DZ: Let’s go back to the anti-war movement in Canada for a moment. In your May 06th, 2010 National Post article, you write that “poll after poll… shows that the Afghan people do not want foreigners expelled from their country.” On one side, you have groups like the Asia Foundation and the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee reiterating that ordinary Afghans, with some reservations, generally would like to see a continued foreign presence. On the other side, groups like Stop War Vancouver insist that the presence of foreign troops biases Afghan public opinion, obfuscating the truth of how Afghans really feel.
LO: Ha- well yes, it does bias their opinion, for a reason! Afghans have some comparative experience here let’s remember: they remember what life was like when the world abandoned and ignored them, and no international security presence bothered with them; and they know what life is like when they are not being ignored. So that might bias one’s opinion: when you notice your kids can go to school, you can read an independent newspaper, you can vote and walk to a job where you actually earn something, you might tend to feel that life is better when ISAF is around. But the claim you outlined comes from the anti-war organizations, essentially that the stats are fraudulent because Afghans don’t really know what they want or they’ve been somehow tricked, is atrociously belittling to Afghans. Afghans are just as capable as any other people of deciding their own opinions. No one is telling them what to think or what to say: they are free-thinking adults, and should be treated as such. That’s the irony of the stoppist arguments: they are infused with the very kind of imperialism and neo-colonialism they claim to resist. They are painting Afghans as incapable of really understanding that they are suffering under an “occupation”. The very first thing groups like this need to change is their habit of not listening to the very people upon who their entire mandates are fixated.
DZ: Is Afghanistan under an occupation?
LO: No, of course it is not under an occupation. It’s very simple: Afghans elect their government. That elected government has invited and asked ISAF to provide security in their country. ISAF is a UN-mandated force. Any person can easily find the UN resolutions authorizing ISAF on-line. Actually, the UN Secretary-General Ban K-Moon has said that the troops-out position is “almost more dismaying” than the opportunism of the Taliban, and to call for a withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan is “a misjudgment of historic proportions.” Then there are the polls which show, by a huge margin, that Afghans, year after year, continue to support the ISAF presence. There are 37 countries that have sent forces to Afghanistan, including several Muslim countries. So this is a multi-national effort, that is certainly not “western”. Besides all of that, the west really doesn’t even want to be in Afghanistan at all. They want an exit-strategy as soon as possible. How is this, in any way, an occupation? And just today, President Karzai publicly criticized the US for its plans to start withdrawal next year, saying according to The Guardian, “naming the date has given the Taliban insurgency ‘a morale boost’.” In an occupation, the locals are not usually begging the occupiers to stay put.
DZ: How do you respond to ordinary Canadians, bedeviled by contradictory reports from both the stoppist position and your position, who are seeking to identify with what the Afghan public wants?
There are well more than a dozen polls, carried out by a wide variety of credible organizations using sound methodology. It’s just not possible that so many organizations would skew their findings year after year. To what end? And if so, why isn’t there any serious scholarly evidence that the results are inaccurate or bias? Yet you find the most ridiculous claims coming from stoppists when confronted with the facts, in their effort to get around the inconvenient truths facing them. My friend Sally Armstrong, who knows something about what happens when the world turns its cheek on suffering populations, always says, “you have to start with the truth”. One example I have followed is that of Code Pink, who discovered, once they actually bothered to go to Afghanistan, that Afghan women didn’t want troops to leave- at all. Rather than address this conundrum which conflicts considerably with their own stance, they simply pretended they never heard it at all. Unfortunately for Code Pink, a journalist from the Christian Science Monitor had been hanging around and witnessed what Afghan women were saying to the Code Pink delegation, and reported it to the world. And then members of the delegation, like Sara Davidson exposed Code Pink from the inside out, troubled by the fact that the leaders of the delegation were ignoring what they were hearing. Wazhma Frogh, an Afghan activist, and I have written about the Code Pink debacle in Afghanistan here.
The first thing that ordinary Canadians baffled by stoppist propaganda should do is consult the data for themselves. Some of it is compiled here.
The other thing they can do is listen to the voices of Afghans, people like Wazhma who write prolifically on their ideas and opinions over the future of their country. They are out there speaking and writing. We need to seek them out and listen to them. I think it’s also important, when you hear a statement made by an organization regarding Afghanistan to ask a few questions, including:
● does the organization have any Afghans represented within it? Are there Afghan members? Are there Afghans on the board? On the staff?
● is the organization basing their position on consultation with Afghans? If not, on what?
● does the organization have any expertise on Afghanistan; do they have any credibility to address hugely important issues that affect the lives of Afghans?
These questions are so important, because this isn’t a game. The political decisions made today in Canada can impact life tomorrow in Afghanistan. Some of these decisions have huge implications. Like if pacifists can follow the line of thinking long enough to ask what happens when troops protecting a population withdraw from a conflict zone prematurely, they would realize the need to consider the likely outcome of an increase in violence and its resultant loss of civilian life, sexual violence, destruction of homes and properties, increase in poverty, refugee movements, and so on. So these are issues of life and death. We should not cultivate our opinions over them casually, nor take any information we come across at face value. If you think it would be fun and exciting to go march in a protest and hold up a “Canada out of Afghanistan now” placard and think momentarily you are a courageous avant-garde rebel confronting “the man”, you’re forgetting there are actual people, human beings, impacted by your actions. Canada is a democracy. What the public demands, they often get. Many Canadians, in a haze of insularity and self-serving discomfort over Canadian involvement in Afghanistan, have vocally and visibly demanded withdrawal from Afghanistan. And they got it. Too many forgot to ask, what happens to Afghans when we leave?
DZ: Although I’m hesitant to broadly generalize, it seems like the Left-wing in Canada has largely abandoned the Afghanistan project which, as a Canadian Left-winger, shocks and surprises me. Given the time you’ve spent in Afghanistan and the consultations and conversations you’ve had with Afghans in country as well as the Diaspora, is there a discord or a consistency between what the Canadian Left wants for Afghanistan, and what the Afghan Left is saying?
LO: Yes, those on the Canadian left who espouse a troops-out position (the stoppists) are in fact pro-war, because their position, if realized, would lead to more bloodshed, not less. It would lead to the complete subjugation of Afghan women, and the annihilation of a country. It is a fascism-aligned position, though I will grant that I think most stoppists don’t realize this. They truly believe themselves to be promoting peace, though I’m not ready to forgive this collective naivete that has so betrayed the Afghan people. The Canadian left’s pacifism is exactly the same kind of appeasement that went on among British politicians under Neville Chamberlain as Hitler’s power grew: making a deal with the devil. There is an alarming current of Taliban sympathy and Taliban apologism in the anti-war movement. And while it’s true we can’t generalize (many if not most of the members of the Canada Afghanistan Solidarity Committee identify as being on the left), you’ll find a very intriguing alignment of the far left and the far right, to the point where they are indistinguishable. And actually, in the US, they have themselves recently openly acknowledged all that they have in common: Medea Benjamin of Code Pink and the far-right Ron Paul camp are working to combine forces in a formal way, using the historically disgraced America Firsters of the 1940s as an explicit model.
I think the Canadian left has let down the Afghans, in a way that we will only fully witness much later. There is a labour movement in Afghanistan, a women’s movement, a political reform movement, a huge independent media sector. There are activists, writers, artists and intellectuals. There is a left and a right and everything in between. All of these movements and these people are progressives who are looking to their counterparts in the West, asking, will you stand in solidarity with us? And they get a smug silence in return, from a left that is insular instead of internationalist, that is relativist instead of universalist, all hunkered down in their closed little world of self-involvement.