Mr. Speaker, once again it is a pleasure to be here in this full House and to talk to all my hon. colleagues.
My hon. colleague from Manitoba would like to use my notes later on for his speech and I am sure that I can make them available to him.
Benjamin Franklin once said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
I would like to begin by talking a bit about a former Soviet soldier, Sergeant Nikolai Lanine, who served in Afghanistan and who now lives in Canada.
Some would say that there is no similarity between the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 and today's NATO efforts to assist in the stabilization and democracy there, but Lanine's experience in Afghanistan lifted a veil of propaganda from his eyes and now he worries that in fact we are making many of the exact same mistakes that the Soviets did.
Let us go back in history to 1978. At that time, Afghanistan had a relatively progressive secular government with labour unions, health care, women's rights, girls in school and land reform. Noor Mohammed Taraki, a Marxist, was asked by the army to form a government. The U.S., along with the CIA, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan reacted by training Muslim extremists, the mujahedeen, and Taraki was killed in 1970.
The Soviets invaded in 1980 and the U.S. armed Muslim extremists, among them bin Laden, in its quest to overthrow the Soviet occupation. As we know, the Soviets left in 1989 and the extremists, or Taliban, were able to seize power.
Interestingly enough, in the 1990s, the U.S. invested financially by encouraging the Taliban government to sign a contract with Unicol to build a gas pipeline south from the Caspian basin to Pakistan. The point to note here is that when oil was on the agenda, the U.S. government was ready and willing to negotiate with the Taliban.
In the spring of 2001, the negotiations broke down. President Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, was a consultant for Unicol during the failed negotiations with the Taliban. Another point to note is that Karzai's current government consists of many of these warlords, drug lords and oil executives, in addition to other agents from other countries.
In 2005, the UN documented atrocities committed by the U.S. backed northern alliance, many of whom currently serve in the Afghanistan government. Human Rights Watch found that 60 of the Afghan legislators have links to warlords, 20 still have active private militias and 20 or more have been involved in drug smuggling.
President Karzai himself stated that the warlords and private militias, who were once regarded as the west's staunchest allies in Afghanistan, were now a greater threat to the country's security than the Taliban.
This is a situation that we find ourselves in today in Afghanistan where it is not a war of good versus evil. In the province of Nangarhar, for example, in April 2004, women were still banned from performing on TV and radio and where opium was dominating Afghanistan's economy. The country is being turned into a narco state under the noses of NATO.
A 2005 report by Amnesty International found that violence against women and girls was pervasive. At the same time, 70% of the population is undernourished, while infant mortality is twice that of the third world average.
At any rate, let us get back to Nikolai Lanine. In his youth he read in the papers that the Soviet army was in Afghanistan to help build a stable society. Later he learned that his best friend was part of a group of soldiers who had been ambushed, savagely mutilated and then executed. Later, Lanine himself was drafted and wound up in Afghanistan in 1987.
Today his library includes 1980s articles from the Soviet newspapers Pravda and Izvestia which state:
“Working together, Soviet and Afghan government forces this month successfully cleared Kandahar of insurgent activities.
The goals of the new Afghan constitution are to establish peace and guarantee the rights of all Afghans.
Lanine said that these humanitarian perspectives, remarkably like those in contemporary Canadian news and opinions, were not just official propaganda. Many Soviet citizens genuinely felt them. A former Soviet commander told CNN News many years later that “We had set ourselves a task of turning Afghanistan into a stable, friendly country”. As he hears of personal eulogies, politicians, condolences and military tributes to our fallen soldiers, Lanine could not help but state that he had heard it all before.
The Soviet citizens were told that their army was there to help the Afghan people to establish a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan, to protect women's rights and to have a better future for children. Here in the west the Soviet claims were, of course, ridiculed as twisted propaganda by our leaders and our media. The motives were regarded as actually plausible that included blatant colonizing, propping up an unpopular pro-Soviet regime, creating a buffer zone and, most important of all, reaching for oil.
President Carter at that time announced that the Soviets had advanced into a strategic position that posed a grave threat to the free flow of Middle East oil. U.S. President Regan dubbed the violent Afghan rebels “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers,” and sent waves of covert aid, including to the early Taliban and Osama bin Laden.
