What’s at stake in the Canadian intervention in Afghanistan?

This is an edited version of the report delivered to an International Students for Social Equality (ISSE) meeting held in Montreal on January 26, 2010. It first appeared on the French section of the WSWS on Feb. 1.


On December 30, 2009, Canada’s minority Conservative government prorogued or temporarily shut down parliament for the express purpose of ending the work of the House of Commons’ Special Committee on Afghanistan. The work of the Special Committee threatened to reveal further information about Ottawa’s complicity in the torture of prisoners handed over to Afghan authorities by the Canadian military.

Already the committee had heard the testimony of Richard Colvin, a high-ranking Canadian diplomat who was posted to Afghanistan for 17 months between 2006 and 2007. Colvin testified that his superiors at first ignored his repeated warnings that prisoners transferred to the Afghan government by the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) were subject to harsh treatment and to torture. Later, Ottawa tried to silence him and to limit what he could say publicly.

In his testimony on prisoners transferred to Afghan security forces, Colvin said, “Many were just local people—farmers, truck drivers, tailors, peasants; random human beings in the wrong place at the wrong time; young men in their fields and villages who were completely innocent but were nevertheless rounded up.”

“In other words,” he concluded, “we detained, and handed over for severe torture, a lot of innocent people.”

The Geneva Convention declares that it is a war crime to hand over prisoners knowing that they could be tortured.

The complicity of the Canadian government in torture—and here we can add other cases, the most notable being those of Maher Arar, Abousfian Abdelrazik and Omar Khadr—underscores that the Canadian intervention in Afghanistan has nothing to do with the “fight for democracy.”

The Harper government’s suspension of parliament, an act carried out to try to hide the brutal reality of the “Afghan Mission,” brings out the close connection between the growth of militarism in Canada and the threat to the democratic rights of its citizens.

The Globe and Mail, spokesman for the Canadian financial elite and fervent advocate of the Afghan war, issued a warning in its editorial of January 23, 2010. The editorial begins by recalling the “age-old struggle for parliamentary rights against an arbitrary governor,” i.e., the Crown. It continues, “But a new struggle for parliamentary rights is under way, and this time it is the prime minister who is wielding potentially autocratic powers.”

Let us remember that the editorial staff of the Globe and Mail congratulated Harper in December 2008, just one year ago, when his government first used the extraordinary powers of the governor-general to suspend parliament, in order to avoid defeat in a vote of non-confidence. Overwhelmingly supported by Canada’s corporate elite, the Dec. 2008 shutting down of parliament was an even more flagrant violation of democratic norms and of parliamentary tradition than the more recent prorogation (suspension of parliament).

Why does the Globe and Mail criticize Harper now, while continuing to defend his even greater crime of 13 months ago? It is because, while the bourgeoisie is quite willing to countenance and support a break with traditional democratic and parliamentary forms in the case of a major crisis, it is mindful that to do so simply to help the Conservatives get out of an uncomfortable political situation only undermines public support for, and illusions, in the current political set-up.

The reference in the Globe and Mail editorial to “autocratic powers” is nonetheless a frank admission of the turn in Canada towards anti-democratic methods and authoritarian forms of rule.

Recourse to anti-democratic methods becomes necessary under conditions where the economic and geopolitical interests of the ruling class require it to radically restructure class relations at the expense of the working class and the mass of the population—at a time when the bourgeoisie comes into increasingly open conflict with the aspirations and interests of working people.

 Return to a tradition of militarism

This conflict is especially marked on the question of the Afghanistan War. While the majority of the population wants to see the speedy pull-out of all Canadian troops, the entire Canadian establishment—including the opposition parties and the media— vigorously supports the war, which is the largest Canadian military operation carried out in the past half-century.

The CAF intervention in Afghanistan has destroyed the illusion, which had been assiduously cultivated for decades, that social harmony reigns over the country, and that Canada is a force for peace in the world.

The Conservative government, blazing the trail charted by the Liberals under Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, has torn off the mask of the CAF as a “guardian of the peace” or “peace-maker,” and set about reviving and reformulating its militarist traditions.

In 2006, Prime Minister Harper gave a speech in Calgary in front of that city’s oil industry elite and the American ambassador. The Conservative leader stated that his government aims to make Canada “a leader on the international stage.” “We want,” he declared, “to ensure that we can preserve our identity and our sovereignty, protect our key interests and defend those values we hold most dear on the international scene.”

In short, Harper wants to turn the Canadian army into a murderous force upon which the other great powers can count. He thereby hopes to gain for Canada’s financial and industrial elite a portion of the neocolonial loot that is to be won through the policing and redivision of the capitalist world.

But in order to permit the Canadian ruling class to partake in the pillage of the planet’s human and natural resources it must first overcome the latent but profound opposition of the population to military adventures. To do so requires a decisive rupture with the pacifist image Canada gave itself during the latter decades of the Cold War.

