The Geneva Accords of July 20, 1954 ended, in theory, the French colonial war against the Vietminh. Under its terms Canada, along with Poland and India, was appointed to an International Commission charged to supervise the Accords, and stop the military conflict in Indo-China.

Thus began one of the unhappier episodes in the history of Canadian foreign relations. Canada’s role on the commission was to represent the West; Poland was there on behalf of the Warsaw Pact; and India was the representative of the non-aligned countries. This was the Cold War, and Canada was a reliable Western ally.

Rather than overseeing elections within two years, and the re-unification of Vietnam, the Canadian government became embroiled in controversy, and a widened war.

The Americans agreed to a military role in Vietnam as part of the wider U.S. plan to get the French to agree to a European defence force that included West Germany. The defence force idea came to nothing, but the American commitment escalated, ending up as a full scale U.S. military invasion of Vietnam.

Canada’s role on the international Commission turned out to include carrying messages on behalf of the U.S. Senior Canadian emissaries were accused of spying on behalf of the U.S.While many Canadians thought our country should be active in diplomacy to end the war, it turned out our role on the international commission was carrying out the wishes of the U.S.

With this history in mind, and watching Stephen Harper do his walk-about in Afghanistan to shore up the morale of our 2,200 troops serving in the military mission, it is not too difficult to imagine another purpose for his trip as well.

Anxious to demonstrate his government’s commitment to military action, as dutifully reported by the press, the Canadian Prime Minister is also auditioning for the role of errand boy.Harper wants it known in Washington he is prepared to do whatever is necessary to make the right impression.

In a stroke of good timing, Harper hit Kandahar the day before Michael Wilson presented his credentials to President George W. Bush as the new Canadian ambassador to Washington. Wilson was mum about his conversation with the U.S. president (he was one of a group of 12 Ambassadors going through the ritual, so it was not quite an intimate moment) but he pointed out that the Harper visit to Afghanistan elicited much favourable comment in Washington.

Wilson has already indicated that Canada had to earn itself a hearing in the U.S. What better way than through taking over a military role formerly carried out by U.S. troops.

Former Ambassador Allan Gotlieb has spent years expounding on how a Canadian government can curry U.S. favour. Every U.S. president takes his role as commander-in-chief as his first responsibility, explains Gotlieb; therefore by buying into U.S. military priorities Canada gets to ask for something in return.

It was significant that Harper met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and then went on to meetings in Pakistan before returning home.

When Harper holds his first meeting with Bush at the end of March at a NAFTA summit in Mexico he will have something to report in private conversations.

What he will be waiting to hear from Bush, is “thanks for what you are doing on our behalf, now what I can help you out on?”

Seeking favours from the U.S. president is not enough reason to justify our military mission.Doing our duty on behalf of whatever the U.S. aims are in Afghanistan is no better reason for the Canadian armed forces to be abroad. The Canadian people need to know a lot more about what the purpose of our military presence is, and what the mission timetable is to achieve our goals.

Afghanistan has no oil, but its neighbours do, and a major pipeline is slated to come through the region. Harper has made it clear our soldiers are past peacekeeping, and ready for combat. It is fair to ask whether or not “pipeline keeping” is part of the mission.

History can be instructive. It was the U.S. that recruited Osama Bin Ladin to mount an insurgency against the Soviet forces active in attempting to pacify Afghanistan. U.S. president Jimmy Carter wanted to wear out his Cold War adversaries and make Afghanistan the Soviet Vietnam. The Taliban emerged as the Afghan government in the aftermath of the U.S. policy of supporting radical Islam freedom fighters.

Now the Taliban are the adversary, along with the Al Qaeda network established by Bin Laden with American help. Canada is part of the American run Operation Enduring Freedom, apparently, at least. But the problems of the region go far beyond helping the good guys and hurting the bad guys, assuming we can identify them.

A starting point would be a national debate on democratization in Afghanistan: what is required and what can be done. Parliament needs to address the issue when it reconvenes in April. The Canadian mandate in Afghanistan needs to be clarified, and our international role needs to be understood. Doing our duty to the U.S. is not what most Canadians want our military role to be. Canadians expect Parliament to debate foreign policy.

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...