Tag Archives: afghanistan

Torturing Afghan Prisoners: Blind and Dangerous

As most (Canadian) readers are probably aware by now (American readers will probably still be interested), yesterday, a senior Canadian diplomat, Richard Colvin, testified to Members of Parliament that Canadian soldiers regularly detained innocent Afghan citizens and then handed them over to Afghan authorities who they knew would torture them. In short, the Canadian government has become knowingly complicit in torturing and violating the human rights of Afghan citizens.

These allegations are serious. They present numerous problems, but I’d like to highlight two: first, that our government has evolved to become willfully blind to torture; and second, that as a result, we jeopardize the Afghan mission and increase the risks to the lives of our own soldiers.

Willfully Blind:

Only slightly less distressing than learning (again) that the Canadian military was allegedly handing civilians over to local authorities who then tortured them is how the Conservatives – once so proud of the public service whistle blower legislation they helped pass – now seem intent on ignoring the issue and tarring the whistle-blower.

It is eerie to read Tory MP Jim Abbott get quoted in the Globe as saying “Out of 5,000 Canadians who have travelled through there, at least in that period of time, you were the one single person who is coming forward with this information. So you will forgive me if I am skeptical.” Of course, the fact that Richard Colvin testified that senior public servants were instructing him and others to not share or record this information is perhaps one of the reason why Mr. Abbott never heard of the problem. But then, Mr. Colvin has not been alone in raising this issue; the Red Cross and Amnesty International both tried to inform the government about this problem, to no avail.

Indeed as Paul Wells has aptly written, the Conservative machine has now embraced what he terms “the bucket defence” and is doing everything it can to sow confusion and claim this is not an issue. (Rather than trying to figure out how it is that Canadians were handing Afghan citizens over to Afghan authorities with full knowledge that they would get tortured). This is not only irresponsible, it demonstrates a lack of respect for the rule of law and human rights, and accountable government. It is also downright dangerous.

Dangerous to the mission and our soldiers:

The Globe article also included this still more frightening quote from Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant. She worries: “The fanning of the fames of outrage over allegations [of torture], however unproven, are really having the desired effect on the Canadian people of wanting our troops to return even quicker.” Note here, the truth is irrelevant, it matters not whether we are complicit in the torture of Afghans, what matters are polling numbers and support for the mission.

It was a very similar response to these allegations by the Prime Minister back in March of 2007 that prompted me to write this blog post on why torturing one’s enemies increases the dangers to your own soldiers. The post was subsequently republished as a opinion piece in the Toronto Star, and since, sadly, it still relevant today, two years later, I’ve reposted it below:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comments regarding the Liberal’s “passion” for the Taliban was more than just a new low point in Canadian political debate – it also reveals the government’s disturbingly shallow grasp of the strategy and tactics necessary to win in Afghanistan.

For the sake of both our military and the mission, the Prime Minister would be wise to read lieutenant David Grossman’s landmark book, On Killing. In the book, Grossman, a U.S. Army lieutenant-colonel and professor at West Point, describes the psychological implications of killing, both legally and illegally, in battle.

Of specific interest to the Prime Minister would be the psychological argument and historical evidence that explain why adhering to the Geneva Conventions and treating PoWs humanely is of supreme strategic and tactical importance to any organized army. In short, enemy forces are much more willing to surrender when secure in the knowledge that in doing so they will be treated fairly and humanely. Enemies that believe otherwise are likely to fight to the death and inflict greater casualities even in a losing effort.

During World War II, the Allies’ adherence to the Geneva Convention resulted in German soldiers surrendering to U.S. forces in large numbers. This was in sharp contrast to the experience of the Soviets, who cared little for PoWs.

But one need not go back 60 years for evidence. Lieutenant Paul Rieckhoff, who fought in Iraq and then founded and became executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, makes a similar argument regarding today’s conflicts.

Prior to the Abu Ghraib debacle, he noted how “(O)n the streets of Baghdad, I saw countless insurgents surrender when faced with the prospect of a hot meal, a pack of cigarettes and air-conditioning. America’s moral integrity was the single most important weapon my platoon had on the streets. It saved innumerable lives …”

When MPs and ordinary Canadians ask questions about the treatment of Afghan prisoners they don’t do so out of contempt, but out of a deep respect and concern for Canadian soldiers. Canadians know we can ill afford to treat enemy combatants inhumanely. They know this because it is in opposition to our values and our very purpose in Afghanistan.

However, they also know there is a compelling military reason: It would rob our soldiers of possibly their single most important tactical and strategic tool – moral integrity. Without this, who knows how many Canadian lives will be needlessly lost in battles where an insurgent, believing that surrender is tantamount to execution, instead opts to fight to the death.

The Prime Minister may believe that talking like a cowboy about the Taliban and human rights make the government appear tough. But in reality, it only makes it dangerous, both to the mission, and our soldier’s lives.

Which University will be smart enough to make Masoda Younasy an offer?

Yesterday, Michael Adams pointed me to this great story in the Globe and Mail about the Masoda Younasy – the granddaughter of Afghanistan’s former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah – who, because she created and ran her own construction business, advocated for reform and mused about entering politics has had death threats hurled against her.

In an extraordinary move, Canada has offered her a permit to live here while her life is at risk. A fantastic start.

So what does she want to do? According to the article:

…her aim is to attend a Canadian university and obtain a political-science degree she might some day put to use in her home country.

What an amazing opportunity. Not only for Ms. Younasy, but for Canadians and, more specifically, the university smart enough and agile enough to offer her a speedy enrollment. My own preference is that Queen’s, which is home to the Centre for the Study of Democracy, might make her an offer. Here is a women keen on bringing democracy and opportunity to a country that has seen little of either – her goals couldn’t be more aligned with those of the institution and her perspective and experience would greatly enrich the discussions in all her classes.

These are the types of opportunities that are easily missed, often because the long term opportunities and benefits – to the student, the university and the country – get trumped by bureaucracy and lack of vision. Well, for those who wonder if it is worthwhile, take note that unwittingly done something similar before and everyone was better off because of it.

The Conference of Defence Associations – Thinktank?

So I really wanted to write on Public Service Sector Renewal after last thursday speech – but it will have to wait a day or two because…

On Saturday I received my weekly email from the Conference of Defence Associations (CDA) with links to the week’s various defence related articles. Normally each article includes a link, a descriptive sentence and more rarely, a guide to the piece’s most relevant paragraphs or chapters. I was pleased to see that it included Taylor and I’s Embassy Magazine op-ed on the potential impact of aerial bombing on the insurgencies in Afghanistan.

I was displeasing however, to see that our article was the only one that included an editorial comment warning CDA members about or piece’s thesis. Below is a brief sample the suggested articles, ours is at the very end.

Much has been made in the media in the last week about reports that Canadian military personnel were ‘negotiating’ or ‘reaching out’ to the Taliban. Tara Brautigam for the Canadian Press reports Defence Minister’s Peter MacKay’s denial that Canadian soldiers were doing so, while Ryan Cormier for Canwest writes that Canadian soldiers’ outreach activities to Afghan civilians may have been misconstrued as negotiations with the Taliban.

Colin Freeze in the Globe and Mail reports on the issue of rules surrounding CSIS activities in Afghanistan.

James Travers in the Toronto Star explores the ability of individuals with “smarts and chutzpah,” such as General Rick Hillier and Auditor General Sheila Fraser, to “lever limited institutional authority into sweeping informal influence.”

Taylor Owen and David Eaves in Embassy draw parallels between the impact of aerial bombardment of Cambodia in the late 1960s and early 1970s and today in Afghanistan. The CDA urges its readers to not draw hasty parallels between two very different conflicts.

Glad to know that the CDA is there to inform their readers what to think.

This would conform with a larger trend however. I’ve noticed that the CDA tends to highlight articles that praise the Canadian military and more importantly, the mission in Afghanistan, rather than those that cast a critical eye. If it really is a clearing house for debate on the military you’d think that articles critical of the mission, and its execution, would more frequently find their way into its email list. While I haven’t done a statistical sampling, my anecdotal survey suggest they do not. When they do, they often include editorial comments from the Executive Director downplaying them.

If you are interested in this debate others have questioned the independence of the CDA, noting that it receives significant funding from the Department of National Defence (ay $100,000 a year at last check), and others have defended it.

For myself, both perspectives are correct. Although the CDA has been broadly supportive of the Afghan mission it has, at times, provided throughtful critiques. But I’m not concerned by the CDA’s discussions about how the war is prosecuted, this is at least a defence related issue. What I am concerned about is the CDA’s discussions about if the war should be prosecuted, as these are often political issues. A scan of the webpage of the CDA’s publications on Afghanistan reveals several letters and articles outlining why Canada should be in Afghanistan and why it shouldn’t pull out. Again, these are political decisions. It strikes me as problematic that an agency directly funded by the government echoes that government’s position (both Liberal and Conservative) while presenting itself to the press and public as independent.

Afghanistan Another Iraq? Try Another Cambodia

Taylor and I had the following oped published in this week’s Embassy magazine.

Afghanistan Another Iraq? Try Another Cambodia

By Taylor Owen and David Eaves

Of the many complexities to emerge from our mission in Afghanistan, one is particularly troublesome. Almost one-third of the Taliban recently interviewed by a Canadian newspaper claimed that at least one family member had died in aerial bombings in recent years, and many described themselves as fighting to defend Afghan villagers from air strikes by foreign troops.

This should come as no surprise. Last year, the UN reported that over 1,500 civilian were killed in Afghanistan. In the first half 2007, this casualty rate had increased by 50 per cent. The NGO community and NATO remain at odds over who is accountable for a majority of these deaths.

What is indisputable, however, is that air sorties have increased dramatically. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, sorties doubled from 6,495 in 2004 to 12,775 in 2007. More critically, aircraft today are 30 times more likely to drop their payloads than in 2004.

Civilian deaths are a moral tragedy. Equally importantly, however, they represent a critical strategic blunder. It has long been known that civilian casualties benefit insurgencies, who recruit fighters with emotional pleas. While an airstrike in a village may kill a senior Taliban, even a single civilian casualty can turn the community against the coalition for a generation.

This presents military commanders with an immensely challenging dilemma: Accept greater casualties in a media environment where any and all are scrutinized, or use counterproductive tactics that will weaken the enemy in the moment, but strengthen him over the long term.

While the choice is almost impossibly difficult, it is not new. Surprisingly, the case of U.S. air strikes in Cambodia offers a chilling parallel.

Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped over 2.7 million tonnes of munitions on Cambodia, making it potentially the most bombed country in history.

While the scale is shocking, the strategic costs were devastating. Over the course of the bombing period, the Khmer Rouge insurgency grew from an impotent force of 5,000 rural fighters to an army of over 200,000, capable of defeating a U.S.-backed government.

Recent research has shown a direct connection between casualties caused by the bombings and the rise of the insurgency.

Because Lon Nol, Cambodia’s president at the time, supported the U.S. air war, the bombing of Cambodian villages and the significant civilian casualties it caused provided ideal recruitment rhetoric for the insurgent Khmer Rouge.

As civilian casualties grew, the Khmer Rouge shifted their rhetoric from that of a Maoist agrarian revolution to anti-imperialist populism.

This change in strategy achieved stunning results. As one survivor explained:

“Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters…. Terrified and half-crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told…. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them.”

Compare this to what one Taliban fighter explained to a Globe and Mail researcher: “The non-Muslims are unjust and have killed our people and children by bombing them, and that’s why I started jihad against them. They have killed hundreds of our people, and that’s why I want to fight against them.”

The coalition risks repeating the same mistakes, and like the Khmer Rouge 30 years ago, the Taliban are capitalizing on its misguided tactics.

Amazingly, in Cambodia, American administration knew of the strategic costs of the bombing. The CIA’s Directorate of Operations reported during the war that the Khmer Rouge were “using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda.” Yet blinded by grandeurs of military might, the sorties continued.

The Khmer Rouge forced the U.S. out of Phnom Penh, took over the country, and the rest is a tragic history.

We know our tactics in Afghanistan have a similar effect. Civilian casualties drive a generation into the hands of an insurgency we are there to oppose.

Initially Canada deployed without Leopard tanks and CF-18s with the goal of prioritizing personal engagement and precision over brute military might. Today, however, our allies’ tactics—and increasingly our own—do not adequately reflect strategic costs incurred by civilian causalities. In addition, Canada has not allied itself with other NATO members—particularly the British—to reign in the coalition’s counterproductive use of aerial bombings.

Cambodia offers a powerful example of aerial warfare run amok. What is Canada doing to ensure we don’t relive the failures of the past?

Taylor Owen is an Action Canada fellow and a Trudeau Scholar at the University of Oxford. David Eaves is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen’s University.

Afghanistan: Tears are not enough, but neither are troops

Taylor Owen and Patrick Travers had a nice op-ed published in Saturday’s Toronto Star. Entitled, “2011 is a date, not a goal” it drives to the heart of the debate we aren’t having on Afghanistan.

It increasingly feels that in referencing the “Afghan Mission” the “mission” part has been lost somewhere. It is as though simply being in Afghanistan has become an end in of itself. This should not the case. We have a mission there, one that it would be nice if the government articulated from time to time and that it would talk to the public about whether or not we were getting closer or further away from achieving it.

Why we are having the wrong debate on Afghanistan

Why is it that we continue to see the Afghanistan mission through the lens of peacekeeping, as opposed to peacebuilding? This fact seems to underlie and shape the entire debate – forcing us to ask the wrong questions and driving all our political parties to poorly thought out solutions.

Take, for example, the new Liberal position that insists on a non-combat role. As Rosie Dimanno points out in a recent Toronto Star article the number of Canadian troops killed in combat in Afghanistan last year was 0. 12 were killed by improvised explosive and 11 by roadside bombs and land mines. In addition there have been deaths from accidents. But there has not been a single combat death since Sept 3. 2006. One is forced to ask… why insist on a non-combat role? It is because this is what we’d like the mission to entail? Or because this is what the mission does entail. Although we may wish it, we are not peacekeeping. Our troops are not positioning themselves between enemy combatants in an effort to prevent them from fighting. This is peacebuilding – we are one of the combatants and we should not pretend otherwise.

The risks of pretending we are peacekeeping however, are significant. As she points out:

If Liberals are trying to spare Canadian lives – by venturing passively, ducking into calmer territory and promoting reconstruction in the absence of a secure environment – an anti-combat insistence is utterly without merit.

But it might get Canadian troops killed. An enemy that knows troops won’t fight back, can’t fight back because of political handcuffs slapped on half a world away, is an enemy given a blood-embossed invitation to attack at will.

Her article may be alarmist, but its central argument is correct. As General Lewis Mackenzie confirms, denying our troops the capacity to take advanced actions to protect themselves – or the NGO’s and aid workers attempting to rebuild Afghanistan – is sheer folly. Our polticians owe it to both the public and our military to be honest about what this mission requires of us.

Which brings us to a second distortion. In a peacekeeping mission one would want to know other countries are participating. A broader coalition means more countries are fostering international pressure to end the conflict and bring their peacekeepers home. Again, however, we are not in a peacekeeping mission. Either we believe an unstable Afghanistan is a threat to our national interest or we don’t. If it is a threat, why does it matter what our NATO allies think? Did we, prior to the second world war, wait to see who else signed up before committing to action? Of course not. The cause was important enough for us to commit ourselves. Nor, after 1943, did we say “we’ve done our part, time for someone else to step up.”And yet this is precisely how we are presently framing the issue.

As a result our national debate over Afghanistan actually undermines our efforts to solicit support. Our politicians end up treating Afghanistan as a duty – something, like peacekeeping, we do to maintain for humanitarian reasons, or to buttress our reputation within NATO or the United States. Not once in the last few months has Afghanistan been described as an imperative. But few, if any countries, are willing to put their soldiers in harms way out of a vague sense of obligation to an international body. Countries – and Canada should be among this list – should put their soldiers in harms way with enourmous trepidation, and usually only when they believe vital national interests are at stake. By telling our allies “it’s someone else’s turn” we risk conveying that we really don’t believe this mission is vital. If it were, we’d be asking them to work along side us, not replace us.

At present, it appears the majority of our allies don’t believe a stable Afghanistan is essential to global peace and security. This is either because it isn’t, or because we’ve failed to convince them. This is a difficult assessment to make and I’d be foolish to claim that I know the answer with complete certainty. That said, I suspect – as Paul Wells points out – our diplomat efforts to make the case have been weak at best.

Canada must decide for itself if we think a stable Afghanistan is critical to the stability of the international system and thus, in turn, our national interest. Sadly, I’ve heard little of this in the discussion among the political parties. And yet addressing this underlying question would not only be the more honest approach, it might cause the “are we in” or “are we out” debate to simply disappear.

The Problem with the Manley Panel on Afghanistan

Last Friday Michael Byers wrote this opinion piece entitled “Why I Said No to the Manley.”

As some of you know, I believe – with numerous reservations – that the Afghan mission is important. Moreover, I don’t always agree with Michael Byers. Although I think Canada’s work in Afghanistan should continue (under the right circumstances) I hope Byers op-ed is widely read. It is the most damaging critique of the Manley inquiry I’ve seen to date. In short, it is extremely well written and brings together all the criticisms in one place and delivers them with tremendous force.

The most stinging critique for me was about the panel’s independence. As Byers notes:

The Institute for Peace (which coordinated the Iraq Study Group in the United States) set up four working groups composed of non-governmental experts from across the political spectrum. It established a “military senior adviser panel” composed of retired rather than serving officers.

The Manley panel is inordinately dependent on the government. Its six-person secretariat is made up of some of the same officials who have been overseeing the Afghanistan mission. Prominent among these are David Mulroney, the current director of the government’s Afghanistan Task Force, Sanjeev Chowdhury, the former director of the Afghanistan Task Force, and Col. Mike Cessford, the former deputy commander of the Canadian mission.

Byers is bang on. There is something deeply problematic about having the same people who worked on Afghanistan and helped shape the strategy and plan, reviewing themselves to determine if they’ve taken the right course of action and if the country should continue along the same course. This is akin to allowing students to grade their own work and determine if they should continue on to the next level. While it is possibly they will conduct an objective review, the incentives, temptations and interests (for example, one’s public service career could be on the line) create powerful doubts about there ability to do so.

This is neither in the public’s interest, the Afghan mission’s interests, or our soldiers interest.

Kandahar deal breakers: Op-Ed in Globe and Mail

Taylor and I published a web-exclusive op-ed on the Canadian mission in Afghanistan in today’s Globe and Mail.

I’ve noticed that the Globe and Mail has implemented a “Recommend this article” button at the bottom of pieces so that readers can “vote” for articles they like. Interesting feature and great filter to see what people say they think is compelling


Kandahar deal breakers: The Afghan poll is not a blank cheque

Special to Globe and Mail
November 2, 2007 at 1:03 AM EDT

The results of the poll of Afghans by Environics on behalf of The Globe and Mail, the CBC and La Presse were surprising to many. Afghans are broadly content with their government, happy that Canada is in Afghanistan, and believe the work being done is beneficial and effective. Canadians should be proud. We are making a difference.

What is potentially worrying, however, is the fervour with which the poll was greeted in Canada by some of the mission’s supporters. While a useful reminder of why we are in Afghanistan, this poll is not a blank cheque for any and all future engagement.

Future actions, by us or our allies, could alter the political conditions in Afghanistan, negatively shifting indigenous public opinion. Consequently, this poll should reaffirm the necessity of debating how we engage, and under what conditions we walk away.

Two looming scenarios could derail the mission.

Consider, for instance, the spraying of poppy crops. This winter, under the leadership of the former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, the Americans plan to spray opium fields with herbicides. Needless to say, the spraying will have little to no impact on the global availability of illegal opiates.

