It always fascinates me how people can re-write history with 20-20 hindsight. In reply to my blog on Pakistan, one of my most faithful readers suggested that Pakistan’s current instability accounts for India’s nuclear weapons. Sorry, but India’s first nuclear detonation (composed of about 90% of naive Canadian technology exports) took place in 1974, after Pakistan was split in two and (during the 1970 war) and in no sense a conventional military threat.
The Indian nuclear program was in fact a reaction to Chinese military power: first, the crushing defeat inflicted by China in 1962, then the 1964 Chinese nuclear test. It was only after the Indian test that the Pakistani program was set in motion, under a civilian and secular government. It moved as quickly as it did by virtue of considerable Chinese help. Not a Salafist in sight until the American-led operation against the pro-Soviet Afghan government operated through Pakistan.
India now worries more about Pakistan, because it’s dangerously unstable, but the initial nuclear impetus was China. And, why would India be so keen on a nuclear deal with the US (and China so upset) if the motive were little old Pakistan?
News reports coming from Pakistan are no longer speaking of civil unrest, but of a looming civil war. The causes are complex: ethnic, religious, regional, and economic all melding and overlapping. But the cause doesn’t really matter. The Americans and NATO think life is tough in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now think of a country of 160 million people, armed with nuclear weapons, riddled with religious fanatics, and bordered by a larger, confident nuclear power – India – that could not possibly remain aloof from a civil war on its borders. Back in 1970, at a conference at the Harvard Law School, I predicted that the most likely use of nuclear weapons would be between India and Pakistan. In 1990, I predicted in the UN journal “Disarmament” that the most likely scenario for nuclear use would be in a civil war in a nuclear weapons state. (Sorry, folks, no hyperlinks, e-archives don’t go back that far).
The media have been slow to pick up on this, probably for the usual reason that no Americans have yet been killed. But this could unfold into a genuine “August 1914″ scenario in which countries are pulled in one by one. First India, then very likely China, perhaps Russia, certainly the US: all nuclear weapons states. Bismark predicted correctly that the next major European war would be caused by “some damned thing in the Balkans”. Perhaps Pakistan , born as the product of British colonial balkanization, might play the role this time.
But let’s suppose that Pakistan’s troubles don’t lead to the apocalypse, merely the downfall of President Musharraf. No nuclear war, but the US has placed all its chips on his number on the roulette wheel. And, unlike the scene in the movie “Casablanca”, there’s no Rick to tip the croupier. The US loses its chips. Now who do you pick to start the next war?
My May 1st post on the Omar Khadr case continues to draw debate and comments, 25 as of this writing. I think I’ll just stand back and watch, as the arguments are familiar and the debate fierce.
Today a new question: what happened to the Taliban’s much-heralded “spring offensive” that NATO was preparing for? The news has mostly been items on small-scale skirmishes, and reports of large numbers of civilian casualties inflicted by NATO troops, including by Canadians. No less august a publication than the Sunday New York Times devotes a feature article to this subject.
Why are so many civilians being killed by NATO? Going in, NATO planners realized that winning over the Pushtun clan leaders would be the key to success in southern Afghanistan. Civilian deaths provoke them to fury, triggering the blood-feud response rooted in their culture.
But a more important goal of NATO forces – for obvious political reasons at home – is to minimize their own casualties. This leads to “rules of engagement” that tell our soldiers, in effect, to shoot first and ask questions later. Even more deadly for the Afghanis is the American use of air power: when it comes to a firefight, the Americans call in an airstrike rather than fighting their way out, minimizing the risk to their own soldiers at the cost of mutiplying civilian dead. It is the military equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
A conjecture: the Taliban leadership knows it can’t go toe-to-toe in large unit engagements with the vastly better equipped NATO forces. Instead, it hits and harasses with IED’s, car bombs and mortar attacks, knowing that NATO retaliation will kill civilians and provoke fury against it. In effect, they are provoking NATO into doing the insurgents’ work for them, while not risking crippling casualties among their own forces.
Lawrence Martin of the Globe and Mail notes that the mounting civilian casualties is producing a groundswell of popular opinion against NATO’s conduct of the war, and growing demands for a negotiated settlement that now are starting to emerge even from the western-supported Afghan government itself. Meanwhile, NATO press releases focus on body counts, just as the Americans did in Vietnam. And – as the Americans discovered there – winning battles may actually result in losing the war.
