The opposition parties had Stephen Harper pretty much over a barrel when it came to Afghanistan, refusing to give him parliamentary support to continue the unpopular war beyond 2009.

That was before John Manley came to Harper’s rescue last week. By agreeing to head up a bipartisan advisory panel on Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, the former deputy Liberal prime minister has given the Harper government a fresh shot at winning that elusive parliamentary support for the war.

Harper has shown more enthusiasm about this war than any issue he’s dealt with as Prime Minister.

As opposition leader, Harper attacked the Chrétien government’s decision not to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq. So when he became Prime Minister, Harper was delighted to inherit the mission in Afghanistan, where Canadians are playing a significant junior partner role in the U.S. “war on terror.”

But while Harper is extremely keen on the Afghan combat mission, polls indicate most Canadians aren’t. Indeed, Canadians have shown a strong attachment to Canada’s role as a leader in UN peacekeeping — an attachment Harper and the Canadian military would love to wean us off.

Realizing that the Afghan mission threatened to become a contentious election issue, Harper pledged last June not to extend it without parliamentary support.

The Manley panel may help deliver that — by putting pressure on Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, who has vowed to end the combat mission in 2009.

The Manley team will likely recommend continuing the mission. Manley himself is a pro-American hawk who, as foreign affairs minister in the wake of 9/11, famously struck a combative tone when he stressed the country’s war-fighting past, telling reporters “Canada does not have a history as a pacifist or a neutralist country.”

The rest of the panel, including former Washington ambassador Derek Burney and former New York consul-general Pamela Wallin, have been involved in efforts to convince Washington that Canada isn’t soft on terror, the Star‘s Thomas Walkom noted.

This could leave Dion in the difficult position of having to reject the advice of a bipartisan panel — headed by a respected Liberal — that had spent months investigating the issue, with ostensibly nothing but the public interest in mind.

This promises to highlight and accentuate the rift inside the Liberal party over Canada’s role in Afghanistan and, more broadly, over our relationship with Washington.

In recent years, the powerful business wing of the party has favoured deeper integration with the U.S., economically and militarily. Dion’s own deputy leader, the ambitious Michael Ignatieff, has shown a pro-Washington bent, publicly equating Bush’s “war on terror” with the championing of human rights and democracy.

Dion, on the other hand, has followed more in the footsteps of his mentor Jean Chrétien, who kept more distance from Washington.

So, yes, the appointment of the Manley panel is a clever ploy by a prime minister determined to find a way to continue an unpopular war without losing his job.

It also lays the groundwork for the re-emergence of an elite consensus in favour of more robust Canadian co-operation with Washington’s aggressive military stance in the world (something that shows little sign of abating, as even Democratic leadership contenders voice their support for a possible attack on Iran).

Sadly, Dion’s attempt to create a little distance between Canada and the U.S. “war on terror” seems about to get a good stomping from the staunchly pro-Washington forces in both the Conservative and Liberal parties.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...