The massive U.S. support transformed these ragtag Afghan mercenaries into a major, modernized fighting force. In other words, it was the west that enabled the repressive Taliban government to seize power once the Soviets left, a similar situation to when the U.S. provided Saddam Hussein with biological and chemical weapons in the Iraq-Iran war. Soviet forces immediately came under siege while hurriedly buttressing the Afghan government, army and police.
Like NATO since 2002, it then launched counter-insurgency operations, relying heavily on bombings, search and destroy operations and house to house invasions to rout out the terrorists. However, like in more recent years, the hammer-fisted combat operations started converting many average Afghan people into enemies. Reconstruction slowed and destruction skyrocketed.
By the time Lanine arrived, the Soviets were choosing battles more carefully and primarily trying not to make things worse. His own unit mainly performed counter insurgency operations along supply routes. When not fighting, Lanine's unit delivered food, firewood, clothing, school books and other supplies to ordinary Afghan people. They built hydro lines, protected Soviet doctors working in villages and loaned trucks for home construction.
Unfortunately, Lanine said that all of that together principally created widespread distrust and the shifting of allegiances and, for similar reasons, a coalition of 160 international relief agencies requested that NATO basically shut down the provincial reconstruction teams. Maintaining stability amidst all of that, explained Lanine, much like NATO is experiencing today, became an intermittent but never-ending barrage of low level fighting.
He worked as a grenade launcher with a two kilometre range. He said that often he did not know who he was shooting at and if anyone was killed. For him, as layers of indoctrination peeled away, philosophical thoughts crept in. He wonder who the suicide bomber was trying to attack and whether it was the Canadian soldiers in Kandahar? He said that we did not see that side of the story and that it was the same in the Soviet media.
He said that it was taken for granted that whoever resisted them must be bad. Lanine began to see that not everyone was a political fanatic. They were just regular people, many of whom had lost family members. His journals show where he was struggling with his growing moral doubts after their unit, in an accident tragically similar to a 2002 U.S. air strike, mortared an Afghan wedding. He found himself sympathizing deeply with every Afghan on all sides, understanding them simply as human, just like him, caught in chaotic, miserable circumstances.
According to estimates, 15,000 Soviets and 1.5 million Afghans were killed during the occupation. One-third of Afghans were refugees. However, it was the final fall out that taught Lanine a penultimate lesson. Once Soviet combat troops withdrew, instead of launching coordinated disarmament and calling for independent peacekeepers, both superpowers left the warlords to battle their differences out over the bodies of the civilian population.
For him, that illustrated that underlying all the self-aggrandizing bluster from westerners and Soviets alike about their noble intentions in Afghanistan, there was a lack of real concern for the Afghan people themselves.
I am not saying that is the case today. What I am saying and what we are trying to underline is that there might be a better way of bringing some kind of peace to this region without just continuing a war effort that may last indefinitely.
It upsets Lanine to see this happening all over again. Although the Soviet intervention was much larger in scale, it was not fundamentally different than NATO's intervention today. According to him, they were both acts of aggression where foreign armies tried to make a nation fit their vision for what it should be. Afghans themselves, like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, also make the comparison.
The obvious parallel, he adds, is the most insidious: the propaganda. He points to the government gags in reporting Canadian wounded, for example. After 9/11, he particularly noticed increasingly self-righteous drumming as bin Laden, the Taliban and the failed state of Afghanistan were portrayed this time as purely tyrannical agents of destruction.
Nobody was really seriously discussing the roots of the whole militant Muslim movement in Afghanistan. It was very shocking for me, how wrong the memory was. It wasn’t something I expected to see here. I couldn’t believe how much a supposedly democratic society was shifting towards unquestionable acceptance of war.
“I’m not sure what we should be doing,” comments Lanine. “I only know that what we’re doing right now was tried before, and it failed. Are they feeling better about being bombed by NATO than they were under the Soviets?”
Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls, in their new book Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence, present reams of evidence dispelling many common beliefs about our impacts. They describe in detail botched elections, a government riddled with notorious warlords, shocking setbacks to women's rights, legalized private and religious militias, civilian massacres and stalled reconstruction, all fueling popular disaffection.
NATO countries, including Canada, are calling for more combat troops but the Soviets used six times as many as NATO currently has and they still describe it as fighting an octopus with one hand. According to Kolhatkar and Ingalls, we should do what surveys show most Afghans want, and that is to bring in peacekeepers under UN control, stop hunting combat, make this army sufficiently lucrative and direct reconstruction money through grassroots, Afghan-led initiatives that give poor Afghans employment rather than through multinational contracts.
