The war in Afghanistan is a cause, rather than a symptom, of Canada’s democratic deficit.
On Dec. 30, 2009, Canada found itself temporarily without a legislative branch of government, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament, dissolving all parliamentary committees and nullifying 36 bills on the parliamentary agenda. The Prime Minister’s Office claimed it was done to provide time for consultation with Canadians about the forthcoming budget, a claim that was viewed with some skepticism.
As it happens, one of the highest-profile parliamentary initiatives cancelled by the prorogation was a public-interest hearing called by the Military Police Complaints Commission to discuss the Canadian military’s treatment of prisoners during its counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan. By shutting down Parliament, the government was able to sidestep its ability to inquire into whether the military was complicit in torture.
What has remained under-examined in the national conversation about this event is that for a nation at war, this is not uncharted territory. In fact, there are distinct historical precedents for activity of this kind by governments carrying out counter-insurgency operations abroad. Counter-insurgency is a particularly messy, ugly business, and successful prosecution of a counter-insurgency campaign usually involves the adoption of a number of tactics that are difficult to reconcile with the legal requirements of modern-day warfare.
Furthermore, the stakes in war are high enough that transparency itself can come to be viewed as an obstacle or even a weakness. For these reasons, military occupations have a particular and pernicious set of pressures that they exert on democratic institutions and open societies. Throughout the history of modern warfare, different countries have responded to these pressures with varying tactics – and varying degrees of success.
The past century has furnished numerous examples of the different ways these pressures can manifest themselves. Some of the most extreme examples are quite notorious. In 1921, after Spain’s disastrous military debacle at Annual in the mountainous Moroccan Rif, a magistrate named Juan Picasso was authorized to examine what had happened and bring charges against those responsible.
His subsequent inquiry had to carry on despite being impeded at every step by the military, which used all available mechanisms to deny access to documents and insulate the higher-ranked officials from investigation. In 1923, just before his report was to be published, the liberal Spanish regime was overthrown in a coup d’état by the military dictatorship of Primo de Rivera.
Such a thing could never happen in Canada, a country whose democratic institutions are rooted in tradition and much less brittle. However, it remains a fact that public opinion is a powerful force, and the more the public knows about a counter-insurgency campaign, the less likely they are to support it. For this reason, governments have long known that they must control information flowing from the sites of conflict where their troops are active.
In 1921, the Italian government, whose occupation of Libya was beset with difficulties and public criticism, began its most successful phase of reconquest using a simple tactic: All new military initiatives were to be simply called “police actions.”
Having insulated itself from public criticism, the Italian government commenced an increasingly aggressive and deadly campaign against the civilian populations of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, eventually resorting to pillage, aerial bombardment, internment camps, and the widespread use of mustard gas. Under the Fascist regime that took power in 1923, public knowledge of the war effort was entirely mediated through propaganda and misinformation, conditions under which the conflict grew to enjoy high levels of public support.
In comparison with the above examples, the Canadian government’s obstructionism toward Parliament is less alarming, and certainly has less immediately dire implications. Canada does not face the same combination of anti-democratic pressures as Spain or Italy in the 1920s, when fascism was ideologically ascendant. However, voters must recognize that counter-insurgency campaigns almost always exert these kinds of pressures on democratic and open institutions. Some of the world’s most infamous dictatorships were forged in the fires of asymmetric warfare, driven by the belief that liberal democracy itself was an impediment to victory.
In more recent history, democratic countries such as the United Kingdom, Israel, and the United States have developed sophisticated techniques for preventing their military campaigns from damaging the functioning of domestic civil institutions, but this has required a number of constitutional and juridical “fixes” legalizing certain military practices and interrogation techniques, some of which have done lasting damage to their reputations at home and abroad.
The countervailing impulse, the impulse to obfuscate and deflect scrutiny of counter-insurgency operations, is a perennial one that cuts to the heart of just how difficult it is for an open society to successfully engage in asymmetric warfare.
Democracy and counter-insurgency warfare are not natural companions and nearly always lead an uneasy coexistence. The Canadian government’s continued reticence to disclose information about the war in Afghanistan shows that the ongoing war is a cause, rather than a symptom, of the current political climate that has led Canadians to worry about the integrity of their democratic institutions. The road of occupation and counter-insurgency is a dangerous one, and many governments before ours have discovered this the hard way.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.