Afghanistan: What now?
Our Prime Minister and his Conservative party will start a debate in the House of Commons about extending Canada's role in Afghanistan. The debate will be followed by a vote, presumably, by our elected reps, that will guide Canada's mission in the troubled country for the foreseeable future. The Afghanistan vote is likely to be a confidence motion. That means if enough MPs vote against whatever motion is hammered together by the Cons, then there will be a federal election, and its cause will be Canada's role in Afghanistan.
Canada's current miltary mission ends in 2009. The recently released “Manley Report” suggested that Canada's role in Afghanistan is complex, and dangerous, but ultimately worthwhile. The report called for an indefinite extension of the mission, provided that our NATO allies kick-in some combat troops. Recently, Germany refused an American request to provide more combat troops to the effort, although recently Polan has committed to expanding their effort.
This is one of those tricky political situations that needs our attention. The Cons, and a good chunk of Liberals, believe Canada should play a strong role in Afghanistan. The NDP wants the combat mission to end immediately, and for the UN to take over. The Liberal leader, Stephane Dion, is on record having said that he wants the combat mission to end in 2009 and for Canada to resume its traditional peacekeeping role.
I've had some long-standing issues with Canada's role in Afghanistan. Here is a fast history lesson:
The U.S. invaded Afghanistan following September 11th. At the time, the Americans said they would be there until the country could govern itself in an appropriately democratic, egalitarian manner. Then the U.S. invaded Iraq.
The Afghanistan mission was tossed on the deep backburner and the U.S. asked NATO for help in Afghanistan because their forces were needed elsewhere. Canada, quite properly, under the leadership of then PM Jean Chrétien, declined to participate in the invasion of Iraq, but when Paul Martin replaced Chrétien he, without a lot of debate, signed Canada up for action in Afghanistan.
When Martin was defeated in the next election, Stephen Harper became PM. The Cons, with help from a chunk of the Liberal party who were attempting to score political points, voted together to extend the mission to 2009.
Now we have the Manley Report, a looming debate, a possible election and the potential for Canadian troops to be active in a country that's more than halfway around the world. A country and culture that's so utterly foreign to Canada and our way of life that Afghanistan may as well be populated by Klingons.
My concern is not so much for our troops. They're trained soldiers and professionals. Soldiering is what they do, what they're paid for. They know the risks. I am concerned that our troops are exposed to danger due to political posturing and political ideology back in Canada. Soldiers don't set policy. They don't get to ask "Why?" But we can, and we should.
Why, for instance, has Canada spent nearly $7 billion on the military aspects of the mission and only $700 million on development aide?
Why are there an estimated 300,000 Afghanis going hungry this winter? The answer to those questions would also hopefully answer the question “Why are we there?” But it probably wouldn't, because the only people who we can ask and answer that question are politicians, and we all know they never give straight answers.
It would be a total disservice to Canadian troops and Afghanis if our domestic partisan political situation left the country in this weird limbo, where we're there but not doing much, where we might be there in the future with holstered guns (see Romeo Dallaire, Rwanda circa 1993-94), where we might be continuing a “combat role” against an enemy that's never been properly identified beyond The Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The pure lack of reliable information about what's happening in Afghanistan is enough to make me think twice about any level of Canadian activity in the country. Even after reading several books, and endless bits of news from a wild array of sources, I still do not know what the people of Afghanistan want done, how we can help, or even if they want our help. It's that basic failure in this world of instant information, NGOs, think tanks, and study groups, which makes me especially nervous. Because, like it or not, Canada does now have a role to play in Afghanistan. The future of that role will be determined over the next month.