The “spring offensive”? You’re seeing it, and so far, it’s working.
Wow! My last post on Afghanistan brought a firestorm of invective pro and con. Some real old fashioned democratic debate for a change. I’ll comment on some of these posts in a day or two. Right now I’m still recovering from a lecture tour (more precisely from the unavoidable interaction with Air Canada).
Meanwhile, a news flash that, as far as I know, was reported nowhere in the Canadian media: on Tuesday, the Afghan Senate passed a formal motion requesting direct talks with the Taliban to avoid further bloodshed. At the same time, the Senate called for an end to the US-led hunt for the Taliban.
Calls by Canadian peace groups for talks with the Taliban and an end to military operations have been dismissed by the Canadian government and military as naive and a betrayal of the Afghan people. But now those same Afghan people, though their elected representatives, are calling for talks and an end to hostilities.
Now it’s time for Canada’s elected representatives to take action to respect the wishes of the Afghan people.
Once again news reports say that American military operations have killed scores of civilians in Afghanistan. Even President Karzai — who could not stay in power a day without American support, has condemned the killings.
The Americans, as always, claim they killed “Taliban fighters”. But the combat took place west of Herat, well outside of the Pushtun areas where the insurgents muster. Is it entirely coincidental that this part of Afghanistan borders Iran? the Iranians have long had close ties to the mainly Shia population near the Western border, and in fact moved troops to the border when the (Sunni) Taliban began to massacre Afghani Shia.
Put bluntly, are we seeing another attempt by the US to provoke Iran and start a shooting war? Is this a set-up for another Gulf of Tonkin, with sand?
Much though I hate to revisit endless debates, again responses to my post beg the critical question: who is to be deemed a “terrorist”, who gets to decide this, and whose judicial process applies?
I hate to drag out the ancient trope that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, but no one has addressed this question. If a terrorist is someone who seeks to overthrow an established goverenment by force, then those who fought the Nazis in occupied Europe were “terrorists” (as indeed the Nazis deemed them to be), and so was Nelson Mandela and his ANC comrades and so on. No need to belabour the point. These “illegal combatants” are now national and international heros. Incidentally, they didn’t wear uniforms either.
The other equally important point: if crimes fall outside national jurisdiction, how are they to be dealt with? The American answer is that they will decide for themselves and the whole world, arresting whom they wish, where they wish, and decide how they are to be tried. “Sherlock” points out that had the British responded in the same way to the IRA, they would have raided New York and Boston and detained the IRA supporters there in secret camps. Ludicrous? Only because it illustrates that there are two sets of rules, one for the powerful and one for the weak.
In any case, it’s simply not true that international law has no mechanism to deal with circumstances that fall outside national jurisdiction. Thanks in part to the diplomatic and political efforts of Canada and like-minded nations, the International Criminal Court was established to deal with crimes occuring outside national jurisdictions or in circumstances where national governments were unable to try criminals. But the establishment and jurisdiction of the court has met with the most vehement opposition from the United States: they do not want a legal regime that could try Americans for the same crimes, and they want a veto and substantial control over all extra-national prosecutions.
I would have no objection whatsoever if the United States turned the Guantanamo detainees over to the ICC. But I am joining the growing movement protesting a system which allows the Americans alone to be global police, judge, and jury.
Well, yesterday’s blog about Omar Khadr has evoked two reactions: one predictable, reasoned, but simply wrong, and one absolutely terrifying.
First, let me get something on the record: my opposition to the rubbishing of the rule of law for the so-called “War on Terror” does not derive from an ivory-tower ignorance of terrorism. When I attended university at McGill, terrorist bombs were going off in Montreal at the rate of several per week, and on one fatal occasion only two hundred metres from me. But neither I nor my fellow Quebecers were the least inclined to abandon our daily lives and our democracy to fear. To do so would be to cede victory to the maniacs.
