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Rick Hillier: Now the 'scumbags' seem to have the upper hand (MIKE DEMBECK/The Canadian Press)
Rick Hillier: Now the 'scumbags' seem to have the upper hand (MIKE DEMBECK/The Canadian Press)

Michael Bell

Afghanistan, Iraq and the limits of foreign intervention Add to ...

The American-led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq are failing. Strategic misjudgments based on the ideological neo-conservative ideas of the Bush administration are coming home to roost. The neo-cons were convinced that new representative governments would take power in Kabul and Baghdad, adopting the governance styles and values of America: free markets and individual liberty. Forget how deeply embedded are Afghan and Iraqi cultures, traditions and belief systems - the "magic" of liberation would solve all.

Given the record of disaster to date, reminding these once ardent interventionists of the failure of their "new world order" is embarrassing and resented. The U.S. ideologists who steered George Bush to believe he could change the nature of mankind through military intervention are now at far-off universities, trying to justify these tragedies as the responsibility of others.

None, however, were so bold as to sum up their strategic thinking as succinctly as Rick Hillier, the former Canadian chief of defence staff. The military's task in Afghanistan, he said, was to kill "scumbags." Now the "scumbags" seem to have the upper hand. Their kill ratios are uncomfortably high, and growing, tragically for Canadians and NATO allies. (Michael Ignatieff must cringe when reminded of his flawed justification for Bushite ambition in Iraq.)

Stephen Harper preferred to focus on the mechanics of Canadian operations in Kandahar rather than question the logic of foreign involvement in this near-medieval land. Such was the stuff of the Manley inquiry into the future of Canada's role in Afghanistan. Such was the stuff of cabinet discussions until the Prime Minister decided to set a date for Canada's withdrawal. Well into the struggle, Mr. Harper believed that Canada's military commitment to the regime in Kabul would contribute to our soldiers' reputation and status. He also believed that Afghanistan had been well governed in the past and, with al-Qaeda and the Taliban erased, could be again.

Unfortunately, not so.

In Iraq, the Americans are in the process of withdrawing, leaving a Shia elite in charge of ungovernable spaces split among religious and ethnic minorities and majorities, schooled over centuries in authoritarianism. Fragmented and irreconcilable societies exist within the boundaries of the Iraqi state, which, the evidence suggests, will ultimately collapse under the stresses and strains required to accommodate contesting identities.

Iranian influence is pervasive among the Shiites. Strong alliances have been formed among the faithful, transcending borders and bringing Tehran's radicalism to the heart of the Arab world. Of course, we may choose not to see it that way because feigned innocence is less painful than acknowledging the consequences of our ignorance and blunders. If pressed to focus, one can point to democratic elections as soporifics, even if governments can't be formed and hit squads, as is rumoured, are run from the prime minister's office in Baghdad.

Anyway, Iraq seems such a faraway place and someone else's problem.

Afghanistan is harder to ignore, when our soldiers come home in caskets or suffer horrendous injuries. Noteworthy is that statistics on the latter are not made available, lest the reality penetrate too deeply into the public consciousness. Think of the trail of statements by our generals saying we were winning. Look at today's desperate situation with allied casualties mushrooming and the Taliban able to attack fixed NATO emplacements. (Memories of Vietnam?)

The message is clear: Some problems can't be solved, no matter how desirable that might be in terms of our values and economic interests. Societies may be dysfunctional and their governments intolerant and oppressive, but the core question is what, if anything, outsiders can do about it. Identities run deep. The attempt to impose one's belief system on those deemed to be less progressive represents cultural imperialism and hubris.

At the end of the day, it just doesn't work.

Michael Bell is the Paul Martin Senior Scholar on International Diplomacy at the University of Windsor and a former chair of the donor committee of the International Reconstruction Fund Facility for Iraq.

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