We have a moral duty to ourselves, as well
As is perhaps inevitable with any kind of war, the language of morality crept into the Afghanistan mission once again recently, as numerous Canadian envoys have described a potential Canadian withdrawal from Afghanistan as a moral failure.
"If we were to withdraw tomorrow, our allies would feel betrayed," says Michel de Salaberry, Canada's current civilian coordinator in Khandahar. "We've said we'd stay until 2009. Morally, we have to live up to that pledge."
Chris Alexander, former Canadian ambassador to the UN, and current deputy ambassador, agrees. “To refuse fighting the Taliban would mean we are refusing and rejecting our responsibilities, our institutions, ourselves. It would be a worldwide failure and a failure of our souls," he says.
These men are precisely right. Canada does have both a moral and a diplomatic obligation to our allies to remain in Afghanistan. But there's more to be considered.
It’s very important that we not get so wrapped up in our moral obligations to others that we as Canadians forget the moral obligations that we hold to ourselves, and to our own troops.
We as Canadians have a moral obligation to our troops and to our country to ensure that the mission is on the right track. Right now the war in Afghanistan is at a pivotal point at which we can reevaluate the mission, and make sure that we aren’t falling into a number of pitfalls there.
First off, we need to ensure that we’ve conceptualized the mission properly. If we really are trying to foster the development of a sovereign state (let alone a democracy), we need to admit that we have very little direct say in how that state will develop. Transplanting western democratic institutions, policies and philosophies into Afghanistan represents an absolute recipe for failure.
We need to realize that imperialism and communism have both, in turn, failed to tame Afghanistan. Post-modern colonialism is practically guaranteed to meet the same fate.
We have a responsibility to our troops to not over-burden them in Afghanistan, as recent comments by Michael Scheuer contend. We also have a moral obligation to equip them properly, with the best equipment available. We have a moral obligation to do everything we can to bring them home safely.
We must also remember that, as we expend resources and risk Canadian lives in Afghanistan, that Afghanistan, and its government, must also accept that it has a moral responsibility to us -- to build its state (although we must accept that it will build under its own terms) and to work toward finding ways around the divisive tribalism that has rendered it no much a failed state as one that has never actually existed in any practical sense.
Afghans have a responsibility to build a military capable of defending itself against the Taliban insurgency.
We must also remember that, as surely as we have moral responsibilities to our allies, that they also have a moral responsibility to us. Not only do our NATO allies have the responsibility to ensure they provide enough troops to replace Canadians after what now appears to be an inevitable 2009 withdrawal from Khandahar, but they also have a moral responsibility to render more help now.
"We understand the caveats, we understand the constitutional limitations, we understand the political volatility, but NATO cannot fail. This is a no-fail mission," Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay recently announced.
He's right about that.
The war in Afghanistan is a mission that we cannot afford to lapse into failure. Failing to meet our obligations to Afghans, our allies and ourselves will only guarantee that failure, as assuredly as failure on behalf of our allies or Afghans to meet their oblications (to us, their allies and themselves).
"The key word here is long term. The commitment of the international community, NATO amongst it, for the long term is absolutely vital for the Afghanistan's future," Alexander reminds us. "It is not something that can be sorted out in a few months or even a few years."
Our obligations in Afghanistan are important because they are long term obligations. In this sense, we are in a much more convenient position than Afghans themselves -- their obligations are permanent, the ultimate long term.
To lapse in our long term obligations because of short term pain would be the ultimate moral failing. While we as a nation should be very careful about the pitfalls that unvaryingly accompany applying the language of moral capital to warfare, we must also recognize that this is one of those times when it is utterly appropriate.