Canadians Take a Second Look at their Role in Afghanistan

May 6, 2009

by Huguette Young

While the U.S. is bolstering its presence in Afghanistan, Canada is having second thoughts about its very presence.

The issue is on everyone’s mind. The Canadian government had called in Afghanistan’s ambassador to deliver a stern rebuke to a controversial law that some say legalizes the rape of Shia Muslim women. It included a provision making it illegal for a Shia Muslim woman to refuse to have sex with her husband, to leave the house without his permission or have custody of children.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper had expressed strong concerns about the legislation, saying Canada was “deeply troubled” by it. As he pointed out, making progress on human rights for women “is a significant component of the international engagement in Afghanistan.” Harper even hinted that allied support for Afghanistan would weaken should this law stay on the books. 

But amid mounting international pressure—from Canada, the U.S., Great Britain, and numerous other countries—Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced that the law will be amended so that it "will not have any concerns on any account of human rights and especially the rights of the Afghan people.” According to a Kabul lawmaker, Karzai said that he didn’t read the law before signing it and his advisors never saw a version with the articles in question.

This about-face should lay to rest some of the most pressing concerns for Canadian human rights groups about the country’s Afghanistan mission. Back home and abroad, Canada’s work in Afghanistan could hardly be seen as credible if a piece of legislation reminiscent of the repressive Taliban regime, was allowed to become law.  In the eyes of many combat-weary Canadians, the enactment of the controversial family law would be viewed as a slap in the face and a good excuse to exit the war-torn country.

Canada has vowed to stay on in Afghanistan until 2011 but is increasingly shifting its focus to the reconstruction effort and democratic governance. Along with security, basic services, humanitarian aid, border protection, strong national institutions and reconciliation, one of its priorities is to strengthen judicial institutions, train judges and support the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

The view, now, is that Taliban insurgents are unbeatable. Harper made that clear in a candid interview on CNN in March: “Quite frankly, we are never going to defeat the insurgency... My reading of Afghanistan history is that it’s probably had an insurgency forever of some kind. What has to happen in Afghanistan is we have to have an Afghan government that is capable of managing that insurgency.”

If that’s the case, many are wondering why Canadian soldiers are risking their lives in a war that is not winnable. The sacrifice seems very high indeed. And the  payoff very far off in the distance although, clearly, some progress has been made. Some 12,000 Afghans, mostly women, have signed up for basic literacy courses set up by Canada, schools have been built and police have undergone training.

The ball is now in Afghanistan’s court. It’s a chance it cannot afford to miss.

Tags: Canada, Stephen Harper, Afghanistan

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