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Federal Election 2011

Canada at War: Ghost Issue of 2011 Election

Military conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya were no-go zones for politicians, most media. Last in a series about what got ignored.

Katie Hyslop 2 May

Katie Hyslop is covering the 2011 federal election for the Tyee.

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Canadian troops in Afghanistan.

With the federal election, two Canadian hockey teams contending for the Stanley Cup, and the most-hyped royal wedding in 30 years all taking place this month, it's easy to forget Canadian soldiers are currently putting their lives on the line in two conflicts. At least, it seems like our political leaders have forgotten.

With the exception of a brief mention of the war in Afghanistan by New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton during the English debate, the closest any party leader has come to discussing either battle is to squabble over the cost of 65 F-35 fighter jets. But critics say the leaders haven't forgotten -- they're just hoping the Canadian public has.

"It comes down to the people on the communication teams and the crudely named war rooms of the parties in this election," says Derrick O'Keefe, co-chair of the Vancouver Stop-War Coalition.

"Someone in the leader's office or on the communications team decides that Afghanistan and the war is not an issue that's going to win them a lot of votes, so it doesn't get emphasized, it doesn't get brought up."

'Blame the Liberals'

There are approximately 2,800 Canadian soldiers currently in Afghanistan, a slight increase on the number put there by the Liberals under Jean Chrétien in 2001. But despite the fact Canada has had a Conservative government since 2006, it's because of the Liberals that the troops have stayed.

"I lay the blame at the Liberals who now, three times, are responsible for extending our mission: the last two, and now this training mission because Mr. Ignatieff voted with Mr. Harper to extend it on two occasions," says Steven Staples, director of the Rideau Institute, a non-profit advocacy, consulting, and research group that deals with Canadian public policy.

The most recent agreement between the two parties came in November 2010, when the Liberals supported Prime Minister Harper's decision to extend the mission beyond 2011 with a smaller team of Canadian troops training the Afghan National Army in Kabul.

Staples says the Liberals have shown they won't give up on Afghanistan any time soon.

"Certainly you heard it from Michael Ignatieff in the English debate, when he confronted Jack Layton about Afghanistan, to which Layton said, 'You agreed with Mr. Harper to extend our mission without any debate,' and Ignatieff said, 'What are you going to do? We've done all this work there, we can't leave now,'" he says.

"I think when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you do is stop digging."

Long-term plan is not safe: O'Keefe

The Conservatives emphasize Canada's plan for Afghanistan includes taking our soldiers out of harm's way by the end of 2011. But O'Keefe isn't buying it, arguing nowhere in Afghanistan is safe.

"This is a total fallacy that you can have a safe military mission, and recently Harper has been forced to admit that there will be risks, and I think we can say almost for certain that there will be more Canadian lives lost over the next three or four years because of this decision," he told The Tyee.

O'Keefe cites a recent attack by a veteran Afghan army pilot on his U.S. trainers, killing eight American soldiers and one American contractor. This is not the first time an Afghan soldier has turned on their foreign military trainers, and O'Keefe fears it will not be the last.

He's also suspicious of Canada's reasons for staying in the area.

"It's the Harper government's desire for a more militaristic country, and I think there are Canadian corporations that would like to exploit some of the mineral resources in Afghanistan," he says.

"It came out last year that Afghanistan is sitting on somewhere over a trillion dollars in untapped mineral resources, and Canada, being the world's biggest mining power, has bid on a number of those big projects."

Silence from the NDP

O'Keefe isn't letting other parties off the hook, either. In addition to blaming the Liberals for supporting Conservative extensions on troop withdrawal, he has little faith in the Greens, who didn't support a total withdrawal in the 2008 election and have said little on the issue since, and he's disappointed in the NDP's lack of voice on the issue.

"I don't think that the NDP have been adequate in speaking out about Afghanistan during this campaign. It was mentioned during the debate, but I think Layton and the NDP campaign could have done more to highlight this issue," he says.

Nevertheless O'Keefe thinks it could be the NDP's anti-war stance that's increasing their votes in Quebec, a notoriously anti-war province.

"The Liberals have really gotten nowhere in Quebec, and with the Bloc support seeming to have fallen off, the NDP has had this surge in support, and I think that's partly because the NDP was offering something of an anti-war alternative to both the Liberals and Conservatives," he says.

Lack of Libya debate

It isn't just the left-wing decrying the parties' positions -- or lack thereof -- on Canada's wars. Retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie has written op-eds in the Globe and Mail and Ottawa Citizen openly questioning the government's lack of objective in Libya, while Rick Hillier, Canada's former chief of defense, told the CBC earlier this month that a debate on Libya was needed to liven up a "boring" election.

But there is little debate to be had, according to Staples, because all the parties are in agreement when it comes to Libya.

"Ironically the NDP has put in their platform that they want to put major military missions to debates and votes in Parliament, but there was hardly any pressure to have a vote on the Libya mission," Staples told The Tyee.

"There was a short debate, but essentially everybody was on side, and those people who were skeptical of the mission had no political voice in Parliament."

On the Tyee, UBC professor of international law Michael Byers, who ran as an NDP candidate in the last federal election, argued that it was a great day for human rights when the UN Security Council resolution authorized Canada and other nations to "take all necessary measures... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack."

Byers' interpretation: "The human rights of pro-democracy protestors have been elevated above the rights of sovereign governments." 

Media makes the election issues: former UN ambassador

Former Canadian Ambassador to the UN Paul Heinbecker says Libya is arguably a more important issue than Afghanistan because it is so new, and he blames the media for giving the parties a free ride on both issues during the campaign.

"Our beloved media is too busy covering the campaign as if it were a horse race to think about anything other than who's up and who's down, and whether the latest attack ad is smart or stupid," says Heinbecker.

Beyond the wars, Heinbecker, a former foreign policy advisor to prime minister Brian Mulroney, would like to see foreign policy in general be part of the election debate, saying the Conservative record has been disastrous.

"The way the Conservative government has ruined relations with a number of countries hasn't been in the election campaign. Relations with Mexico have been severely damaged by the Conservative government because they forced visas on Mexicans without actually having any way of providing visas to them," says Heinbecker.

"Relations with a country like Turkey are now very bad again, and relations with the United Arab Emirates could hardly have been poorer -- they actually campaigned against us for a UN Security Council seat because they thought that we treated them so badly over the United Arab Emirates's desire to have some more landing rights in Canada for their national airline.

"Fundamentally, our foreign policies have a lot of problems, but the media just overlooks it and is much more interested in the game of politics than the substance of its policies."  [Tyee]

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