But the impact on Afghanistan will be dramatic. Opium is critical to the Afghan economy. Kill the poppies and you impoverish the farmers, their families and the communities they support. This will undermine Afghan support for the NATO mission and destabilize the Karzai government.

Perhaps most important, the U.S. spraying campaign undermines the agreed-on division of labour within the NATO alliance. Under the Afghan compact, Britain was given responsibility for counternarcotics. Unilateral spraying by the U.S. violates this agreement. Such actions call into question the terms under which the alliance agreed to function, and on which Canada agreed to sustain its presence in Afghanistan.

In short, a policy in which we have had no input, and we are not executing, will make Afghanistan more dangerous to our soldiers and less conducive to achieving a lasting peace.

A second possible deal breaker is also on the horizon. After the 2008 U.S. presidential election, the Americans are likely to shift troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. The purpose, strategy and tactics of this surge will have dramatic implications on the nature and potential success of our mission.

This influx of American troops could secure the troublesome Pakistani border and enhance the security environment for reconstruction and development. Alternatively, this force, hardened in Iraq, could engage in the most counterproductive forms of counterinsurgency, driving support to the Taliban. In short, a sea change in the composition of American forces could alter the nature of the mission into one that is unacceptable to Canada.

Neither the opium problem nor the insurgency can be solved with magic bullets. The appropriate policies are complex and long term. There are, however, things we should clearly not do.

In order for us to effectively react to, or ideally influence, these scenarios, it is not enough to be clear on our strategy and objectives. Canada must also outline to its allies the policies that so harm our actions that they negate our involvement.

This is not an empty threat. As Canadians already know, no one is willing to take over our role. Either our work in Kandahar is valuable to NATO, in which case we have influence, or it’s inconsequential, and we should be reconsidering our involvement. If the former, then we possess political leverage with which to shape the mission. What’s more, it is an aberration of responsibility to deploy our troops in the field but allow others to determine the course and strategy of the mission.

The Afghan poll gave us reasons to stay in Kandahar and to be proud of our role, but it is not a blank cheque. We must use our hard-won influence to negotiate with our allies on the terms and implementation of the mission. Poppy spraying and widespread use of aggressive counterinsurgency tactics should be deal breakers. Our military has won Canada real influence in Afghanistan; will our diplomats use it to ensure the mission’s success?

the significance of the afghan poll

In anticipation of the new Environics poll of Afghans I engaged in my biannual ceremonial watching of the CBC news. This poll is groundbreaking stuff since, until now, we’ve had very little data on what Afghans think. What is interesting about the poll isn’t the results per say, but the strength of the results. Equally interesting is the impact this could have politically here at home.

The Results

For example, people’s opinion of Canadian troops in Kandahar is remarkably positive, with 60% having a favourable opinion.

In addition – given the press reports we receive here in Canada – Afghans are actually comparatively upbeat about the effectiveness of the mission is itself.

I’d encourage everyone to take a look at the raw results yourself, they can be found on the Environics webpage.

The political impact

Before we begin, a caveat. I’m sure there are those who are thinking: this poll was commissioned by Conservatives and was rigged to ensure a desirable outcome. This could not be further from the truth. This poll is the brain child of Environics which wanted to bring the Afghan perspective into the debate. It is important to note that Environics is the same company that brought us Fire and Ice, a book that presents a rather unflattering picture of America and argues Americans and Canadians are becoming more different. This is no right wing organization – if anything it leans the opposite way.

I argued earlier in the week that the Liberal position on Afghan has been pretty suspect. This poll makes things worse. To be blunt, it’s a disaster for the NDP and damaging for the Liberals.

The NDP position has been based on the assumption that the mission is a mess. Now we have evidence that Afghans actually want Canadians there, they don’t like the Taliban and they believe we are doing a relatively good job. We can no longer claim we’d be leaving a divided country that doesn’t want us.

For the Liberals the problem is similar – this is the party that spent two decades constructing a foreign policy around the human security agenda. More importantly, it has always wanted Canada’s foreign policy resources to “do good.” It would appear that the Afghans believe we are doing just that. In addition, if we left, we would jeopardizes this success. Both the NDP and the Liberals now have to explain why we should leave and risk abandoning the Afghans.

