The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in Afghanistan

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By Matt Wells

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In Canada, we are fortunate in that we did not involve ourselves in the American-led debacle in Iraq. Lucky for us, the Prime Minister in charge at the time the war was launched had no interest in involving himself in such a foolish enterprise. We did, however, buy into the idea that Afghanistan had to be "liberated", and sent a nominal military force in to help with the NATO mission.

Six years on, Afghanistan is about as much of a mess as Iraq, though the chaos is of a lower intensity. Several dozen of our soldiers have died over the past few years: a large number considering we only have a couple of thousand of troops on the ground. Our current right-wing Conservative government, however, led by our America-loving Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has been trying to use this fruitless war as a means to promote a more hawkish foreign agenda. As such, it has been using some creative means of propaganda to mask the reality of what is going on half a world away.

"Progress" is the watchword whenever Canadians suffer additional casualties in Afghanistan. Political and military leaders rush in front of the cameras to remind us of the "remarkable improvements" being made on the ground thanks to our soldiers. The deaths of our troops are necessary sacrifices to be made in the name of advancing Afghan society, they say.

So how is this society being advanced, exactly? Familiar themes are brought out each time through the news cycle. Infrastructure is being built. Roads where there were no roads before. Schools where there were no schools. Women's rights are another big bragging point. Women can walk through the streets with impunity. They can get educated. They can play sports. This is what Canadians are helping to accomplish.

As for those doing the killing, they're being put to flight. They may swoop into some village and rule the roost for a while, but eventually our brave men and women chase them away, and peace is restored. The heroes defeat the bad guys, and the locals rejoice.

These stories may sound as if they have a Hollywood ring to them. In fact, the themes they incorporate are pulled straight out of the Western genre. In the classic Western movie (and novel, for that matter), a group of baddies besieges the innocent men and women that dwell in some sort of rustic, desolate setting. In the old days, these bad guys were usually Native Americans, but in more sensitive times, the classic "men in black hats" emerged: outlaws, corrupt officials, powerful landowners and the like. Men who hate good, honest folks, and the good, honest lives that they led.

Our Canadian troops, then, play the roles of sheriffs and their posses. They protect law and order against the forces of evil and anarchy on the wild frontier (it doesn't hurt that rural Afghanistan very much resembles the typical Western setting, at least on television.) To suggest that we should pull of out Afghanistan, then, would be tantamount to suggesting that Wyatt Earp and his men should have abandoned Tombstone instead of staying to fight at the O. K. Corral.

Images can be powerful tools of propaganda. This is not to suggest that they images of Afghanistan that are presented to us are completely misleading. But those that defend the mission do so by telling a very specific story. The narrative they present therefore distorts many of the details, and leaves out certain significant plot points.

The biggest lie of the Western genre, of course, is that the settlers of the towns and farmsteads were living in an "untamed" wilderness. The part of the story that is left out is the fact that they were inhabiting land that had already been claimed by an emerging superpower, a superpower that was adamant in extending its control over all the territory between its Atlantic and Pacific borders. The big battles over this territory were fought by the United States military against the Native Americans that resisted them. The so-called "Indian Wars" won the west for America, not the deeds of Wyatt Earp.

Westerns present a romanticized, localized view of western expansion. This is why the themes of the genre are so readily adopted by those defending the Canadian mission in Afhganistan. By presenting our soldiers as modern-day sheriffs, and the Afghan people as honest, innocent folk, they tap into a narrative that most Canadians already know, and that many of them enjoy.

Even those that are aware of the historical inaccuracies of Westerns often still like them for the sheer visceral thrills they can provide. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West are still great movies, even if they don't present authentic depictions of the American West. A story about Canadian troops that uses the same conventions as a good Western can provide the same enjoyment, and therefore present a positive image of our mission.

Obscured in these tales of Canadian daring-do, of course, is the larger picture, as it is with the Western genre. Rather than concealing the heavy hand of a powerful centralized government, however, those that promote our Afghanistan project are attempting to paper over the larger questions related to the country's social, political and economic development.

So far, its prospects are looking bleak. President Hamid Karzai has proven to be largely incapable of convincing the bulk of his people to support him. Local fundamentalist groups still terrorize much of the countryside. Women are harassed as much as they ever have been in many places. Karzai and his officials have been accused both of corruption and of general ineptness. While he was technically elected into office, his rise to power seems to have stemmed largely from his good timing in supporting the American invasion of his country in the fall of 2001.

There remains, moreover, the larger question of what sort of nation Afghanistan is to become. Are we expecting it to become a prosperous ally of Canada, the United States, and the West just because it held elections? The world is riddled with examples of places where people can (or could) vote, but where they remain impoverished and often terrorized. Are we expecting Afghanistan to become an economic power just because we want it to? The West became powerful by a process of wealth accumulation going back centuries, a process in which much of the rest of the world, including Afghanistan, suffered. While other, more prosperous places still struggle to emerge out of this imbalance, it is hard to imagine Afghanistan being able to do so anytime soon.

But the beauty of a compelling narrative is that those issues that could potentially spoil it are easily dismissed. So don't expect to hear much about Afghanistan's macroeconomic problems the next time our mission is discussed by those in charge of it. Rather, expect to hear more of the same about the Clint Eastwood-style heroics of our cowboy soldiers.