Jack Layton did more than make a lot of New Democrats proud with his call for Canada to withdraw its troops from the shoot to kill mission in Afghanistan by February of next year.
By asserting that there should be political control over Canada's fighting role, the NDP leader raised an issue that could well define, not just the next election campaign, but the very nature of the military roles Canada takes on in the world.
His act of leadership provoked a lot of negative response, but reason and intelligence are on his side. Watching Canadian soldiers kill and be killed raises legitimate questions for political leaders to debate openly. Why are the military deployed, what are the objectives of the mission, and who it is we are supposed to be helping?
No satisfactory answers have been forthcoming from the government; it is not enough to say we are there to support our troops. Layton is right, the time to put a stop to this costly military adventure is next February, the original date for withdrawal of Canadian Forces.
Why is Canada in Afghanistan? One answer is provided by Compas polls that have shown that Canadian business leaders consistently want to support the U.S. on security issues in order to promote better trade relations. On March 19 the Canadian embassy in Washington began an advertising campaign. Riders on the subway system in the U.S. capital could see Canadian soldiers featured on posters bearing the caption Boots on the Ground / U.S.-Canada Relations: Security is Our Business. Beginning back in May of 2004 a government website called Canadian Ally was set up to inform Americans about Canada's role alongside U.S. troops.
Canada is in Afghanistan because the Americans are, but the U.S. rationale is no better. The U.S. undertook military action in Afghanistan in response to the September 11 bombing. The mission was to capture Osama bin Laden and prevent his al-Qaeda terrorists from carrying out additional action against the U.S.
After marching into Kabul and overthrowing the Taliban government, the U.S. has found itself engaged in hostilities against tribal warlords bent on making a living by selling opium. Now the Taliban are once again the enemy, apparently, along with Pashtun tribes.
When the Americans decided to invade Iraq, their new interest diverted attention from Afghanistan where the Soviets lost a similar engagement, following a similar military triumph in Kabul in 1979. By setting up a centralized government the U.S. has succeeded in uniting groups that would have been better dealt with one by one.
Human Rights Watch has characterized the current government as one run by warlords, with some 20 per cent of legislators maintaining private militias.
The U.S. is a military democracy, Canada is not, and that irritates some in the Canadian military who have been itching for the kind of authority over public policy enjoyed by the military in the U.S. How much better it would be to open a public inquiry into how we got involved in the first place and why the military got to set the terms of engagement and the mandate without parliamentary debate or public discussion.
Prime Minister Harper has to answer to an independent inquiry on how he allowed the military to make policy on behalf of Parliament, and his government.
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