However, the poll creates a nuanced public policy challenge – one the Conservatives are susceptible to succumbing to. The danger is this poll will eliminate the option to leave Afghanistan under any conditions. This would be a grave mistake. There are a number of things that could dramatically alter the conditions that created this poll’s results. For example, spraying the opium fields with pesticides could turn significant parts of the population against both the international force and the Karzai government. Making the assumption that these polling numbers would be the same under such conditions could trap us in a rapidly deteriorating situation. For the time being, it appears the locals believe we are effective, and are grateful. If our allies take actions that would create a new set of conditions that threaten to destabilize the current environment then we should be prepared to announce we too will take action, including the possibility of pulling out.

the manley inquiry into Afghanistan

Rudyard Griffiths has been calling for a blue ribbon commission into the future of Canada’s role in Afghanistan for a while. The good news is that the Prime Minister started listening to him. The bad news is that the Liberals are unhappy about it.

To date, the Conservatives have not had an inspired foreign policy. Indeed, they seem to lack confidence on this issue – something that may spring from the fact that this government is built around the old provincial Harris team who obviously didn’t have to think much about the subject. This insecurity – along with a desire to take a politically sensitive issue off the table in time for a possible fall election – has however forced them to adopt Griffiths’ advice.

This is good news for Canadian foreign policy and Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. The current debate on the Afghanistan mission has been mired in partisan battles shaped more by who can exploit the situation for political gain than by assessing what is the best option for Canada. On an issue this sensitive and important a blue ribbon panel can help establish a baseline of facts and set the terms of debate in a manner that hopefully elevate the level of discussion. This will help ensure that the country’s best interests – as opposed to those of a given political party – will be the first and foremost criteria of evaluation. In principal this should make it harder for the NDP and those like Michael Byers who advise them, to continue to call for a unilateral withdrawal without discussing the full consequences of such a choice.

In short, if the panel (John Manley, Pamela Wallin, Derek Burney, Paul Tellier and Jake Epp) does its job it can help ensure that Canadians make the best choice for Canada.

John_ManleyThe bad news is that Liberals are in a huff about the fact that John Manley’s appointment as the head of this panel insulates the conservative from a sticky issue in the lead up to an election. I can understand how one would lament the loss of a potential “wedge issue” that might have undermined Conservative support, especially in Quebec. But veiled attacks on Manley paint the party in a bad light. And for good reason. Liberals should be proud of Manley – or any Canadian – who attempts to bring coherence, clarity and a basic level of consensus to a debate of national importance.

Liberals are only mad at Manley because they know that although this commission shows the Conservatives are desperate (they are), it also exposes the shallowness of their own policy on the issue. And let’s be clear, the Liberals don’t have a coherent policy on Afghanistan. The current Liberal position of pulling our troops out after 2009 simply plays off the public’s fears. It does nothing to address the actual goals of why Canada is in Afghanistan. It’s odd to watch the party that championed Human Security and R2P argue for getting the military out of a country where the previous government had a complete disrespect for human rights, marginalized women and generally terrorized its own population. Nor is the notion that “it’s somebody else’s turn” inspiring the public. Either a) this mission is important and so if no one else will do it, we must or b) it’s not, and we should get out (and, by the way, if this was the case why did you get us in in the first place?).

Moreover, let’s talk about the costs of leaving – there are people whose lives will be in significantly greater risk if Canada pulls out and the risks of Afghanistan becoming an operational centre for global terrorism are real. Conversely, let’s talk about the costs of staying – such as the fact that Afghanistan is going to be further destabilized this winter when the Americans start spraying Opium crops with pesticides. If this is the way the US is going to behave, maybe we should leave.

But this is the type of nuanced discussion neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives (it’s not worth mentioning the NDP) are willing to have. All that has happened is that the Conservatives realized that this superficial discussion would hurt them more and so they got smart.

So rather than getting mad at Manley Liberals should start coming up with a coherent policy on Afghanistan.