In his Calgary speech, Harper made special mention of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which was fought in northern France in 1917. It was the “scene of some of the most terrible fighting in the First World War,” he noted. In fact, Canadian troops played a major role in the battle, sealing—with the blood of farm boys and young workers in the Canadian army—Canada’s newly acquired status as a major imperialist force.

Today’s ruling elite would like to see the Afghan mission, launched in the name of the struggle against terrorism, play a similar role.

The true nature of the intervention is shown in a thousand ways: complicity in torture; aerial strikes on heavily populated villages; support for the corrupt Karzai regime; and the keeping of the majority of the population in the greatest poverty.

The war’s real roots and causes

In October 2001, Washington launched the Afghanistan War as part of its campaign to assert the vast interests of the American ruling elite throughout the world. The collapse of the Soviet Union 10 years prior had created a political vacuum in Central Asia, a region that contains the second most important proven reserves of oil and gas in the world.

In a statement published October 9, 2001, and entitled “Why we oppose the war in Afghanistan,” the WSWS explained:

“The Caspian Sea region, to which Afghanistan provides strategic access, harbors approximately 270 billion barrels of oil, some 20 percent of the world’s proven reserves. It also contains 665 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, approximately one-eighth of the planet’s gas reserves.

“These critical resources are located in the world’s most politically unstable region. By attacking Afghanistan, setting up a client regime and moving vast military forces into the region, the US aims to establish a new political framework within which it will exert hegemonic control.”

AfghanistanA glance at a map of the region shows the strategic importance of Afghanistan. The countries that border it are the following:

  • On the North: the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Turkmenistan especially has significant and very sought-after reserves of natural gas. The United States has built a string of military bases in the region to openly challenge Russia’s historical claim to Central Asia, including the Caucasus, as its backyard or “natural sphere of influence.” The Russian-Georgian war that took place in the summer of 2008 clearly shows the great power conflict in the region. The war erupted after Georgia, with US support, invaded the pro-Russian separatist region of South Ossetia.
  • On the West: Iran, a regional power the United States considers an obstacle to its hegemonic designs over both Central Asia and the Middle East. With the support of the European powers and Canada, Washington has accused Iran of hiding a military program behind its civil nuclear power project. This accusation—which is not accompanied by any tangible proof—dangerously resembles the campaign of the Big Lie used to justify the invasion of Iraq: the famous non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” or WMD.
  • On the South: Pakistan. The Pakistani secret service (ISI) has long maintained close links with the Taliban forces in Afghanistan, as a counterweight to its strategic rival India. The cultural links between two countries are also very strong. The Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethno-linguistic group, live on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, which follows the British colonial Durand line, and have never recognized it. Pakistan is subject to intense pressure from the US to use its military force against its old allies in the Islamicist militia movement. The US has threatened that otherwise it will intervene militarily within Pakistani territory. And in fact, this has already begun. More and more the media speaks of the AfPak War, which is destabilizing a country of 170 million people, armed with nuclear weapons.
  • On the East: China, which Washington currently views as its most important long-term strategic rival. China covets the energy resources of Central Asia to fuel its rapidly expanding economy. Today China is the world’s second largest national economy, and has just surpassed Germany as the world’s biggest exporter. The current accounts surplus and foreign currency reserves of China are by far the largest in the world. The decline in the US’s economic and industrial might, the historic basis of its world-power, is highlighted by the country’s dependence on China to finance its debt.

If we look at the map of Central Asia and superimpose the pipelines projected to transport natural gas from Turkmenistan and oil from the Caspian Sea, we see an intersection of the lines in Afghanistan and all around Afghanistan. Thus do the real causes—economic and geopolitical—of the US’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan jump out before our eyes.

And how ridiculous and pathetic does the chatter of the media and the politicians about the supposed fight against terrorism and for democracy sound. All the more so, in view of their almost complete silence about how Washington armed and supported the Islamicist forces in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets throughout the 1980s.

The war in Afghanistan appears for what it truly is: an imperialist war being mounted by the US, with the support of Canada and the US’s other NATO allies, for the control of vital energy resources and the pursuit of predatory geostrategic interests.

 The historic decline of the United States

The growing recourse by the United States to the use of military force—followed by Europe and Canada—is not a sign of strength but of enormous weakness.

The United States has been in protracted and permanent decline for over four decades. During this time it has gone from being the world’s largest creditor nation to being its largest debtor nation. The position of the US dollar as a world reserve currency is more and more in question.

But the appetite of the American ruling class has not shrunk in concert with its economic decline. If it can no longer dominate the world through the force of its economic power, it will seek to do so by force of arms. Washington relies on its military superiority to offset and compensate for its economic decline.