Let us take a moment to put all this into perspective. Let us put aside the rhetoric, step aside and look at what has happened.
According to a Maclean's magazine article, it was our current Chief of Staff, General Rick Hillier, who convinced the prime minister in 2005 to undertake a combat role in Afghanistan. He wanted Canada to prove ourselves to the Americans and to the world. That was the main reason given, if I am not mistaken, as he attempted to and subsequently did convince our government to lead a search and destroy mission in Kandahar.
I do not think there is ever a need for members of the Canadian armed forces to prove themselves. Myself having served in the armed forces, I see and have seen first-hand the dedication and professionalism of our men and women in uniform. We do not need to go into a special type of combat to show how good we are.
I had the good fortune in 1990 of accompanying the Royal Canadian Navy into Vladivostok as an interpreter with the commander of the HMCS Provider. I noticed then the respect that our former enemies had for the professionalism of our Canadian armed forces. I would like to reiterate that we do not need to go to war to prove ourselves. We do have that capability if and when the need arises to do that.
It is up to us here in Parliament to make the right decision and to ensure that we do not send our young people unless it is obviously necessary and not as some token of support for American policy. It is absolutely imperative that a peace process be started in Afghanistan as we signify our intent to leave. Let us remember that this does not happen overnight. We must press NATO and other major players in this region to start discussions toward a ceasefire and a peace settlement.
In the debate over the future of Afghanistan, others are also calling for a new approach. President Karzai, Afghan parliamentarians and aid groups have all spoken of the need to start a dialogue, which will bring about a lasting peace. Sixty-five per cent of Afghans say that disarmament is the most important step toward improving security in Afghanistan. This is a major step as we try to push for a truce.
The vision of peace must be carried out by the United Nations, which explicit mandate is to preserve and promote international peace and security.
UN peacekeeping missions have been successful in East Timor, Cambodia and Mozambique. In East Timor, with the help of the UN, the Timorese were able to surmount incredible odds to create a largely stable and successful state.
Many criticized this approach as being too idealistic, and I have heard these comments from the other side today, and state that a strong military presence is needed before any peace and reconciliation is to begin.
However, once again, how much military strength and how far do we have to go before we can somehow ensure a peaceful and stable area? Would it not be better to start a process where we can provide incentives for groups, warlords and other groups and those who may not be the extreme fanatics to start to lay down their arms and bring in the United Nations under that umbrella to work on some kind of a reconciliation between all waring factions?
Remember, it is not a black and white situation. The fallacy of this argument that we need a strong presence is that there will always have to be a strong external military force at constant war with the other side. This did not work with 100,000 Soviet troops, and it will not work today with NATO. That situation does not bring stability. The only stability that can take place is under a peace process where, gradually, all fighting comes to an end. Then and only then will true reconstruction begin.
The Afghan people will have to construct the future themselves, with help, but not interference, from others. Canada has the golden opportunity to encourage this process. What is to stop our Prime Minister, now as we are in Afghanistan, as we debate this, from reaching out to other NATO countries, countries in the region and the Taliban and others and to say, “Let's try to work on some kind of a dialogue and peace process?” It happened in Vietnam. We were successful in Northern Ireland. We did negotiate with terrorists and now there is peace. What is to stop this process from at least starting?
As I speak, a very unpleasant thought keeps coming back.
First, does the United States, for example, truly want to see a peaceful solution in Afghanistan or does it want a military victory to further its own interests? If this is the case, what are we doing fighting alongside with the U.S.?
Second, will the U.S. ever allow an Afghan government to take power that may not be in the best interests of U.S. foreign policy? If in fact the U.S. sees Afghanistan as a vital link in a geopolitical policy to ensure an American presence in the area, is this the only reason that the U.S. is there, as in Iraq? If this is the only reason, that is more reason for Canada to pull out of Afghanistan and signify that we will participate only under a UN-led peacekeeping mission.
We have a chance today in Parliament to change the direction of the course of history for our Canadian military and the Canadian people. We have a chance as we are in Afghanistan, as we negotiate a gradual pull-out, to start negotiating a peace settlement and discussions among all groups. It is worth a try. Talking has never hurt. We can and we should make a difference.