Troubled by the failures of the U.S./NATO war in Afghanistan, the Canadian government commissioned, in October of last year, a review of the war and Canada's participation. A panel of five corporate and political figures was cobbled together in an effort to reach broader consensus among the war's proponents.
Canada is an enthusiastic partner in the war, but there are growing concerns among its advocates about the seeming inability to defeat the resistance in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, a slim but stubborn majority of the Canadian population remains opposed to what increasingly appears as a futile and criminal war.
The review panel delivered its report on January 22, and it has sparked an intense and ongoing political debate in the country.
What the report says
The governing Conservative Party chose a prominent figure in the opposition Liberal Party, John Manley, to head the review panel. In 2005, the Liberals took Canada into a more aggressive combat role in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar. But some Liberals are getting cold feet, and others are tempted to use the failure of the mission for short-term political gain at home.
The mandate of the mission is due for renewal in 2009. The Conservatives hold only a minority of seats in the federal parliament and require support from the Liberals if ever the parliament were to vote an extension.
The government gave the review panel four options for the future of Canada's role, all of which involved some variant of a continued intervention. Manley was already on the record as a proponent of a continued military mission in Afghanistan. Two other panel members âe" Derrick Burney and Paul Tellier âe" have served on the boards of directors of two of Canada's largest arms manufacturers, the aerospace companies CAE and Bombardier. So it was no surprise that the panel is recommending that participation in the war continue.
Among the proposals contained in the report are:
- âe¢ A continued commitment to the combat role in Kandahar, until at least 2009.
âe¢ More support from other NATO countries as a condition for Canada to extend its combat mission beyond 2009. The report says a minimum of 1,000 more troops is expected. With such increased support, Manley says the war can be won "in less than ten years."
âe¢ Purchasing helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles, costing hundreds of millions of additional dollars. Currently, Canada relies on NATO allies for air support to its ground troops.
The report has been welcomed enthusiastically by those in favour of the war. An editorial in the January 23 National Post urges Harper to use the report as a basis to launch a "reinvigorated mission" in Afghanistan. But many supporters are less than enthused with the war's accomplishments to date.
Paraphrasing the report, National Post columnist Don Martin says the mission is, "too-few by half, ill-equipped, poorly coordinated and losing the battle to the enemy while failing to deliver adequate humanitarian aid or reconstruction help to average Afghans." Martin has travelled extensively in Afghanistan and he says the failure of the U.S./NATO war is a "sad reality."
Roland Paris, Director of the Center for International Policy Issues at the University of Ottawa, called the overall situation "distressing" in a January 23 commentary in the Globe and Mail.
The most vocal critic among backers of the war has been the Senlis Council, a European-based think tank that conducts extensive surveying as well as charitable work in Afghanistan. In a series of detailed studies of the Canadian role in Afghanistan issued in 2006 and 2007, it flatly states that the war will be lost unless new approaches are made to win friends among ordinary Afghans.
"The fact stands that Canada is losing its war in Afghanistan," writes Martin. "It's high time other nations measured up as worthy allies against global terrorism âe" without being blackmailed by our bluff."
A game of diplomatic chicken with NATO
The "other nations" referred to by Martin are Canada's European allies in NATO. Their role in Afghanistan is a central focus of Manley's recommendation, and a controversial one. The report says Canada should vigorously pressure and shame its allies in Europe to commit more troops to Afghanistan and engage more actively in combat.
In a January 23 editorial, the Globe and Mail writes, "What Mr. Manley proposes is a game of diplomatic chicken, but it is one that Mr. Harper cannot avoid."
The editorial continues, "âe¦it is a pitiful abdication of responsibility for larger countries such as France and Germany to refuse to assign another 1,000 [soldiers]âe¦"
But what if the "allies" are not persuaded, or if they don't take kindly to being blamed for the war's failings? It's a dilemma of which Manley and the government are acutely aware. They are careful to avoid describing their demands on NATO as blackmail or threats. Manley says the preferred term is "applying leverage."
The failure of Canadian "aid"
The issue of the failure of Canadian "aid" in Afghanistan particularly troubled the review panel. The report makes some frank criticism on this front.
Commenting on the report, a January 24 article in the Globe and Mail states, "Talk to CIDA and you will hear all manner of good things about the work it is contributing to in Afghanistanâe¦But those who seek a clearer idea of what it can actually put its name to from the $1.2 billion Canada has pledged in Afghan aid between 2002 and 2011 are left exasperated."
The newspaper echoes what the Senlis Council has reported for several years, which is that Canada has nothing to show for the more-than one billion dollars in "aid" money it has spent in Afghanistan since 2002. Ordinary Afghans remained mired in a terrible poverty, and they are frequent victims of indiscriminate bombings and military offensives by Canada and other NATO forces.
By all accounts, humanitarian conditions are deteriorating. Malalai Joya, the suspended Afghan MP, gave a grim picture of ordinary life in her country to The Independent: "The economic situation is also terrible âe" official figures put unemployment at around 60 percent but in reality it is much closer to 90 percent. Hundreds died in the winter from hypothermia, and women were so poor that they tried to sell their babies because they could not feed them."
Senator Colin Kenny, chairperson of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, says getting explanations from CIDA is like grasping at air. He told CBC Radio's The Current on January 22, "We haven't been able to find out what they [CIDA] are doing," despite extensive research by his committee. When members of his committee went to Afghanistan to examine aid projects firsthand, they were prevented from doing so by the Canadian military, who said it was "too dangerous" to venture outside the barbed wire military compound where they were housed.
Kenny said that when his committee met the government minister for CIDA, Beverley Oda, last year, they heard nothing but "gobbledegook" and "didn't get a straight answer from her in an hour and half."
Manley's report proposes that CIDA create a "signature project" such as a school or hospital that could be used to showcase Canadian "aid" to the Afghan people.
Part II of this article will be posted on rabble.ca this Wednesday.
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