Saturday, August 05, 2006

Religious Liberty and Canada's Role in Afghanistan

Today's editorial in the National Post picks up on a number of themes that have concerned me lately in regards to religious liberty and Canada's role in Afghanistan (and which I have expressed in recent weblogs). I commend the National Post for the courage to address issues like this. I have been a subscriber to the newspaper since it began and despite their lousy home delivery service here in the GTA, I continue to subscribe because of articles like this.

Our role in Afghanistan

We have never wavered in our support for Canada's Afghan mission -- neither when it was largely a defensive operation at coalition headquarters in the capital, Kabul, nor more recently, when it expanded into a combat role in the south of Afghanistan. And we do not waver now.

In the wake of Thursday's deaths of four Canadian troops in the violent region around Kandahar, the usual parties have called for our withdrawal -- or at least a period of paralyzing navel-gazing over our role there. These commentators are wrong to suggest we cut and run. Giving up in the face of adversity and casualties would encourage Muslim extremists -- and thereby make Afghanistan, and the whole world, more dangerous.

But at the same time, Canadians can be forgiven for seeking more information about our exact role in Afghanistan. This week, the country's government began expelling Korean Christians for allegedly proselytizing among Muslims. Earlier this year, the same government barely put off the execution of a former Muslim convicted of converting to Christianity. And there are disturbing reports of a revival of the harsh Vice and Virtues ministry, the agency used by the former Taliban government to enforce its absolutist version of Koranic moral law.

The seeming rise in official religious intolerance in Afghanistan is troubling, not just because it calls into question why Canadian soldiers are giving their lives, but also because religious intolerance in Afghanistan is partly what started the war on terror in the first place. If ours and other NATO troops are there simply to guard a resurgence of fervent Islamism, what has been the point of our operation?

Lloyd Axworthy, the former Liberal foreign affairs minister, whose naive theories about "soft power" and Canadian neutrality prompted the decimation of our armed forces and our decline into international insignificance in the 1990s, recently told the Toronto Star that Canada should end the Afghan war through "peace support" and national rebuilding operations, rather than actually fighting Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters.

There are two problems with this: First of all, without security, everything else is impossible. In many parts of Afghanistan, public-works projects have been destroyed by Taliban insurgents, whose goal is to sow chaos and discredit the new government. Last month, for instance, the Taliban killed Mike Frastacky, a Canadian aid worker who'd built a school in the Afghan town of Nahrin. According to his sister, the Taliban put a price on his head because he dared educate girls as well as boys. This is why our original "3-D" mission of defence, diplomacy and development has of late become heavily weighted towards defence alone: Without the first D, the other two are impossible.

Secondly, as jihadis have shown time and again, they see the Western instinct to back off from confrontation every time our nose is bloodied as a sign of weakness -- not civility or generosity -- an unwillingness to stand up for our values when the cost gets too high. Peace is not in their vocabulary.

So we cannot leave Afghanistan -- nor even pull back and leave the heavy lifting to others -- without sending our foes the wrong message about how vulnerable we are to attack both there and here at home.

But the Afghan government needs to do its part, too. And that means avoiding gestures that gratuitously offend the nations that are trying to help its fragile democracy survive.

On Thursday, Kabul expelled 35 evangelical Christians from South Korea, and ordered that another nearly 1,200 pack up. Members of the Institute of Asian Culture and Development, claim they were in Afghanistan only to organize an interfaith peace festival. However, when Muslim clerics expressed concern that the Koreans might try to use the festival to woo Muslims away from Allah, the Afghan government moved swiftly to bar more group members and to send expulsion orders to the thousand or more already in the country.

There have been reports lately, too, of a crackdown on alcohol in Kabul and against western television and movies through Afghanistan.

It was the Taliban's intolerance of plurality and its rigid enforcement of Islamic law that made Afghanistan such an attractive training base for the terrorists who carried out 9/11 -- the tragedy that sparked the U.S.-led war against terrorism in the first place. Western troops are in Afghanistan to defend a democracy from Islamist insurgents. If democracy gives way to theocracy, Canadians will rightly ask: What's the point of further sacrifice?


No comments: