Column for Sept. 10, 2006 Layton and Afghanistan

Why are we there?

Jack Layton may not be right, but he is not wrong either.

The NDP leader’s call for Canada to immediately pull our troops out of Afghanistan and press for multilateral negotiations — including with the Taliban — has roused righteous and predictable furies.

His political opponents, thankful that Layton had put his foot where most of them fear to tread, were anxious to step down hard. In an interview on CBC-TV’s The National, Foreign Minister Peter MacKay disingenuously argued it was “disingenuous” for Layton to claim to be supporting our soldiers while questioning the soldiers’ mission (the one MacKay’s government gave them, which is now apparently sacred and beyond question). As for negotiating with the Taliban, with whom we are engaged in ugly, close and mortal combat that will not ultimately end without some form of negotiation, MacKay was scornful. “What’s next?” he mocked. “Tea with Osama bin Laden?”

Our overstocked army of retired generals-turned-well-paid-consultants-and-commentators were equally eager to pop up like shooting gallery targets to denounce Layton for his affront to our fighting men and women. Retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie tut-tutted that Layton was “following the polls and playing domestic politics on the backs of our soldiers.”

Meanwhile, the gaggle of camp-following cheerleader-war correspondents, led by the Globe and Mail’s over-the-top Field Marshall Christie Blatchford, claimed Layton wanted to talk peace “with the killers of these… terrific, courageous and dogged soldiers… If I could have,” Blatchford wrote, “I would have reached into my television set and grabbed [Layton] by the throat.”

More understandably, Truro’s Jim Davis, the father of Cpl. Paul Davis, who died in Afghanistan in March, claimed it was “despicable” for Layton to be “playing politics with the lives of our soldiers.” He was offended at Layton’s seeming suggestion his son might have died in a mission that is not “our mission.”

In the end, that is the question. What is our mission in Afghanistan? What are our specific, measurable goals? How will we know when we’ve achieved them? What is our plan to extricate ourselves once we have accomplished what we set out to do?

Despite the rhetoric on all sides, we have not had a real national public discussion about those very important, entirely legitimate questions.

Are we engaged in an exercise in nation-and-democracy building that, by its very nature, requires us to fight a counter-insurgency first war in order to make the country safe for that democracy to flower?

If that is our goal — and most of us, me included, want to believe nation-building is why we’re there — are we going about it in the most effective, efficient way possible?

That is, at the least, debatable.

Five years after it was ostensibly routed, the Taliban — aided and abetted by our supposed ally in Pakistan — is very much alive and well. So too are the drug cartels and the warlords, who have made common cause with the Taliban against the foreign occupiers, among which they include us. To complicate matters, the democratically elected government we have been so keen to encourage is itself freckled with warlords and drug barons, and rife with corruption. And, worst of all, according to a recent report in the New York Times, some combination of fear, frustration and resentment is driving growing numbers of impoverished Afghans in the country’s rural south into “openly collaborating with the Taliban.”

Canada’s defence minister conceded last week that “we cannot eliminate the Taliban, not militarily anyway.” Our best hope, Gordon O’Connor suggested, is to “get them back to some kind of acceptable level, so they don’t threaten other areas.”

If that is true — and it appears to be — why not look for ways other than war-to-the-death (Negotiations, perhaps?) to find that “acceptable level.”

So long as our focus is solely on combat, we will not only not be making real headway on reconstruction but we will also be losing the more important war for the hearts and minds of Afghanis.

General James L. Jones, NATO’s top commander — hardly a bleeding heart softie — last week criticized the international community for not matching military might on the ground with economic and other aid. Jones, who described international aid programs to Afghanistan as being “in some stage of life support,” made the important point that “the future of Afghanistan will not be determined by the military.”

Jack Layton may be wrong to suggest the answer is to unilaterally withdraw our troops, but he is right to suggest we need to discuss why we’re really there and how best to accomplish our goals.

Stephen Kimber, the Maclean Hunter Professor of Journalism at the University of King’s College, is the author of five nonfiction books as well as a novel, Reparations, which was published this spring by HarperCollins.

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