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Truth, Casualties, and War
19 November 2010, 08h35 EST (GMT-5)

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My November 2010 television essay for The Agenda with Steve Paikin was broadcast by TVOntario yesterday evening. It is available via through my YouTube Channel and via podcast through iTunes, as well as directly above. My original text - which I edited during the broadcast - is below.

* * *

The Afghans have an expression, “You have the watches, but we have the time.”

It’s a phrase that reflects a long history of armies arriving in their land with vastly superior technology and resources, only to be worn down and worn out by remorseless resistance. The Afghans have rarely needed to outfight armies, just outlast them.

With the Canadian government now reconsidering its plans to withdraw from Afghanistan, we have a rare opportunity to rewrite history.

Unfortunately, our ability to successfully conclude the mission and effect an honourable departure is being prejudiced by an ignominious political retreat from the truth: the truth about why we went to Afghanistan in the first place and what we are actually trying to achieve there.

In the years since Canada deployed to Afghanistan, there has been a remarkable national amnesia about the genesis and the objectives of the mission, an amnesia that has been wilfully exploited by a spectrum of political parties, and abetted by a too-often credulous or indolent media.

This is a reassuring storyline that plays to our national self-perception as a beacon of civility in a cruel world – "Canada the Good" whose virtue on the international stage elevates us above the use sordid use of deadly force.

It is also complete and utter nonsense.

When the Taliban swept to power in 1996 on a wave of totalitarian fundamentalism, we did little other than issue statements.

When they imposed gender apartheid on the country and enforced it with public mutilations and executions, we used stronger language but still stayed put.

When they committed mass killings of Afghan civilians, we wrung our hands in impotent frustration.

We sent our armed forces to Afghanistan after, and only after, Al-Qaeda was given shelter by the Taliban to use the country as a base of operations for their assault on the World Trade Centre.

Let’s be clear: Canada went into Afghanistan to deny that country as a staging ground to those who had and would harm our allies and ourselves.

We went into Afghanistan to kill our enemies, before our enemies could kill more Canadians.

This is the ugly truth that comes with living in an often-ugly world, and we do ourselves no credit if we recoil into comforting fictions, as young Canadians barely out of adolescence return home in flag-draped coffins from a war we sent them to fight.

If we continue to allow the national debate over Afghanistan to be distorted by the blithe political myth that the Canadian Forces are there primarily as social workers rather than as warriors, then the mission will surely fail, because we will never come to a meaningful national consensus on whether we have achieved our objectives.

Successive governments have been reluctant to engage in an honest public debate about the mission. Why? Do Canadians prefer easy lies to hard truths? Do Canadians lack the courage to face difficult choices and come to principled decisions? I do not believe that Canadians are the fools or cowards that such politicians take us for.

Long after the Afghans coined their eastern expression, the west coined one of our own: “the first casualty of war is the truth”. If our mission in Afghanistan is to end as anything other than a bloody misadventure, we must recognise the truth as our ally and not our enemy, and govern ourselves accordingly.


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