Commentary  Hyde Park: Our commitment is to humanity

Afghanistan’s history is ridden with invasion and foreign occupation. It abounds with insurgency, and is scarred by incessant conflict. Migration is a permanent feature of life there. During the Soviet invasion and the subsequent civil war, more than five million refugees fled to neighbouring Pakistan or Iran to seek asylum. Too many Afghans face a grim reality: malnourishment, illiteracy, rape, forced resettlement due to violent clashes, drought, scarcity, and fear. Afghanistan has been starved and dried out, and its women and girls especially have been abused and forgotten. In 2005, the last time there was sufficient order in the country to gather human development indicators, Afghanistan ranked 173 of 178 nations.

Since 2002, Afghanistan has been the largest recipient of Canadian development assistance, but what the Canadian public most often sees of this effort are Canadian Forces in uniform, bringing home our dead. The general public knows very little about our country’s mission; our government has done too little to ensure otherwise. The apathy, misunderstanding, and ignorance that this cultivates is dangerous.

When Stephen Harper’s 2011 deadline comes, I expect many Canadians will be eager for a hasty exit from Afghanistan. Political rhetoric suggests that our military mission may end then, but that our engagement in the country will not. As it stands, Canada is in a poor position to make a wise decision about the nature and extent of this continued engagement. Our voters don’t understand our mission and we lack a coherent purpose and strategy.

Little public discussion preceded Canada’s 2001 entry in Afghanistan, and this silence persists as Canada has become gradually more and more entangled in Afghanistan’s most dangerous province, Kandahar. Along with the U.S., the U.K., and the Netherlands, Canada is one of the most heavily invested international presences in the country. But you wouldn’t guess it from the occasional minimalist rhetoric and the wavering commitment of our national leaders. Canada’s projects keep a low profile both at home and abroad.

The myth that Canadians are not a nation that likes war, that we are a peacekeeping people, reinforces our collective illusion that we have been peacekeepers since Pearson’s day – and it stops us from imagining new and effective foreign policies. We are fighting a very real, very violent insurgency. But our military does more than fire guns. We talk less about the military’s co-operation with civilian workers and with Afghans, perhaps because we are not comfortable or convinced by this contemporary use of the Canadian Forces for reconstruction and development.

The purpose of Canada’s mission, at least in policy terms, has been built on three pillars – defence, development, and diplomacy. As Harper and Obama recently conceded, the insurgency cannot be beaten by foreigners; therefore, if we say that we’re fighting the insurgents as a matter of national defence, our efforts are in vain, and our logic flawed. However, Canada can make a meaningful contribution by focusing on development and diplomacy and by increasing synergistic civilian-military co-operation.

The military is working to create the safety and security prerequisite for Afghan-defined and civilian-led reconstruction efforts like Canada’s Signature Projects – building the Dahla Dam, eradicating polio, and building schools. In co-operation with civilian police, diplomats, the RCMP, and development workers, Canadian Forces are training the Afghan army and police. They gather intelligence by creating relationships with Afghan elders and their communities. Forces secure pockets of stability to create safe spaces for investing in women, educating children, and distributing food. Though worthy projects, each of these endeavours is imperfect and incomplete.

We have invested lives, resources, and time, but assessments of progress, security, and future prospects remain unclear. Understandably, this makes us wary. But it does not give us permission to be fatalistic or apathetic.

Some will argue that we have no business in Afghanistan, that remaining implicated will do little more than further protract a conflict that needs to be resolved indigenously. To this I say, too late. We signalled to Afghans that we noticed their circumstances, we suggested that there is a better way, and in so doing, bound ourselves to their fate.

If we do not start planning for 2011 now we risk making the same mistake we made in 2001: slipping into a decision whose implications we did not understand, with little inquiry or discussion, and with a high degree of detachment. Ten years later, Canadians now have the opportunity to be proactive and to shape our engagement so that we may speak about it with dignity. There is no American scapegoat on which to blame a hurried, uncalculated decision. Our ethics and strategy require brainstorming and debate in every sphere of society, business, and government. Should we use our military and if so, how? Which locally-owned projects need our help? How can we boost co-operation between civilian and military agencies?

Start talking – or history will judge us harshly for our narcissism and lack of creativity.

Hayley Lapalme is a U3 IDS and Political Science student, and still a people-person. Send her an email at,