Canadian-organized airlift needed to bring food, medical provisions to Afghanistan

A Canadian-organized airlift this winter of food and medical provisions for Kabul could save some of Afghanistan’s 40-million population and signal Canada’s support for global internationalism.

Afghan women, pictured May 7, 2012, lining up at a UN World Food Program Distribution Point in Herat, Afghanistan. The onerous 14-year military commitment by Canada to Afghanistan means we need to spearhead emergency solutions for Afghanistan’s bereft citizens, before millions of deaths occur this winter due to famine and mass starvation, writes Erika Simpson. 
Photograph courtesy of Flickr/United Nations/Eric Kanalstein

The well of human sympathy upon seeing Kabul’s international airport besieged has dried up too quickly. Pleas to heed the chorus of desperate Afghans are falling on deaf ears. Now U.S. President Joseph Biden’s problem is how to handle Trump-like criticisms, as he lurches toward the next election. While the United States and NATO discuss the lessons learned from the past and whether to stay out of the Central Asian area, we should take swifter action here in Canada.

The onerous 14-year military commitment by Canada to Afghanistan means we need to spearhead emergency solutions for Afghanistan’s bereft citizens, before millions of deaths occur this winter due to famine and mass starvation. And there are other reasons for Canada to act quickly.

The United States provided some of the most sophisticated weapons to the Afghanistan National Army but their state-of-the-art war toys, and the French-supplied $300-million air defence system, proved to be an ineffective deterrent against the Taliban’s war-honed system of guerrilla tactics including the inhumane method of utilizing suicide bombers.

Billions of dollars of U.S. equipment were either disabled, destroyed, or buried in farmer’s fields (so France’s secret agreement not to resupply the air defence system could be precedent-setting). The international community must try to embargo Afghanistan, but it will be nigh impossible to prevent arms traders in Pakistan from flooding the countryside with more ammunition, small arms, and light weapons.

The endemic corruption and the ongoing drug trade in opium, valued at $350-million in 2020, fuelled the army’s deficiencies so that raw recruits and professionally-trained military personnel took off their uniforms in the face of no food, water, or weapons.

Freezing all of Afghanistan’s financial assets, including its humanitarian aid means the black market and illicit supply of opium seeds could glut the worldwide drug supply until North American laboratories create more synthetically-manufactured inexpensive drugs, like fentanyl and crystal meth.

At NATO headquarters, questions in the wake of more than $1-trillion the U.S. spent on Afghanistan may necessitate explaining the debacle in Afghanistan as due to a 20-year lack of discussion of NATO’s “vital interest;” to a gradual onset of “mission creep;” and to a necessity to confine NATO’s turf wars to a reassessment of the United States’ and its allies’ vital interests.

While NATO policy-makers engage in historical revisionism, the fall of Afghanistan will have broader implications for NATO’s behaviour in the Far East, including NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s earlier recommendation last June that China’s expanding sphere of influence demand a stronger response.

Now power politics, and the great powers’ recognition that Afghanistan possesses vast mineral resources, estimated at between $1-trillion and $3-trillion, as well as the country’s strategic situation as a centuries-old traversing area, important to global trading routes, means China’s rumoured attempts to rebuild the war-torn country, now primarily ruled by the Taliban could be met by concerted international opposition or NATO could turn a blind eye to developments in Afghanistan until the next huge crisis.

When the U.S. was deployed in Afghanistan, the status quo combined with institutional ennui, standard operating procedures, and humanitarian boredom reigned. But now a power vacuum of sorts will have to be filled, possibly on the pretext that an increasingly imminent threat from ISIS and al-Qaeda requires the U.S. to strike their positions pre-emptively. The myths surrounding Osama bin Laden still predominate in Americans’ collective memory, so a secretly-planned coup d’état that somehow kills most Taliban leaders might be possible.

In the wake of any such American- or Afghan-engineered military coup, could there be democratic elections and the reflow of billions of dollars of humanitarian aid? Doubtful, as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s three-week long raid of government coffers—so he could lift off in a helicopter laden with $169-million U.S. dollars—indicates that embezzlement and high-end corruption are so endemic, all Afghans at every echelon of decision-making cannot be trusted.

Nor can American officials—who wavered, vacillated, and chose total withdrawal based on spurious time-dictated conditions—rather than the well-advised conditions-based approach. Also to blame for the terrible debacle were abrupt firings and strategic failure in the U.S. military. Searing images that went viral around the world of women handing over babies to U.S. soldiers in the chaos of the airlift continue to be marred further by painful news about the deaths of 13 U.S. Marines.

Afghanistan has no culture of peace, and even the concept of buffer zones of peace or village counsels peopled by women, combined with bottom-up approach of integral development failed. Generations of illiterate women beaten by their domestic partners will have no energy to wilfully demand democratic decision-making.

One option might be to quarantine and contain the country so that pockets of terrorism do not spread in a Petri dish of desperation. A weak ally in the battle against jihadist terrorism, Pakistan will continue to funnel containment-breakers. Using drones, a land invasion would probably fail from lack of will within the international community. Even if we wait for a credible ISIS threat (or let’s say the pretext of a credible threat from biological weapons) a land invasion and air power attacks would have to prepare for a war footing next spring; whilst the United Nations warns millions of Afghan children are going to die this winter.

The surfeit of journalists from the West and Al-Jazeera means Afghans will suffer without us knowing, and new crises in Belarus combined with the COVID pandemic mean they will die in vain. Air drops of food packages and medicine are a possible solution from last century’s Berlin airlift; but the NATO allies do not perceive Afghans as precious citizenry. Former U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s famous declaration that, “Ich bin ein Berliner,”—translated into “Ich bin ein Afghaner”—might never work because Afghanistan—unlike East Germany—is still seen by Westerners as “the other,” woefully overpopulated, illiterate, and culturally inferior.

All this means that a Canadian-organized airlift this winter of food and medical provisions for Kabul could save more than Afghanistan’s population—it could tell the world that Canada matters and global internationalism still matters.

Erika Simpson is a professor of international politics at Western University and the president of the Canadian Peace Research Association.