Where is Layton's NDP on the war in Afghanistan?

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This is an urgent question for the anti-war movement, regardless of our various political affiliations. I'm sure we're all interested to hear what Jack Layton has to say on this issue. The unfortunate problem is that it has been many months since he explicitly called for bringing the troops home.

My combing through the federal NDP news releases finds nothing like this since October 2008, and even then it was very qualified. If somebody else can find information to the contrary, I would appreciate receiving it. I should also point out that among these dozens of news releases and statements, some are quite positive from our perspective, such as those in support of the war resisters, or Layton's position for a negotiated political settlement of the war. Reading this material is a useful way to spend a couple of hours.
But there is also much that falls short. Layton's most recent detailed statement is from March 16, 2009, in which he said (among much more): "Our skills and reputation as a peacemaker give Canada the basis for an active role after our troops withdraw in 2011." In the same statement, praising President Obama's new Afghanistan troop surge strategy, he said, "We’ve come a long way since the first voices in our country called for a new role for Canada in Afghanistan. Internationally and in Canada, we are seeing a new will emerging to turn the page and begin a more balanced policy toward Afghanistan. Gone are the name calling and the overheated rhetoric. Gone is the questioning of support for our troops."

I could be wrong, but it appears to me that Layton is putting a very high priority on being seen in the media as "supportive of the troops." That impression is strengthened by his regular statements expressing condolences to the families of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. These statements always refer to these members of the Armed Forces as having "died in the service of their country" or a similar sentiment.
As the leader of a party in Parliament, I agree that Jack Layton has a duty to spend time with members of the Canadian Forces. We all share his sorrow for these tragic deaths. As anti-war activists, we feel an even sharper pain whenever we hear of NATO forces killing Afghan civilians. But in my view, Canadian soldiers are not dying in the service of our country or any other. These deaths are tragic in part because they accomplish absolutely nothing positive. They are dying in the service of U.S. imperialism and the energy transnationals that are aiming to carve up central Asia for their bloated profits. Jack Layton has his reasons for presenting the matter differently. But those of us in the anti-war movement should focus on exposing the truly vicious, fascist, predatory nature of this war.

When my nephew volunteered to serve in the CF in Afghanistan, I sent him a package of relevant articles and a letter explaining my views on this matter, telling him point-blank that his courage and his willingness to sacrifice were being used by politicians and arms dealers and oil billionaires, with nothing good coming out of this for the Afghan people. He did not respond. But upon his return, after an eight-month tour of duty in Kandahar, he indicated to the family that his views about the war had completely changed as a result of his experiences.
I don't know what Jack Layton tells the troops when he spends time with them. If he tells them this war is a disaster for both Canada and Afghanistan, and that their sacrifices are a complete waste of blood and courage and tears and dollars, more power to him. But that's not what the NDP media releases are saying these days. And that weakness hurts the entire anti-war movement, since we are effectively left with very few strong voices in Parliament.

The further I go through Layton's statements and speeches over the past year, the more it becomes clear that he is distancing himself from the activist core of the anti-war movement. He remains good on such issues as the war resisters, the cost of the war, the need for negotiations rather than endless war. But in his major statements, during and after the election last fall, Afghanistan has been simply absent. His March 16 article (which was reprinted in the National Post), did not include a straightforward call to bring the troops home -- now or later. Never in the last year (that's as far as the NDP website goes back) has he expressed condolences on the deaths of Afghan civilians during NATO bombing attacks or other military actions.
Then of course there is his deeply troubling position on the Israel/Palestine conflict, which is simply to assign equal blame to each side. One of the more progressive new NDP MPs, Don Davies from Vancouver Kingsway, was the target of angry booing when he presented this argument at a rally against the Israeli attack on Gaza at the Vancouver Art Gallery last winter. It was a sad moment, since Davies has been well known as sympathetic to the Palestinian people -- and I am sure remains so. But by pandering to pro-war forces in Canadian society, including the rah-rah corporate media, the NDP has lost a great deal of credibility in the anti-war movement.

The StopWar.ca coalition here in Vancouver, which is quite broadly based, has a long history of inviting NDP elected officials to speak at rallies and public meetings. There is now increasing reluctance to extend such offers unless we have a very good reason to believe that they will take a solid position.

Some of this goes back further, to the Liberal motion in Parliament to set a February 2009 deadline to end the military mission. As I am sure others recall, the NDP voted with the Tories against the motion to defeat it, before putting forward their own motion to end the mission immediately (also defeated, of course). Many of us saw this as a self-serving political manoeuvre designed to present the NDP as the only "real" anti-war party in Parliament. If the only problem was that they disagreed with the dates in the Liberal motion, they could have simply abstained. The motion as worded would have very effectively tied Harper's hands, making it extremely difficult to extend the mission. Layton gave him this victory on a platter.

And now we face increasing NATO pressure to extend the mission beyond 2011. From that time when the NDP leader was loudly demanding "troops home now," he has shifted to his current weak stand. It is truly dismaying.


Kimball Cariou is a longtime Vancouver anti-war activist and editor of People's Voice newspaper. A version of this article first appeared on the Pacific Free Press website, and is published here with permission.

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