Canada Foreign Policy
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
  A Trip to Afghanistan…and What Came Later

He did make it. A few weeks ago PM Stephen Harper went to Afghanistan, on the way to Pakistan, visited with troops, and explained Canada stood firmly behind their mission. On 13 March 2006, speaking to about 1,000 soldiers, he promised we wouldn’t be leaving any time soon, adding “our work is about more than just defending Canada's national interests. Your work is also about demonstrating an international leadership role for our country…There will be some who want to cut and run, but cutting and running is not my way and it's not the Canadian way…We don't make a commitment and then run away at the first sign of trouble. We don't and we will not, as long as I'm leading this country” [Stephen Harper’s speech cited in “Canada Committed to Afghan Mission, Harper Tells Troops,” CBC, 13 March 2006. Story posted at].

Some had described his arrival as a “surprise,” though the story of his intention to visit the war-torn Central Asian state had gone public well in advance. Certainly the details of when he would set foot in the country were kept well guarded, though signs surfaced days and weeks beforehand that Harper would honour his word and appear in Kandahar. A team of Tory advisors, media noted, had embarked on a scouting mission sometime around early March. In addition, major Canadian networks sent their anchors and news teams there to report for the week or so just preceding the visit.

At first, there seemed to be a unanimous response to what Harper had done. His actions were brave, showed resolve, and for days he, celebrated in mainstream media accounts, became the closest thing to a hero parts of Canada had seen in many years. But that didn’t last.

By the end of the month, he seems to be on the defensive. He even acknowledges he has trouble comprehending why some Canadians feel the military should not even be in Afghanistan. Speaking during a television interview, Harper stated he simply didn’t fully understand those Canadians who seem to oppose the mission. “In this case, I'm not sure what the case would be for not being there…The entire world signed on to this mission when, because of the former regime in Afghanistan, thousands of people were killed in New York City, including a couple of dozen Canadian citizens…They brought home to us how real the threat of terror is to our own country” [Harper cited in Brian Laghi’s “Afghanistan is ‘Our War’ Too, Harper Says,” The Globe and Mail, 25 March 2006. Story posted at].

Certainly for a rather long time Canadians have been given opportunities to grow accustomed to the idea of troops in Afghanistan. And just how did that happen? More specifically, just how was it resolved that soldiers were to be deployed? It seems that as the Canadian constitutional order has evolved, so have certain powers and authorities been transferred to different centres. A long time ago, the monarch could simply send for soldiers. As the King’s (Queen’s) powers waned, the right to deploy troops devolved to the PM. And so former Liberal PM Paul Martin decided to partake in the Afghan conflict. No debate, I believe, was necessary, though Martin did not conceal any of intentions. In fact, the Commons was notified, there was an informational debate, and what followed was an almost deafening lack of interest by politicians and media at the time.

But over the past month or so, media coverage of war zones, notably Iraq and Afghanistan, has picked up. For the most part, what’s missing is coherent analysis. There are human-interest stories, featuring issues such as the life of a soldier in Afghanistan. The hostage rescue in Iraq made headline news for a few days [See, for example, Reuters 29 March 2006. Story posted at], and since stories from or about that country have fallen off the front page. Most interestingly, about a few weeks ago, there were reports featuring Landstuhl, Germany. The US military hospital is located there, and the implication may have been that Canadians, given circumstances, need to be more familiar with that facility [On this point, see coverage posted on the Free Dominion website. Search ‘Landstuhl’ at]. And indeed, casualties are mounting; all signs suggest this trend will not be reversed any time soon [See, for example, “Edmonton-based Soldier Killed in Taliban Attack,” CanWest News Service, 29 March 2006. Story posted at].

And then there’s the debate issue. Now some leaders are on record saying that given the recently changed nature of the mission in Afghanistan, there must be public discussion. The response from the Harper government is to say no debate will be held. The troops are there now, says the PM, and any second-guessing would only serve to undermine their resolve and morale. After some dithering, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay now agrees. The Bloc foreign affairs critic and several members of the NDP caucus are on record calling for a debate, noting that a change in the mission requires this. As for undermining troop morale? Those who call for the parliamentary debate suggest it be focused more on educating an ill-informed Canadian public, an aim they say could in no way translate into a negative impact on the troops. And what about the Liberals? At this stage, Afghanistan may be important to them, but resolving internal frictions and deciding on a new leader are the priorities. Former Liberal Health Minister Ujjal Dosanj has called for debate, but Liberal foreign affairs critic Stephane Dion agrees with Harper.

So far NDP Leader Jack Layton seems to be most persistent in calling for a public discussion over what’s happening in and around Kandahar. Just days ago he observed that “when the decision was made, actually in the middle of the election, that through NATO there would be a new deployment and Canadian soldiers would be sent to the south of Afghanistan, we suggested at that time it would be important to have a debate as soon as Parliament could convene…We need to support our troops by making sure that we're very, very clear as Canadians what the mission is and, of course, it originally was supposed to be a NATO mission, but NATO has not taken charge yet” [Quoted in “Layton Demands Debate Over Afghanistan Mission,” CTV News, 26 March 2006. Story posted at].

But what of any analysis of what’s taking place in the Central Asian country? For instance, what might be the motives behind the calls to hold a public debate? Is there even anything realistic behind any assumption there may be a possibility, given logistics, that Canadian troops now can withdraw? And, perhaps most important, does making one trip to Afghanistan and insisting on no debate amount to an actual foreign policy?

Posted by Stan Markotich
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