End Game Looms Nearer in Afghanistan

People’s Voice, Vancouver Bureau

For years, Canadians have been told that “the Taliban are on the back foot” and that victory is near in Afghanistan. Most of us never believed it. Opinion surveys have consistently shown that the majority of Canadians want our troops brought home from this unwinnable war.

The latest news from Kabul confirms that the US-led occupation forces have utterly lost the battle for popular support. Contingents of NATO troops are being pulled out ahead of schedule, with the notable exception of Canada.

The spark for this development was lit when U.S. troops on clean-up duty tossed Korans into a burning pit at Bagram Air Base. Afghan workers rescued some singed pages, and before long, massive protests and riots shook the country. A swift round of apologies and promises by U.S. officials has done nothing to change the mood of an increasingly resentful Afghan public.

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A decade after taking on the “colonial burden”, the U.S. and its allies are paying the political price for an endless string of abuses, torture and killings committed in the name of “freedom”. Before long, the remaining occupation troops may be inside their giant fortified bases, chowing down on expensive western-style fast food. As in Iraq, they may be replaced by western “civilians”, but the signs of imperialist retreat are everywhere.

About 300 U.S. and other NATO advisors were withdrawn from Afghan ministries around Kabul in late February, as fears mounted for their safety. At the same time, the German military decided to speed up plans to abandon a 50-soldier outpost in the north of the country.

The French are also eager to get out since four of their troops were killed (and 16 wounded) by an Afghan army soldier, just weeks after three others were shot by another Afghan in uniform. Both the French and the Germans have also withdrawn civilian advisors from Afghan government institutions.

As Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse wrote in the Tom Dispatch blog on Feb. 28, “Eleven years in, if your forces are still burning Korans in a deeply religious Muslim country, it’s way too late and you should go.” Instead, General John R. Allen, the war commander in Afghanistan, has directed that all U.S. military personnel undergo ten days of sensitivity training in the proper handling of religious materials.

Sensitivity, as Engelhardt and Turse point out, has not been an American strong suit. They point to revelations about the 12-soldier “kill team” that murdered Afghan civilians “for sport,” and then posed for photos with the corpses. Four U.S. Marines videotaped themselves urinating on the bodies of dead Afghans. A U.S. sniper unit proudly sported a Nazi SS banner in another incident, and a U.S. combat outpost was named “Aryan.” British soldiers were filmed abusing children. Eight shepherd boys, aged six to 18, were recently slaughtered in a NATO air strike in Kapisa Province in northern Afghanistan. Afghans have endured years of night raids by special operations forces that break into their homes, violating cultural boundaries and often killing civilians.

These actions have been protested by President Hamid Karzai, who has little power over his own country. And now, more than 30 protesters have been killed in demonstrations against the burning of the Korans.

The New York Times now reports that Afghanistan is “a religious country fed up with foreigners”. Laura King of the Los Angeles Times writes about the “visceral distaste for Western behaviour and values” among significant numbers of Afghans.

Engelhardt and Turse provide details of the blowback against the NATO forces. In a heavily guarded room of the Afghan Interior Ministry in Kabul, the bodies of a U.S. lieutenant colonel and major were recently found, each executed with a shot in the back of the head while at work.

Two other U.S. troops died outside a small American base in Nangarhar Province in the midst of a demonstration in which two protestors were also killed. An Afghan soldier gunned the Americans down and then escaped into the crowd.

In fact, Afghans in police and army uniforms have repeatedly attacked their “allies”. At least 36 U.S. and NATO troops have been killed this way in the past year, far beyond the level of “isolated incidents.” This includes the April 2011 case in which an Afghan air force colonel murdered nine U.S. trainers in a heavily guarded area of Kabul International Airport. His funeral was attended by 1,500 mourners.

The time for “apologies” by the U.S. occupation forces has long passed. Many Afghans are demanding local trials and the death penalty for the Koran burners.

Engelhardt and Turse conclude, “despite its massive firepower and staggering base structure in Afghanistan, actual power is visibly slipping away from the United States. American officials are already talking about not panicking (which indicates that panic is indeed in the air). And in an election year, with the Obama administration’s options desperately limited and what goals it had fast disappearing, it can only brace itself and hope to limp through until November 2012.

