torture in afghanistan: who are our enemies?

my vancouver blogger friend jonathan narvey has a discussion about the current allegations that the canadian military looked the other way when people they had detained in afghanistan were transferred to afghani prisons where the canadian military knew, or should have known, that the detainees would be tortured. please see jonathan’s article and various comments, including two from myself, here.

among others, jonathan referred to the taliban as “our enemies.” to that i said:

they are not OUR enemies. they are the enemies of a country in dire need of peace and democracy. our enemies, as the enemies of the world all over, are despotism, poverty, fanaticism, lack of education, misogyny and war.

jonathan replied that

our enemies are more than conceptual

i’d like to use this space to think about this a bit.

“the problem is the problem. people are not the problem” is one tenet frequently cited in psychology, in various forms (e.g. “i like you but not your behaviour XYZ.”)

so i see three things right now:

1. if we want to move away from the conceptual then we have to admit that “enemies” refers to people. who are these people? THE taliban? (or in the past, THE russians, THE germans, etc.) “the” taliban is a movement – a vague word if there ever was one – comprised of people from afghanistan and pakistan as well as uzbekistan, chechnya, etc. what we know about movements, especially authoritarian ones, is that the vast majority of people involved in them became members not because of sober decisionmaking but because of necessity, sentimentality (e.g. misunderstood religiosity/fanaticism), coercion or other unsavoury reasons. is the 13-year-old hero-worshipping boy our enemy? the father of 9 children who doesn’t know how to feed them? the grandfather who was told in no uncertain ways that he needs to join or else?

no, “the” taliban are not my enemies.

2. in fact, the word “enemy” does not work for me. as soon as i have an enemy, i give myself permission to treat her or him as unworthy of living. “the enemy” is not my problem.

3. but i agree that abstract concepts are not useful either.

so why don’t we say it like that:

people who rape, maltreat, murder, beat, torture, subjugate and commit other crimes need to be stopped and measures need to be put in place to prevent them from committing more crimes – through rehabilitation, incarceration or a combination of them.  (not through torture)

some of these people are in afghanistan. not all of them.  some of them are taliban. not all of them.

i am grateful that our military is trying to deal with the people who literally commit crimes against humanity.  it’s a very difficult job.  in all difficult jobs, mistakes are made.  i think it’s possible that one of the mistakes was to hand over detainees to prisons where torture was commonplace.  we need to look at that because if we don’t we, too, commit an act of criminal negligence.


  1. What an amazing number of words all concerned have used to say two simple things:

    “I, personally, don’t like torture. I want everyone to stop doing it.”

    From the opinion “I don’t like torture” arises the desire “everyone stop doing it.”

    Naturally, that desire will go unfulfilled, for those who torture hold different opinions about it.

    “A flower withers even though we love it. A weed grows even though we do not not love it.”

    From unfulfilled desire arises all suffering.

  2. Hey Isabella, I just wanted to respond briefly to your points. I’m glad to see that you are generally understanding of the reasons for our involvement in Afghanistan, and also have a grasp of the challenging environment our soldiers and aid workers and those of 30 nations are laboring under.

    My main point is still that these allegations are still just that, allegations. I’m sick of politicians insulting our intelligence while pushing transparent agendas that have little to do with helping Afghans or our own mission and much to do with gaining temporary political advantage.
    .-= Jonathon Narvey´s last blog ..Why is the Political Opposition So Eager to Believe Our Enemies? =-.

  3. jonathon, i am always tickled pink when i can have a civilized and respectful exchange with someone who has different views than mine. so thank you.

    someone from amnesty international who was interviewed on CBC today made this point:

    what does a lone diplomat have to gain from trying to expose this? very little, and it doesn’t help his career at all. so if he’s smart, he doesn’t do this without evidence. and what do high-up military personnel, including the defence minister, have by to gain by dismissing and covering this up? a lot.

  4. Hi Isabella,

    Wonderfully stated.

    It occurs to me that when society collectively ascribe to the notion of “enemy” they dehumanize the group referred to as the enemy. The horrible truth is how can another country change the trajectory of actions within a country that is based on minimizing human Right’s of their citizens.

    An up hill battle for sure.
    .-= Angelina´s last blog ..The Children’s Republic =-.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *