Jack still calling it right

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"But one thing the Afghans will never stand for is the presence of foreign troops on Afghan soil."Michael Barry, author A History of Modern Afghanistan, speaking with Annabelle Quince (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) November 19, 2006.

In an astonishing reversal, the Liberals have aligned themselves with the Conservatives in deciding to maintain Canadian troops in Afghanistan until 2011. Instead of sticking to the date of 2009 for withdrawal of combat forces now operating in Kandahar province, as Liberal leader Stéphane Dion has been reassuring Canadians his party would for months, the Liberals have switched positions, and decided the troops can stay two years more.

Originally, the Canadian mission was to end in 2003. Subsequently, the Liberals extended it to 2006. The Harper Conservatives secured support from the House of Commons for a further extension until 2009, with the Liberal caucus dividing on the vote. This marks the fourth extension, and no one can seriously accept that it is to be the last one, so long as either Conservatives or Liberals have anything to say about it.

The Liberal about face leaves the NDP as the only party that has called for the withdrawal of Canadian combat forces from Afghanistan. True, in Quebec, the Bloc now supports withdrawal in 2009, despite earlier supporting the mission. But across the country the NDP is the only anti-war party. Afghanistan has become Jack's issue.

The arguments for prolonging the mission are political. The Liberals did not want to be accused by Conservatives in an election campaign of believing that Canadian lives has been lost in vain, or that Stephan Dion's party does not support the military. The Liberals did not want to alienate the American leadership, or appear out of step with NATO allies. These same political points will be now be made against Jack Layton, and the NDP, but they are easily dismissed; along with the even more spurious argument — that elections are not the place to debate military action — because our fighters in the field need our support.

War or no war, Canadian elections are about choosing a parliament to make future decisions. There is no more important issue for public debate during an election than putting Canadian troops at risk abroad. The American primaries feature debate over Iraq; a Canadian election should hone in on the commitment of soldiers, and $100 million a month to maintain an army of occupation in Afghanistan. Why are we there? What are Afghans, and Canadians getting for our money?

First the Liberals, under Paul Martin, then the Conservatives, have broken the principle of civilian control of the military. The Afghanistan mission became a shoot to kill military combat mission at the insistence of Rick Hillier, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, who, instead of the government, has been running the war ever since. This, not whether or not, Canadians "support the troops" is the important issue.

Canadians do support the troops, but you do not have to be a pacifist to see that sending more soldiers into combat, and face death, because 78 Canadians have already died, makes no sense whatever. Canadians need to have elected, accountable, parliamentarians, not the military taking decisions, and they must be in the national interest, not in the interest of keeping the military happy.

Canada picked up its Afghanistan load from the Americans, who were transferring forces out of Afghanistan to fight in Iraq. Canadians do not have to do things just because the U.S. wants it, in wartime or any other time. Canada is fully capable of arguing within NATO that the military mission is failing and cannot succeed, at current levels of staffing. It has been estimated that 500,000 NATO troops would be needed for pacification, not the current 35,000 (including the U.S.), and no one in the NATO countries has argued NATO should try and mount an army of occupation of that size.

Canada should be raising the obvious questions about the role of the current Afghan government in the resurgence of the opium trade. NATO certainly did not commit troops so that heroin exports could be revived.

The Liberals want Canadian troops to train and equip Afghan troops. This shows a poor understanding of the nature of the country which is divided on tribal lines. Those fighters who are with government forces today, are, unhappily,capable of taking their new guns, and shooting at the government troops tomorrow, because of shifting tribal alliances.

By siding with the Conservative government (and official Ottawa), rather than the roughly 60 per cent of Canadians who want the troops brought home, or reassigned to peace-making duties elsewhere, the Liberals have given up any hope of making gains in Quebec, where the NDP will now fight the Bloc for the massive anti-war vote. Indeed, marching with the Conservatives brings Liberal seats into play in many parts of Canada.The NDP must rise to the occasion, not simply for electoral gain, but to ensure that wisdom prevails, and Canadians cease to be part of the occupying forces of Afghanistan.

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