Column for August 6, 2006

Past time for debating Afghanistan mission

“He was a professional…” “He died doing what he loved to do…” “He wanted to make the world a better place…” “We must support our soldiers…” “We should not cut and run…” At some level, I agree with those heartfelt sentiments, which inevitably get trotted out each time another of our soldiers is killed in Afghanistan.

At the same time, however, I believe those are also exactly the reasons Canadians need to have an honest, open debate about why we’re in Afghanistan, what we hope to accomplish there and how we’ll know when we’ve done what we set out to do.

We certainly didn’t have that debate back in 2002 when the Chrétien government — eager to wiggle back into the good graces of the Bush administration after rightly refusing to join them in plunging into the Iraqi abyss — volunteered our troops for on-the-ground duty in Afghanistan. Which was reasonable. We had been bit players in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, so we had a responsibility to help stabilize and rebuild the country.

But what was an initially modest, time-limited supportive role has now morphed into a major combat mission with no end in sight. And no serious public discussion.

We are fighting a counter-insurgency war in an unfamiliar country that has a long and inglorious history of tribal and ethnic hatreds we barely comprehend. We’ve committed thousands of Canadians soldiers and billions of taxpayer dollars to fighting this war — meaning, of course, that those resources are no longer available for other, perhaps equally compelling, maybe even more practical foreign and domestic priorities. And most importantly, of course, we’ve sacrificed the lives of close to two dozen — and counting — Canadian soldiers “to make the world a better place.”

But is this really the best way to accomplish that goal?

The closest we’ve come to a real national discussion came in May when Prime Minister Stephen Harper sprung a fake six-hour parliamentary debate on his parliamentary opponents. Ostensibly, the issue was extending our commitment in Afghanistan until 2009; in reality, it was sleazy partisan politics designed only to highlight divisions among opposition Liberals.

The fact is you don’t have to be a Liberal to wonder whether we’re on the right course in Afghanistan.

“What are we doing there?” asks Brian Mulroney’s former ambassador for disarmament, Peggy Mason, who is pressing for a public debate on the question. The problem, she recently told the Toronto Star, is that “there is no military solution to Afghanistan’s problems,” and we are actually making the situation on the ground worse by “focusing on a losing military battle.”

She’s not the only one to make that point.

Publicly, Canada claims to be taking a three-pronged, 3-D approach — defence, diplomacy and development. But many, including CARE Canada, say our focus on fighting an aggressive war has actually made it impossible to deliver desperately needed development aid — the third of the three “D’s,” and the one most likely to undermine Taliban support in the countryside.

Even Afghan president Hamid Karzai, our prime in-country ally in all of this, recently wondered aloud about the impact of the deaths of so many Afghans — including Taliban supporters — on his country’s overall support for the allies. He urged western countries to focus more on development and on cutting off the Taliban’s sources of arms and financial support. Which is to say Pakistan, George Bush’s erstwhile ally in the war on terror, which has quietly harboured and nurtured this Taliban resurgence that now threatens our soldiers.

The irony is that, instead of making Afghanistan safe for democracy and protecting Canada from future terrorist attacks, as the Harper government claims it has been doing, our involvement in Afghanistan may be making the situation worse.

Is the Harper government helping seed the next generation of the Afghan resistance, and, worse, making Canada itself a more likely future target for extremists by allowing our best intentions to be turned into an unwelcome new role as just one more in a long line of foreign occupying forces that have turned Afghanistan into a perpetual war zone?

We need a real rational, national debate. And sooner rather than later.

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