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It's time for Canada's Conservatives just to admit Jack Layton was right about talking to the Taliban

Jack Layton (Photo: David Climenhaga)

Never mind the apologies. That ship has sailed. We Canadians need to come to terms with the fact Conservatives don't apologize, and they don't explain, no matter how obvious it is they need to.

But surely now that it's official the remnants of the U.S.-led coalition are "not winning" in Afghanistan, it's time for Canada's Opposition Conservatives to admit Jack Layton was right about talking to the Taliban, and that they were wrong.

Most politically alert Canadians are probably faintly aware that it was the Conservative Party of then prime minister Stephen Harper back in the mid 2000s that smeared Mr. Layton, who was then the leader of the federal New Democratic Party, with the epithet "Taliban Jack," and that it had something to do with Afghanistan.

But for many of us, I suspect, the circumstances are rapidly disappearing into the mists of time.

To review, then, it was on Sept. 1, 2006, more than a decade ago now, when Mr. Layton dared state the unspeakable but obvious fact about Afghanistan that "a comprehensive peace process has to bring all the combatants to the table."

At the time, Canadian soldiers had already been involved in the bloody and unwinnable occupation of the Central Asian country known as the Graveyard of Empires for four years, but this really set off the Tory barking chain.

Mr. Layton was excoriated as naive at best and treasonous at worst. He was accused by the online Conservative Rage Machine, then in its relative infancy, of failing to support Canada's soldiers abroad and supporting the people who were shooting at them.

Their logic, apparently, was that no good Canadian would ever sit down to speak with unsavoury men who were shooting at Canadian soldiers, even if those same unsavoury men were part of a coalition that enjoyed the support of a considerable portion of Afghanistan's Pashtun ethnic majority. The assumption underlying this view, presumably, was that the West had a reasonable chance of defeating them. As with most insurgencies in poor countries where people have little to lose, it never did.

The usual right-wing suspects posted pictures of the NDP leader Photoshopped into ethnic Pashtun garb, along with their predictably uncreative but vicious verbal abuse. Peter MacKay, then the minister of finance, sniped, "is it next going to be tea with Osama bin Laden? This cannot happen."

Mr. Layton, who died in 2011 after leading his party to within sight of government in Ottawa, was remarkably graceful about this serial defamation. When one of Mr. Harper's now justly forgotten foreign affairs ministers, Lawrence Cannon, admitted in 2010 the Taliban had a role to play in the "new Afghanistan" we were told Canada's soldiers were helping to build, Mr. Layton resisted the temptation to gloat. "As long as the right thing gets done," he said, "I don't really care."

That would have been an appropriate time for the Harper Conservatives to apologize, which of course they did not.

They didn't really mean it about talking to the Taliban, anyway, since Mr. Harper himself put conditions on the idea no resistance movement would accept -- even if it wasn't making the incremental gains that always win insurgencies. Before the Taliban would be allowed to sit at the table, Mr. Harper proclaimed, they would have to lay down their arms and agree to abide by the Afghan constitution, cooked up in 2004 following the U.S. invasion of the Central Asian country. As he knew, there was no chance of that happening.

By 2011, naturally, the U.S. government was paying no attention to the sage advice of its Canadian ally and had entered into direct, secret talks with the Taliban.

That would have been another moment for the Conservatives to apologize to Mr. Layton. Didn't happen then either.

Regardless, the Western war in that country has lurched along to this day. So how did all this work out?

Well, thankfully, the last Canadian soldiers left the country in mid-March 2015.

But for all the blood and treasure we spent, the "new Afghanistan" sure looks a lot like the old Afghanistan.

A corrupt government propped up by the U.S. and its proxies controls the capital, Kabul, and the Taliban is regaining control pretty well everywhere else. During daylight, they say, the government controls about half the country nowadays. Many places where Western soldiers fought fierce battles with the "primitive" Afghans are now firmly in Taliban hands.

In June, President Donald Trump's Defence Secretary, Jim Mattis, admitted to the U.S. Congress the United States is "not winning" the war against the Taliban.

"We are not winning in Afghanistan right now," the former Marine Corps general told American legislators. "And we will correct this as soon as possible."

Don't hold your breath waiting for the correction.

As recently as yesterday, fighting continued in the Forever War in Afghanistan, with disturbing if unlikely reports the Taliban and their sworn enemy ISIS were teaming up to drive out the Western invaders.

Canada could play its traditional helpful role in international affairs if we had a way to talk to those guys.

Thanks in part to Canada's Conservatives, we don't. They should at least admit that Mr. Layton was right! But don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen either.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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