An important fact to note is that the escalation of American militarism has intensified under the Obama administration, which at the end of last year announced the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total of US troops to be deployed in that country to more than 100,000. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Obama clearly stated that the United States would not tolerate any restriction on the relentless assertion of its own interests, in every corner of the globe.

Whatever the hopes of the American ruling class, however, the idea that it can reverse its economic decline by the use of military force will prove futile and catastrophic.

In Iraq, having massacred over one million people and destroyed what was once a modern society, the US has only been able to establish an unstable puppet government, that balances between various sectarian rivals and staggers on under the threat of a sudden descent into civil war.

In Afghanistan, more than eight years of war has produced a regime that is just as unstable, and has created a situation for American imperialism that more and more resembles the quagmire of Vietnam.

A similar fiasco faces the Canadian elite. The media’s and the elites’ enthusiasm for the Afghan war and the revival of Canadian militarism stands in stark contrast with public sentiment. Opinion polls found that a large majority of Canadians believed Colvin, not the military top brass and the government, told the truth about the CAF’s complicity in torture in Afghanistan and this despite Harper and company mounting a vicious campaign of slander and disinformation against the diplomat. The sudden shutdown of parliament by the Harper government was a desperate and reckless attempt to turn public attention away from the Afghan war—a war that the government not so long ago was trumpeting as proof of the “restoration” of Canada’s place in the world.

Despite these setbacks, the rival imperialist bourgeoisies have not, and will not, abandon the military option. After having sent troop reinforcements to Afghanistan and extended the war into neighboring Pakistan, the Obama administration added Yemen to the list of countries targeted by Washington. Obama has threatened Iran with further sanctions and stepped up incendiary allegations about its supposed program of nuclear weapons.

Imperialism threatens to drag all humanity with it into the abyss.

Social inequality

I began my report by noting the connection between the turn of the Canadian ruling elite towards militarism and its growing assault on basic democratic rights.

These are two expressions of one and the same crisis of world capitalism, a crisis rooted in the fundamental contradictions of the profit system: that between social production and private property, and that between the world economy and the system of nation-states.

These contradictions have driven social inequality to an unprecedented historical level. This is the fundamental source of the turn by the ruling class to methods of rule that are more and more anti-democratic and authoritarian.

Under conditions of relative class peace, underpinned by an expansion in the incomes of all layers of society and a modicum of wealth redistribution to fund public and social services, the ruling class can tolerate parliamentary forms of government, which keep up the appearance of popular control over those elected and over the government.

But in response to a crisis in the process of capitalist accumulation in the 1970s, the ruling class moved to break the power of the trade unions and systematically gutted all restraints on big business. As society becomes increasingly polarized and the needs of the population come into increasing collision with the obscene accumulation of profits by a tiny minority, the state is compelled to drops its mask as an impartial arbiter and to reveal its armed fist, devoted solely to the defense of the possessing minority.

A recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives gives a shocking view of the rapidity with which the gulf between rich and poor in Canada is developing.

At the outset, the study notes that the year 2008 wrought chaos in the world economy. Yet while hundreds of thousands of Canadians were thrown onto the unemployment lines, the highest-paid leaders of business saw their incomes continue to swell. For them, 2008 was a good year, after a succession of very good years.

In 2008, the 100 highest paid CEOs in Canada received an average of more than $7.3 million each. That is 174 times the average Canadian’s pay of $42,305. The astronomical income of these CEOs is 390 times that of someone earning the minimum wage.

Let us break down this comparison to the level of the work load over a year.

Take for example Frank Stronach of Magna International, the leading manufacturer of automobile parts in Canada. He has been very active in the capitalist restructuring of the automobile industry in Canada and the elimination of tens of thousands of jobs.

Or Pierre Peladeau of Quebecor, who has just celebrated the first anniversary of the lockout of 253 employees at the Journal de Montreal. These workers have been thrown out on the street for refusing to accept concessions that would gut their collective agreement.

Or take Paul Desmarais, Jr., or Andre Desmarais of Power Corporation, who threatened to close the daily La Presse if the employees did not accept job cuts and a wage freeze.

One of these eminent gentlemen arrives at his office on the first Monday of January. By mid-afternoon, he would have already earned the amount a worker employed at minimum wage would earn over an entire year. By dinner-time the next day he would have already earned close to what a worker making the Canadian average would obtain by working through late December, twelve months later.

And this gulf continues to widen. Between 1998 and 2008, after adjusting for inflation, the total revenue of the 100 richest people in the country grew by 70 percent. During the same period, the average earnings of Canadian workers dropped by 6 percent. In other words, over the past 10 years, the real revenue of the super-rich grew by leaps and bounds while the great majority of Canadian workers experienced a decline in their incomes.

What do these figures tell us? That the struggle against the war and for the defense of democratic rights cannot be separated from the fight for social equality and for socialism. And that the work carried out by the International Students for Social Equality, and by its club here at UQAM (University of Quebec at Montreal) has great significance.

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