have an answer to that, except to say that it would be hard to find an alterior motive for acticulating Marxism after the demise of the Soviet Union. It doesn't curry favour with anyone very powerful and indeed that might have been what caused the Americans to insist that RAWA not be included in the provisional government the Karzai led prior to the general elections. When a nation has spent pretty much its entire history ekeing out a living though trade in the middle of several competing superpowers, authenticity is likely a very limited concept.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I was thinking about the authenticity issue as well. It certainly seems to make figuring out how "they" feel about much of anything even more problematic.

The information you provide here is fascinating and relevant, but it only muddles the issue even further for me. How is it that you can articulate such a concrete position and come down so clearly on one side when the facts about the situation seem to point to several different positions at once, and no easy answers?

If we were to "listen to" RAWA, what would doing so entail?

Kuri said...

I actually don't feel that my position is really clearly "on one side", actually. Perhaps it seems that way because I'm still arguing it long after the fact of our intervention, and this sort of discussion never seemed to have actually happened prior to the invasion.

I see my position as stemming from two principals: firstly a rejection of imperialism (and a corresponding respect for soveriegnty) and secondly a principal of caution. How do we know that our interventions are doing more good than harm? Answer: We don't actually know. But in the absence of that knowledge, why are we there, especially in the absense of any concrete, militarily achievable goal?

wilson61 said...

''especially in the absense of any concrete, militarily achievable goal?''

How do you KNOW this?

Detailed NATO strategies have not been made public (thankfully), so if you don't know the plan, how can you know it will not work?

Is 'history' relevent ?

Those who DECIDED to send our troops to Afghanistan (Chretien, Martin & Harper) are privy to facts that ordinary Canadians will never (and maybe shouldn't) know.
All three of them said it was the right thing to do. And 25 other Nations joined Canada in Afghanistan, on this mission.
Call it blind faith if you like, but I think that when people are ill equipped to analyse the situation, they have to trust the decisions made by those who they trusted their vote to.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


My charge that your opinion came down on one side results from your first post, in which you praise Jack Layton for demanding a speedy withdrawal and state that you wish he'd done so sooner.

It seems to me that your arguments are all about building a case for not taking over the Afghanistan mission from the U.S. in the first place. Even accepting that this is the case, we don't have a time machine, and we have to work with the situation we have now. What would happen if we withdrew our troops now? Would that scenario be better or worse than the status quo? And how do you know?

Anonymous said...

I'm always terribly frustrated by public discussions of military interventions, because they almost invariably turn into "military interventions = always wrong" versus "military interventions = always right," and I am getting tired of, say, Michael Ignatieff implying that those of us who supported military interventions in, say, Bosnia and East Timor, therefore *must* support them in, say, Iraq (especially frustrating since Ignatieff was one of the authors of Responsibility to Protect, which is really a quite good and nuanced examination of the appropriate conditions for military intervention).

But Afghanistan right now is a nearly insoluble question, because it's a situation in which an arguably justifiable intervention has been handled so terribly badly that Canada's now in a no-win situation. This will come out bad whether we stay or go (or stay in some other non-combat form, if that's even possible). I suppose it's just a matter of trying to figure out how bad and for whom, and which kinds of bad we should care about most.

I do think that Layton is doing the politically smart thing by calling for withdrawal. Whether it's the right thing is harder to say, but I'm not wholly sure there is a right thing at this point, at least not a right thing that Canada can do alone.

This isn't much of a contribution to the discussion, I suppose (on the other hand I think it's the first time I've commented over here!)

-- maggie

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Ha, I was just about to send you this link and ask for your opinion. *grin*

No matter what else I think (and I'm still not sure, dammit), I think this is right: "I suppose it's just a matter of trying to figure out how bad and for whom, and which kinds of bad we should care about most." Any thoughts on how we should approach figuring that out?

cdntarheel said...

Hi IP,

I'm not sure if you're familiar with Jason Townsend (JT) of Just Society. Although JT and I often disagree on various issues, I find that he's generally well-informed and thoughtful. With respect to Afghanistan, it might be worth reading this post along with the subsequent commentary, if you haven't already read it.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Heh! Um, yeah, I'm already acquainted with Mr. Townsend. But thanks for the link; I'll check it out.

kurichina said...

What would happen if we withdrew our troops now? Would that scenario be better or worse than the status quo? And how do you know?

I think here is where we dead-end. It's equally fair to ask "What would happen if we continue to stay there? Would that scenario be better or worse than withdrawal? And how do you know?" I don't it's fair for the burden of proof to run one way or the other because there's a good deal of risk in either staying or leaving.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

I don't it's fair for the burden of proof to run one way or the other because there's a good deal of risk in either staying or leaving.

