Wednesday, May 23, 2007

On sales pitches

Thomas Walkom writes that while Harper's latest jaunt to Afghanistan has mostly been evaluated as a photo-op intended to boost his image domestically, there's another significant factor behind the trip as well - albeit one that speaks even more poorly to the viability of the mission:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's surprise trip to Kabul is not just a photo op for domestic Canadian consumption. It's part of a concerted effort by the U.S. and its NATO allies to stiffen the spine of President Hamid Karzai and forestall growing sentiment in Afghanistan for a political settlement with the Taliban...

(P)ublic opinion in Europe and Canada is increasingly skeptical about the value of a war that produces casualties but no definable benefits.

Germany is to review its commitment later this year. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has hinted that he might withdraw his country's troops. And in Ottawa, opposition parties have demanded that Canadian forces be withdrawn from the danger zones in Afghanistan's south by no later than February 2009.

On the other hand, Afghans themselves are increasingly restive about the presence of foreign troops in their country – especially when those troops kill civilians. Air strikes are particularly controversial, leading even Karzai to criticize the U.S. practice of large-scale aerial bombardments.

After recent air attacks, including one in Herat earlier this month that killed an estimated 50 civilians and left 2,000 homeless, protesters demanded that Karzai resign.

The flip side of this Afghan dissatisfaction with NATO is a growing movement for some form of political accommodation with the Taliban. Two weeks ago, the Afghan parliament's upper house voted to end offensive military operations and enter into direct talks with the hard-line Islamists.

The lower house has not yet decided whether to support this move. But in March, it passed another controversial bill promoting national reconciliation that would grant all warring factions, including the Taliban, immunity from prosecution...

None of this is entirely novel. Deal-making among warring factions is an Afghan tradition. In 2001, as U.S.-backed forces were sweeping the Taliban from power, an Afghan official close to Karzai negotiated an accommodation with Taliban chief Mullah Omar that would have allowed him to live freely in Kandahar in return for abandoning armed struggle.

The U.S. scotched that attempt. But Karzai has continued his back-channel relations with Taliban insurgents, a fact he acknowledged publicly last month...

(T)he capitals of the West are in a tizzy. Leaders like Harper have to convince their own electorates that Afghanistan is worth the candle. At the same time, they have to convince Afghans that their troops are more than ham-fisted foreign meddlers.

The alternative is a deal with the Taliban that ends the war and allows the country to rebuild. The U.S. and its friends want the war to end – but not that way.
In other words, the secondary purpose for Harper's visit (along with a flurry of other diplomatic activity) has been to push for continued and unnecessary conflict. And if that can only happen as a result of Afghanistan's supposedly more-democratic government ignoring both the will of its people and its own better judgment...then presumably we'll be told once again that self-determination only extends so far as we agree with the results.

It remains to be seen whether the latest round of pressure manages to delay any change for at least another FU or two. But whatever the results of Harper's latest visit, Canadians should be asking themselves whether they want their government's foreign policy to be directed toward trying to sell continued war.

Update: Michael Fellman has more about the growing use of militaristic rhetoric in Canada, which ties in nicely with Harper's effort to sell support for military activity abroad. But there's plenty of reason to doubt whether the pitch will succeed on either ground.

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