Paul Weinberg

TORONTO, Aug 18 2005 (IPS) — In hooking up with the U.S.-led campaign of counterinsurgency against the Taliban and other resistance forces in the volatile Kandahar region of Afghanistan, Canadian soldiers are abandoning their traditional mandate of peace-building in troubled parts of the world, says a former diplomat.

Peggy Mason, Canada’s former ambassador for disarmament and arms control affairs at the United Nations, told IPS of her astonishment that Canada’s armed forces have sent their troops on a stepped-up mission in Afghanistan, the aims of which have not been debated in Canada.

Last month, 250 Canadian soldiers arrived in Kandahar, where fighting has been particularly fierce, and more will be deployed throughout the year. But Mason believes that Canada, with its peacekeeping experience, should maintain “some distance” from the U.S.-dominated campaign.

Washington’s strategy of overwhelming force, insensitivity to civilian casualties and deal-making with local warlords has not contributed to an improved security situation, she added.

Mason said she cannot understand why Canada did not wait to increase its involvement until later next year, when a NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) peacemaking mission in Kabul, of which Canadians have been a part, will be charged with providing stability for all of Afghanistan.

“The war fighting has to end, period. And you have to get into this other mode (assisting peacemaking). Canada is playing both roles, which is not helpful,” said Mason.

The new mandate of the 1,250 Canadian troops slated to serve in Kandahar over the next several months is reflected in the tough statements of Gen. Rick Hillier, who has frankly spoken of his troops killing Afghan insurgents, whom he calls “detestable murderers” and “scumbags”.

These comments by Canada’s chief of defence are a dangerous oversimplification of Afghanistan’s political situation, according to Dr. Seddiq Weera, a Canadian peace educator who was born in Afghanistan and is currently stationed in Kabul advising the Afghan Ministry of Education and the National Independent Commission on Strengthening Peace.

It is not just the Taliban who are opposing foreign troops, Weera notes. Locals in the country’s south and east have also been infuriated by the presence of foreign soldiers in their areas.

“Some people have stories of unjustified bombings, harsh treatment during house searches, wrongful imprisonment, mislabeling as al Qaeda, and so on. Also, lately, many members of the former Northern Alliance who have lost power express dissatisfaction or act in such a way that threatens security,” he said in a May 2005 paper.

There are many reasons why members of these groups openly oppose the presence of U.S. and international forces, he writes. “Many Afghans, especially villagers, are confused about the role and aims of these foreign troops.”

Speaking from Kabul by phone, Weera, who is affiliated with McMaster University Centre for Peace Studies in Hamilton, Ontario, told IPS that “(Hillier) focuses on a good-guy, bad-guy approach that does not reflect the realities.”

“There’s a large number of discontented people, and many groups have at least some legitimate concerns, and there is a very small number of spoilers who exploit these unhappy people. One needs to isolate the spoilers by addressing the discontent of theses people and groups through dialogue and reconciliation.”

But Mason wonders if is there any real chance of defeating Taliban forces through search-and-destroy missions. More terrorists have been identified through “the hard slogging of information-sharing and policing efforts” than by the U.S.-led forces, who have failed to root out remnants of the former Taliban government and their al Qaeda allies, she said.

“If you look at where the big arrests have been made, the military has not been particularly successful. I think there is a tacit recognition of that by the Americans,” she said.

Michael Byers, a lawyer and chair of the political science department at the University of British Columbia, says that the Canadian military is essentially returning to the combat role it played in January 2002 when it sent the Joint Task Force 2 commandos to Afghanistan.

At that time, human rights advocates like Byers raised concerns about Canadian soldiers handing over prisoners of war to U.S. soldiers after Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated that the Geneva Convention would not apply to alleged perpetrators and sympathisers of the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist actions.

Since then, the justification of torture in some cases by U.S. government lawyers, as well as horrific revelations from U.S.-run prisons at Abu Ghraib and Bagram in Iraq, should have given Canadian officials pause when considering new requests to send Canadian soldiers to serve with the U.S.-led coalition, says Byers.

“There is a serious possibility that we will actually end up capturing people, so we have to be concerned about complicity in torture,” he said.

Canadian soldiers deployed anywhere in the world are legally obligated to follow both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the international 1984 Convention Against Torture, Byers explains.

These requirements may be put to the test when Canadian soldiers in Kandahar hand over prisoners to the fledgling Afghan forces, whose members have been cited for abusing civilians, extorting money from businesses and kidnapping locals for ransom and even sexual purposes, says a Human Rights Watch (HRW) official.

Thousands of Afghans have been arrested and detained during the insurgency. “We have been saying that the coalition forces have to work harder at actually monitoring the behaviour of the people they are working with,” says John Sifton at the New-York-based HRW.

Maj. Darren Steele of the Canadian Department of National Defence declined to comment on reports associating the U.S.-led coalition with abuse of civilians or torture. “I can’t speak to that. How much of that is simply impressions and what people are reading into it?”

Steele says he expects Canadian soldiers to be engaged in reconstruction and peace-building work in Kandahar, as they have been under NATO in Kabul. Once ISAF merges with the U.S.-led Enduring Freedom coalition force next year, he says, Canadian troops will be part of a multinational brigade.

“There is a continuity between the two missions,” Steele says. “We are aware that the situation will be different in Kandahar and is going to be dangerous for many reasons. I would suggest that you take a look at the drug trade. That is a very significant risk and danger.”

However, Steele also says that only about 250 Canadian soldiers will be part of a provincial reconstruction team focusing on development projects, and at least another 1,000 members of the Canadian Forces will join U.S. counterparts in patrols and security work.

Canada’s opposition New Democratic Party is keen on having a national debate about the mission’s altered mandate when MPs return to Parliament in Ottawa this September.

NDP legislator and defence critic Bill Blaikie adds that he does not agree with a DND statement that the rules of engagement for the Kandahar mission must be kept secret for security purposes. “I don’t think that’s a decision for the minister of defence to make, and if he wants to say it’s something we can’t know about, then he has to make that case,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sifton is sceptical that proposed dialogues with disgruntled Afghan fighters will succeed until the government of Pres. Hamid Karzai and its NATO allies come to grips with who is backing the attacks by the Taliban and other forces.

“The solution would be a combination of pressuring leaders who take part in the violence, as well as the Pakistani and even potentially the Iranian agents who fund the insurgents,” Sifton said.


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