“The end game in Afghanistan has, it seems, come into view, and after all these fruitless, bloody years, it couldn’t be sadder. Saddest of all, so much of the blood spilled has been for purposes, if they ever made any sense, that have long since disappeared into the fog of history.”

For Canadians, this terrible tragedy includes 158 deaths among our own troops. When Afghanistan inevitably bids goodbye to NATO, our politicians will be asked: what was it all for? And there is no good answer.

*note: the above article is from the March 16-31, 2012, issue of People’s Voice, Canada’s leading communist newspaper. Articles can be reprinted free if the source is credited. Subscription rates in Canada: $30/year, or $15 low income rate; for U.S. readers – $45 US per year; other overseas readers – $45 US or $50 CDN per year. Send to People’s Voice, c/o PV Business Manager, 706 Clark Drive, Vancouver, BC, V5L 3J1.

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Air Canada Wildcat Sparked by a Sarcastic Exchange

by Stephanie Findlay, Lesley Ciarula Taylor, and Alyshah Hasham
Toronto Star

A sarcastic exchange between Air Canada employees and federal labour minister Lisa Raitt was all it took to set off a nation-wide wildcat strike.

Raitt was walking through Toronto Pearson International Airport Thursday evening when three Air Canada ground workers began heckling her.

“Workers started clapping and saying, ‘Thanks for taking our right to strike,’” said ramp worker Geoff Ward.

The trio was slapped with a three-day suspension. Ultimately, 37 employees received some kind of penalty.

By 10:30 pm, the ground workers, members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), were banding together for a brazen wildcat which would last 13 hours.

Employees in Vancouver, Montreal and Quebec City followed in solidarity, throwing Air Canada’s domestic flight schedule into chaos for the day.

It’s a confrontation nine years in the making. To keep the airline from bankruptcy, unions have agreed for their membership to take pay cuts, delayed pension payments, salary freezes and layoffs.

Today, the company is faring better, but the relationship between management and employees is battered by chronic negotiations, government intervention and talk of a discount airline.

As of Friday evening, the peace between Raitt and the union was tenuous.

“We encourage the parties to resolve this internal dispute, return to work and restore the confidence to the travelling public,” said a statement released by Raitt’s office.

“We’re making our members fully aware that if they decide to walk off the job and protest anything they could be fired,” said IAMAW spokesman Bill Trbovich.

“As it stands right now everyone is back to work with the exception of three guys who were suspended last night,” he said.

“I hesitate to say everything is back to normal.”

Air Canada has been plagued by labour troubles for the past year. The airline and its pilots and mechanics have been in a bitter contract feud that recently prompted the federal government to step in with legislation banning strikes or lockouts at the airline.

Ottawa also had to intervene in contract disputes involving the airline’s flight attendants and its customer service agents.

Air Canada’s stock price remained stable at 82 cents a share, but S&P placed the airline on credit watch with negative implications. The rating agency worried about labour disruption and the possibility Air Canada would be on the hook for severance packages for laid off Aveos employees.

Those booking flights also said the company took a hit.

Travel agent Maria Stenardo booked an April flight for a client whose only request was: “not Air Canada.”

Stenardo, of Etobicoke’s Belview Travel Services, says they are reluctant to book Air Canada flights until the labour dispute is resolved.

“We like Air Canada…but we just wish they’d fix it once and for all, for both parties,” she said.

More than 200 Air Canada flights in and out of Pearson International Airport and dozens more flights in and out of Montreal’s Pierre Trudeau International Airport and the Quebec City and Vancouver airports were hit by the walkouts.

“Lisa Raitt came on one of our flights. Got heckled…Entire ramp walked out at YYZ (Pearson),” said a text received by one striker Thursday night shortly after 10 p.m.

“Corporate security was trying to provoke us,” said baggage worker Pascal Leroux, 43. “The reaction was heavy-handed.”

It turned ugly. An Air Canada customer service employee was spat on by an angry passenger who had been swearing at the picket line.

Police moved in and the spitter came back shortly afterwards to apologize, a man who identified himself as the Air Canada employee’s husband said.