Um, well...neither do I, which is why I'm asking these questions of the other side as well, yes? (Andrew just hasn't answered them yet. :-)

It's just that unlike wilson61, I'm not content to leave the questions unasked and let the parliamentarians be the only one with knowledge. It may be that they're ultimately unanswerable on both sides, but I won't know for sure until I ask.

Anonymous said...

Here's my thing: I think that it's quite possible for a layperson to become well enough informed about a situation like this to make realistic predictions and suggestions (heck, it's possible for a layperson to become well enough informed that they end up advising the government); but it does take some focussed work and time and research, and I have not put those things in. So, in this case, I don't feel like I'm very well positioned to talk about what will happen if we stay versus what will happen if we leave.

A few very general observations, though: the NATO mission is small. It looks to me too small to achieve anything much. But it's improbable that there's a country in the world with the political will to make it larger. Also, whether there's any point to the combat part of the mission depends entirely on whether the political/social/economic part has a chance of success, and it just doesn't look nearly robust enough to me at this point. It's a shame if we're asking young people to kill and be killed just in order to delay an inevitable collapse for a little while.

There's the argument that Canada could get all blackmail-y and say we're pulling out of the combat component unless the non-combat component is massively beefed up, but again that depends on finding the political will in the NATO countries to do that.

-- maggie

Saskboy said...

While I'd prefer there not be any fighting in the region, at this point it's not fair for Canada to pull out just because soldiers are getting killed. What we need is an end to the BS coming from political leaders that this is some kind of peace keeping, and recognize that it's a war, and Canada is at war. The US has seemingly invented the never ending war, without actually ever declaring war officially, so the government goes on spending like its in a war, but doesn't have the same objectives or mindset that a country-at-war needs to be victorious. Either we're in Afghanistan to win by beating the Taliban into backroom fringes and history books, or we're there to get our nose bloodied just to look tough for the Americans so they'll "like us" still. If the Prime Minister, and others in opposition can't clearly define who we're fighting, why, and when we'll win, then it's not a "war", it's just messed up waffling where soldiers and civilians get killed.
I want the government to stop waffling and stop spinning Afghanistan as some kind of peacekeeping mission where there is any peace to keep. And we have to square away the problems with the Afghan government too. I don't find it acceptable that we're defending a nation where Christians are killed by the state for practicing their religion.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I actually don't see anyone in this discussion advocating pulling out "just because soldiers are getting killed." I see people advocating pulling out because they feel the mission is not well defined, and because they feel it is failing to meet its objectives as originally stated.

KevinG said...


I'm late to your party but here's my contribution anyway.

I agree. There is very little substance in many of the arguments on this issue.

In answer to your question, 'why is she wrong', I offer the following:

1. The claim that you "don’t use military tactics to get non-military results" is attractive but fallacious.

First of all it contains the incorrect assumption ( or inference at the very least ) that military means are the only means being used. This is not true. Canada's mission has always had humanitarian and reconstruction components.

Second, military means are almost always employed to secure democracy from the an incumbent totalitarian regime. So, prima facie, it's just wrong.

Third, while it's not stated directly it is implied that humanitarian aid and reconstruction is more effective in securing democracy. In many ways, I agree -- if there is a base line of security for the reconstruction to take place in. If we are at risk of repeating the mistakes of Iraq, it seems to me the single biggest mistake the US made in Iraq it was to not provide enough security. There is a reason that the UN provided zero humanitarian aid or reconstruction in Iraq, it wasn't safe and that is a pre-requisite for almost all aid.

2. I disagree with the 'achievable goals' argument on several levels.

Again, it contains an assumption that is either wrong or one I don't agree with. The goal, as far as I know, is to provide humanitarian, military and reconstruction assistance to the government of Afghanistan for a fixed period of time to help them secure their country and lay the groundwork for something better than a failed state. Afghanistan is a country without infrastructure, with new-born and wobbly democratic institutions and a country with armed religious fanatics who oppose the direction it's taking. Our goal is to help lift Afghanistan out of the 13th century -- to help the Afghani's create a country where 13 year old girls daughters are not married off to 50 year old men to settle gambling debts.

So, we have a goal. The goal is to provide assistance. The goal is reasonable. It's realistic and it's achievable. If you inflate to the goal so that it means we are going to achieve the equivalent of a western secular liberal democracy in a few years then, yeah, it's none of those things. But that's a straw man.

3. Exit strategy. I would worry a little more about an exit strategy if we had an unlimited commitment. We don't. It's 2 years. If you want an exit strategy, it's to leave when this commitment period is over.

That's what I think is wrong with the quote from Kuri.

I think Layton's pull-out now argument is, for the most part, weak, flawed and frankly, opportunistic. I think we should all be looking at the balance of effort applied to the military, reconstruction and humanitarian components. No question. I think that's essential. My own view is that we should be spending more on humanitarian and reconstruction. Not necessarily more as a proportion of our commitment, just more. But to say we should do nothing if the balance is not precisely to our liking is just wrong.