To my reasoned critic: In the long struggle for the triumph of human rights and the rule of law, threats to the peace have often been met with an argument that exceptions must be made to deal with current dangers. The “Chicken Littles” of the moment cry out ”of course we’re in favour of the rule of law and human rights, but the danger of violence and subversion by [fill in the blank] Catholicism / heresy / Asians / Jews / fascism / Communism/ Muslim extremists require the suspension of some of our legal protections for the greater good”. The invariable result is a witch hunt that, always, is judged an abomination in retrospect. At various times, Canadian governments have denied legal protection to First Nations, Canadians of Japanese descent, Jewish refugees, political dissidents, and independentists. This now makes us cringe. Let’s not repeat the foolishness.
So (again to my reasoned critic), our democracy and values are strengthened, not undermined, by granting due process to Omar Khadr. If he is guilty of the malfeasance you allege, well, that’s what the justice system is for. Our system of laws has been built by too much struggle, and defended with too many lives, to throw it away in favour of a “military tribunal” typical of some warlord thug.
And, item last: yes, most terrorist acts by Muslims are perpetrated by the small Salafist sect within Islam that totally rejects the modern world as the West defines it. But that is a conversation the Muslim world must have with itself; we do its outcome no service, and potentially wreak considerable harm, to presume to act as umpire in these disputations.
Now to a less pleasant matter. My second critic would deal with Islamic insurrection by summary execution on the battlefield. I will not dignify this view with a reply, merely an observation: battlefield execution was practiced in recent times against our soldiers (yes, Canadians too) by the Nazi SS and Japanese military oligarchs. For this their leaders were tried as war criminals and hanged. I trust that the atrocities of World War II have not eroded in memory to the extent that we would emulate them.
While mistreatment of Afghan detainees has made the news this week, a Toronto-born Canadian is about to be put on trial by a U.S. military kangaroo court at the notorious Guantanamo prison camp for “crimes” he committed as an “illegal combatant” between the ages of 10 and 15.
More and more citizens of the world’s democracies are speaking out loudly against the “Guantanamo gulag” and the so-called “military tribunals” as flagrant violations of international law, human rights, and the Convention on Torture. The U.S. Administration stubbornly flouts the rule of law in the name of the “war on terror” (grammatical aside: how do you make war on a noun?), and many human rights advocates are asking whether the war is not against terrorism but against justice.
But more compelling for the average Canadian are the brutal facts of one particular case, published this week by Amnesty International. Nineteen-year-old Mr. Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen born in Canada was captured by American Forces in Afghanistan in July 2002. Even though a child of 15 at the time, he was sent to Guantanamo, where he was held under appalling conditions. He was refused pain medications for his wounds. A bag was placed over his head and guard dogs let loose in his cell. He was immersed in ice water. His hands were tied above a door frame where he dangled for hours. His pleas to use the toilet were denied until he urinated on himself. He was frequently held in isolation for more than a month. He was beaten by guards and partially throttled by a hand on his neck, then lifted up by his neck while shacked and dropped to the ground. Still a child, he was threatened with rape and torture.
Conditions like this would, I think, reduce many of us to whimpering wrecks. But Omar didn’t break. He joined dozens of other prisoners in hunger strike. My physician friends tell me that a hunger strike is extremely dangerous for one so young. He lost 30 pounds, and was sent to the hospital only after he vomited blood, either from a stomach lesion or from the tube used to force feed him. No civilian doctors were allowed to examine or treat him, despite warning from experts that Khadr’s treatment could cause permanent harm and put him at severe risk for suicide.
And now he has been put on trial for crimes that may put him in a military prison for life. The main charge against him: that he threw a grenade at a US soldier when a group of fighters, including members of his own family, were being mowed down by American fire. Throwing a grenade was a futile gesture, at worst a really stupid move. But in all honesty, how many of us did not do at least one really stupid thing in our adolescence?
Even at the tender age of 15, Mr. Khadr believed himself to be a soldier of God fighting a godless enemy. He was, in effect, a child soldier. As such, his rights and safety are protected by a half dozen or more United Nations conventions and Security Council Resolutions. Every one of these was voted on and ratified by the United States.
And what was the Canadian government’s response? Not to send help, but to bring in interrogators from CSIS to assist the Americans. Mr. Kadr quotes one as saying, “I’m not here to help you. I’m not here to do anything for you. I’m just here to get information”. Only after Amnesty International turned its powerful spotlight on Omar Khadr’s plight did the Canadian government agree to raise the case with the US authorities and attempt to provide him with an independent medical evaluation. But at no time has our government publicly criticized the United States for such despicable treatment of a Canadian child.
