Monday, February 25, 2008

If General Hillier Wants to Be a Politician, Let Him Hang Up his Uniform

Last week, General Rick Hillier, the Chief of the Defence Staff, stepped out of his role as a military officer to make two astonishing assertions. He made it clear that it’s up to the soldiers, not the politicians, to define the nature of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. "Without the pro-active operations necessary to precisely track them [the Taliban], locate them and attack them, they, with their forces, would still be trying to kill us."
In other words, the top soldier was saying that the Liberal approach to the mission---stay in Kandahar to train the Afghans, but don’t engage in offensive action against the insurgency---is unworkable.
Hillier’s view that Dion’s supposed compromise is out to lunch got backing from a top U.S. commander. Admiral William Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command, the officer responsible for U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, said on CTV Question Period that there’s no way to separate the combat side of the mission from the rest.
"You can't say, 'We're going to do this and not this.' You need a comprehensive and co-ordinated approach to this problem," said the Admiral.
So much for Stephane Dion’s attempt to square the circle by saying that Canada should change the nature of the mission in Afghanistan, while conceding that it will be up to the military to decide what level of combat is needed.
Hillier’s second assertion, that debate itself endangers the lives of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan was even more astonishing.
"I'm not going to stand here and tell you that the suicide bombings of this past week have been related to the debate back here in Canada. But I also cannot stand here and say that they are not,” Hillier told the Conference of Defence Associations.
In the mind of our top general, debate on the Afghan mission has become unpatriotic. There’s been a great effort on the part of supporters of the military mission in Afghanistan to try to get Canadians who oppose the mission to shut up. One haranguer who is fond of promoting the righteousness of the Afghan mission is Don Cherry,
In the summer of 2007, the Royal Canadian Legion saluted Cherry by making him an honorary life member. Interviewed about the award, Cherry said: “What gets me is whether you feel the mission is right or wrong, to put it down only puts our troops down. If you don’t support the mission, that only encourages the enemy and makes it want to turn it on all the more.”
It’s one thing for the star of Coach’s Corner to say this sort of thing, but entirely another when the Chief of the Defence Staff says it.
This isn’t the first time the general has over stepped the bounds of his role. In the spring of 2007, Hillier told reporters in Kandahar that Canadian soldiers are mighty disgruntled that their mission in Afghanistan has been eclipsed by allegations that prisoners handed over to the Afghans by Canadians have been tortured. “Let me just come out and say very frankly here that I’ve met a variety of soldiers who are pissed off,” the general declared.
We get the point. The general wants to be a politician. And he has every right to take up that honourable calling. First though, he needs to hang up his uniform. It’s past time.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Dion Takes a Dive on Afghanistan

The Liberals have made a fateful choice in their attempt to de-politicize the issue of Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan.

Liberal leader Stephane Dion has made himself look very foolish by espousing two hopelessly conflicting notions. He claims that the Liberals are sticking to their insistence that Canada must end its combat mission in Kandahar by 2009, while conceding that Canadian troops should remain there after that date to train Afghan soldiers, and that he would leave the military details up to the Canadian Forces. Since the Canadian Forces have made it clear that they see active conflict against the insurgency as a fact of life as long as we stay in Kandahar, this means that Dion has gone over to Harper’s stance on the issue. Liberal claims that they have triumphed by winning the government over to their position are bogus, and everybody knows it.

Dion has done the Conservatives an enormous favour. The government’s Afghanistan position is sharply at odds with what Canadians have repeatedly told pollsters they want---an end to the combat mission by 2009. What the Liberals have actually decided is that there will be no real debate between the country’s two major parties on the Afghan question in the upcoming election.

In English Canada, at least, it falls to Jack Layton and the NDP to spell out the alternative, which is to end the combat mission and devote Canadian energies to development aid in Afghanistan.

When Stephane Dion was elected leader of the Liberal Party, he seemed to offer Canadians a refreshing combination of candor and perspective. On Afghanistan, he is serving up insincerity and confusion.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

If Harper Wants an Election on Afghanistan, Let’s Give Him One

Stephen Harper has tied himself to the Manley Report on Afghanistan, and is prepared to wager the survival of his government on it. Fine. It’s time Canadians had a real debate on the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan, and the hustings is the best place for it.

Harper is determined to extend Canada’s military commitment in Kandahar beyond 2009. To make himself look tough, Harper has dressed himself in the garb of the Manley report and has issued an ultimatum to NATO: unless the alliance provides an additional one thousand troops in the Afghan south by February 2009, Canada will pull its own troops out.

The ultimatum is a phony. NATO has 35,000 troops in Afghanistan. Units are arriving and leaving all the time. Shifting a few more troops to the south in time for Harper’s deadline is no big deal, and it won’t be necessary to convince the French, the Germans, the Spaniards or the Italians to send the troops. It will be easy enough to do it with U.S. and British units.

All this posturing is intended to convince Canadians that Harper is standing up to the Big Guys and not simply pandering to the Bush White House.

Public opinion polls have made it clear that Canadians want our military operation in Kandahar ended as soon as possible. If not now, then at least by February 2009. They are dead set against any extension beyond that date. The polls show that Canadians do not believe in the mission, in the idea that the war against the insurgency is a war for human rights and democracy.

To date, only one political party has taken a consistent position that is balanced, based on Canadian values, and gives voice to what Canadians actually want, and that is the federal NDP.

In his recent speech at Carleton University, NDP leader Jack Layton offered a way ahead for Canada in Afghanistan: pull our combat units out of the south and pay serious heed to the provision of aid to Afghanistan that is not tied to our military operation---so far Canada’s military spending in Afghanistan has outpaced the aid effort ten to one. His speech concludes with a summary of how a Canadian foreign policy can truly contribute to the achievement of peace and human development, rather than scoring brownie points with the White House, which is the main objective of Stephen Harper’s foreign policy.

Here is an excerpt from Layton’s speech:
“We should be using the considerable skills and expertise of Canadians to bring the various actors in Afghanistan to the table.
We should be working to put in place an effective disarmament programme.
65% of Afghans say that disarmament is the most important step toward improving security in Afghanistan.
But the current effort has not gone far enough to make a significant impact.
Taking the path to peace through diplomacy also means involving regional actors in discussions. Pakistan in particular.
Regional cooperation is vital to any successful strategy for regional security and peace.
The path to peace requires a political, not a military, approach.
To carry out this vision, the key international body involved in Afghanistan must be the UN, not NATO.
Unlike NATO, the UN’s explicit mandate is to preserve and promote international peace and security.
The UN agencies tasked with carrying out this mandate have a vital role to play in meeting the challenges of Afghanistan:
The United Nations Development fund for Women
The World Health Organization
The United Nations Development Programme
The United Nations Disarmament Commission
And of course, the United Nations Peacebuildng Commission headed up by Canadian Carolyn McAskie”

For the most part, the media has dismissed the NDP position as isolationist, which it is not. Layton’s position is balanced and genuinely multilateralist. It is in line with the best thinking on Afghanistan that has emerged in the West as well as in Afghanistan itself because it recognizes that this conflict will never be settled by arms alone.

Canadians should be trusted with the Afghanistan issue during an election campaign. Let the parties lay out their positions in a national debate and let the country decide.

For this to happen, Stephane Dion will have to get off the fence, stand up to Harper’s ultimatum, and commit the Liberals to voting against Harper’s coming confidence motion on Afghanistan.