“The public doesn’t understand. They think we’re overpaid monkeys,” said ramp worker Randy Hale.

Striking ground workers were circulating a document explaining their wildcat.

“The use of forced overtime and the systematic and persistent discipline of employees without due process with the heavy-handed tactics they use to intimidate and demoralize the workforce must cease.

“We want a ruling from the CIRB (Canadian Industrial Relations Board) on whether or not we are an essential service.”

Airport workers belonging to the CAW and CUPE unions joined the strikers with signs. A purple bus belonging to CUPE 966 arrived at midmorning with President’s Choice chocolate chip cookies and water.

One customer service worker said she was there because the suspensions “were the icing on the cake. The meat and potatoes of it is that our right to strike has been stripped away.”

The Government of Canada was opposed to the strike, threatening to enforce fines of up to $1,000 a day for employees and $100,000 for the union, IAMAW.

Though most wildcat strikers were working by noon, about a dozen others remained outside. The cluster of militants booed as workers walked through the terminal.

“We’re not going back to work until we get a promise from Air Canada at the negotiating table,” said ground worker Sean Goveas. “The actual issues haven’t been addressed. We won’t go back if any of us are disciplined.”

At Pearson, about 50 people lined up in front of the Tim Hortons counter as stranded passengers clogged Terminal 1.

Sitting nearby was federal Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, whose Toronto to Sudbury flight was cancelled. He called it “regrettable” that passengers were inconvenienced.

Jane Halas’s Vancouver to Ottawa flight stranded her in Toronto en route to visit a sick mother-in-law.

“I think they should be fired. I won’t be flying Air Canada anymore. I’ll be flying WestJet.”

Soon after the job action began, many passengers said they had no idea where their luggage was, or how they were going to get to their destinations. One passenger described the situation at the airport as “a zoo.”

Many people had to leave flights already on the tarmac until management was able take over some baggage handling duties and allow the delayed flights to continue.

In order to facilitate changes to travel plans, Air Canada has revised its ticketing policy for customers booked on flights until Sunday March 25, 2012. Those wishing to rebook can do so free of charge until the last day of April.

Later in the day, an Occupy group briefly set up camp in Lisa Raitt’s Milton office. A Facebook group calling for her resignation also popped up.

The wildcat may be over, but some say the repercussions will linger — at the customer’s expense.

Fred Lazar, an economist at York University’s Schulich School of Business and long-time airline observer, says it would be optimistic to expect smooth sailing when flying on Air Canada.

“Just because you go back to work doesn’t mean you’ll be working all that hard,” he said.

“I think some people will feel ‘why should I care about the customer if my employer doesn’t care about me?’”

*note: with files from Josh Rubin and The Canadian Press. Original article here.

Air Canada Gets Injunction to End Wildcat Strike, Some Workers Defying Order

by Stephanie Findlay, Toronto Star
A man spits onto the face of an Air Canada baggage handler during a a wildcat walkout at Toronto's Pearson International Airport early Friday.
A man spits onto the face of an Air Canada baggage handler during a a wildcat walkout at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport early Friday.  VICTOR BIRO/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A dozen or more striking Air Canada ground workers defied an injunction and their own union Friday to continue a wildcat walkout that snarled air traffic across the country.

By 11:30 a.m., the 13-hour wildcat that spread to other airports was effectively over, but not without throwing Air Canada’s domestic flight schedule into chaos for at least the entire day.

The workers in Toronto walked out Thursday night, after some of them were disciplined for heckling federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt.

Ground workers in Montreal, Quebec City and Vancouver followed for a few hours today in solidarity, further disrupting air traffic.

Air Canada asked for and won a civil injunction at midmorning. Shortly afterwards, the IAMAW (note: International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers) union learned that most of the discipline against 37 workers because of the Raitt incident had been rescinded.

“That’s what we were hoping for,” IAMAW spokesman Bill Trbovich told the Star.

“We don’t condone the strike. This is a sad situation,” he said.

*Editor’s comment: The image above captures very clearly the physical dangers faced by striking workers. Open hostility to organized labour is encouraged by the capitalists and right-wing politicos, often with violent undertones.