In time, history will probably view the Guantanamo gulag as a blot on the American human rights record comparable to the American (and Canadian!) internment of their citizens of Japanese origin. But retrospective condemnation, while safe and comfortable, does not help those who suffer now. Edmund Burke (a conservative, like our Prime Minister) famously remarked that for evil to prevail it is only necessary that good men do nothing. Whatever else you may do, everyone who reads this can do one thing for Omar Khadr: email the Prime Minister and demand that his rights as a Canadian citizen be restored to him.
In her award-winning short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas“, the American writer Ursula K. LeGuin describes a utopian society whose happiness depends upon the abominable wretchedness of a single child. At the end, she writes of those who could not bear the Faustian bargain, and walk away. As I read the Amnesty report on Omar Khadr, her powerful words took on a prescient meaning: what does our well-being avail us, if it is bought with such misery?
As I hoped it would, my earlier post set the cat among the pigeons. Many who responded heaped scorn upon me and pointed out (quite correctly) that the Liberals began Canadian involvement in Afghanistan, and that the Liberal motion, calling for a delayed withdrawal but meanwhile supporting the military effort, was seriously flawed. Others pointed out (correctly) that the NDP has tabled its own motion calling for our military to withdraw from Afghanistan. Still others were shaking their heads in disbelief that the NDP voted with the Conservatives.
My friend and colleague Steve Staples explains both the obvious flaws in the Liberal motion and the NDP vote by the fact that the Afghan war has become a “wedge issue” used to “score political points against opponents”. Steve has put his finger right on the problem I was trying to address. The pro-war forces are united, and the opposition is divided. Whatever the specific reasons for this, the blunt fact is that the opposition parties have handed Mr. Harper an easy political victory that should have been denied him in a minority Parliament.
Without question, antiwar groups need to work harder influence the public consensus. But a divided electorate does not absolve politicians from responsibility. In a CBC poll, Canadians voted former NDP leader Tommy Douglas the greatest Canadian of all time. What defined his greatness was his understanding that true leadership consisted in a bold adherence to principles and a willingness to act on them responsibly in the face of media manipulation and orchestrated hysteria.
There will never be another Tommy Douglas, but our current generation of politicians would do well to remember his legacy of moral courage in these troubled times.
There’s an ancient Greek apothegm that says “the best is the enemy of the good”. This bit of classical wisdom was clearly displayed Tuesday when the NDP teamed up with the Conservatives to defeat a Liberal motion calling for the withdrawl of Canadian troops from Afghanistan by February 2009. While the NDP’s action may please its antiwar “base”, it is almost certainly a strategic and tactical error.
Tactically, because a Commons majority to withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of our current commitment would send a powerful message: our NATO allies and above all the Americans would be on notice that Canada does not intend to spend blood and treasure indefinitely while Afghanistan becomes an Iraqi-style quagmire. The signal would be heard the loudest in the US Congress, where the Democrats are battling President Bush in an attempt to set a deadline — any deadline — for the withdrawl of US troops from Iraq. Several Democrat staffers have assured me that a firm Canadian deadline for Afghanistan would strengthen their own case and would be raised on the floor of Congress. With Tuesday’s vote, Canada has thrown away any chance to influence this crucial American debate.
Strategically, as well, the NDP leadership seems to be blind to the awakening understanding on the political left that splitting the progressive vote three ways hands the Conservatives a majority in the next election. That awakening has prompted the rather bizarre snuggling up of the Greens and the Liberals. But, as Murray Dobbin argues convincingly, a Liberal-Green alliance would not be a progressive one. He sees a bond between the Greens and the NDP as the more natural coupling, even if it goes no farther than a tacit agreement that each party not run candidates in ridings where the other can mount an effective challenge to the Conservatives.
But Tuesday’s vote suggests that the NDP seems determined to preserve the same the stubborn factionalism that led the French left to self-destruct in the 2002 Presidential elections. By rejecting the Liberal compromise the NDP retained its ideological purity, but in so doing became an unlikely drummer-boy for the Harper – O’Conner militaristic hubris. Jack Layton spoke as though he was trying out for Hamlet: “The time is out of joint: – O cursed spite, / That I was ever born to set it right!“.
In the end, as we know, it didn’t turn out well for the Danish prince.