The Tyee

What's Canada's New Mission in Afghanistan?

And why aren't our politicians talking about it? If you think we're done in 2011, a lot of Afghans would urge otherwise.

Terry Glavin, 17 Mar 2010,



Schoolgirls in Afghanistan.


Schoolgirls in Afghanistan.

As you might imagine by its name, the House of Commons Special Committee on Afghanistan is supposed to provide advice to the House of Commons on Canada's role in Afghanistan. But there is a problem. The MPs who dominate the committee say the committee's job is actually not to provide advice to the House of Commons on the pressing matter of Canada's role in Afghanistan.

I am not trying to be funny.

The committee has 12 members drawn equally from government and opposition benches, which is one reason why it's gotten nowhere since it was established in March 2008. The committee was handed a specific mandate to travel to Afghanistan and to neighbouring countries and to issue frequent recommendations on how Canada is doing and what Canada could do better.

The committee has done none of these things.

Think about that for a moment. Canada has been a leader among the 43 countries with soldiers in Afghanistan under the NATO-led, UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force. Among more than 50 donor countries, Canada has been a leading contributor to Afghanistan's reconstruction. Canada has a "special" parliamentary committee on Afghanistan, and it has never even been to Afghanistan.

It hasn't done a thing Parliament has told it to do, and yet the loudest howls you hear from the committee are about the government's contempt for Parliament. You could say it's been utterly useless, but that wouldn't be quite fair. The committee has served a purpose. It has kept the more slovenly members of the Ottawa press corps titillated by the fantasy that if they just sit there like stenographers long enough, eventually they'll get to type the name of a Conservative cabinet minister into the same sentence with the words "war criminal."

This is what you get when the sinister manoeuvres of petty partisanship array against statesmanship and the public good. That's what this story is about. It's a story that not a few Ottawa politicians are banking on you being too stupid to notice.

Elusive holy grail

Afghanistan's reconstruction is the most ambitious project in the history of the United Nations. It's the largest mobilization of Canadian soldiers in 60 years, and the largest project in the history of Canada's foreign aid initiatives, but the Special Committee on Afghanistan is now the biggest inside joke on Parliament Hill.

Despite its persistent preoccupation with detainee torture, the committee has failed to find its holy grail. It has waded through mountains of memoranda and emails, "explosive" testimony and "incendiary" evidence. It has had to go all the way back to 2005 to find the really tantalizing bits, and the New Democratic Party's original idea of putting the matter to some sort of separate public inquiry is still a good one. But try pointing out that the operational procedures for Afghan detainee-handling were actually resolved by the very House of Commons motion that established the committee in the first place, two years ago. You'll find you've exposed yourself to moral blackmail: you don't care about torture!

Whatever damage its Liberal members might imagine they're doing to the Conservatives, Liberal caucus leaders are actually embarrassed by the whole thing. The committee's recently-departed New Democrat, Paul Dewar, is happy to be finally shut of it. There isn't a single self-respecting journalist in this town who does not know exactly what has been going on here.

Last weekend on the CBC radio program The House, the Committee's leading Conservative member, Edmonton MP Laurie Hawn, was obliged to once again defend his government's handling of the lurid "Afghan detainee issue" that has aroused so many Ottawa insiders. But here's the really crazy part:

Without so much as a hint of embarrassment, the committee's leading Liberal, Ujjal Dosanjh, and the committee's recently-appointed New Democrat, Jack Harris, both insisted to the CBC that it is not the job of the Special Committee on Canada's engagement in Afghanistan to address itself to the immediate and now desperately urgent question about Canada's engagement in Afghanistan: What happens in 2011?

Big questions to address

Bear in mind that Canada is a prominent signatory to the multi-nation Afghanistan Compact, the role-assigning agreement that expires next year. Canada's Kandahar "combat role" also ends next year, but that's only one of six Canadian priorities in Afghanistan. The others involve providing basic services, delivering humanitarian aid, helping with border protection, building national institutions, and backing national reconciliation efforts.

Should Canada continue with these priorities? Should Canada play a completely different role? Are Canadians ever going to be allowed to consider these questions and make decisions about them? Because of the paralysis in Ottawa, almost all projects supported by the Canadian International Development Agency in Afghanistan are coming to a screeching halt next year. With 2011 only a few months away, what is the committee's advice to the House of Commons?

The exasperated host of The House, Kathleen Petty, persisted with this very simple question. It's the same question I'd been raising in Ottawa that very week on behalf of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee. It's been two whole years. When is this committee going to get around to talking about the Canadian mission in Afghanistan?

Jack Harris: "First of all, the Afghanistan Committee was not put forward to discover what we're going to do post-2011. The Afghanistan Committee's job and role, and this came from the Manley commission report and the motion, was to report to Parliament on the mission and what's going on."

By "the Manley commission report," Harris was referring to the independent panel chaired by former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley that recommended an extension of Canada's Kandahar combat role to 2011. The panel offered no direction on what should happen in 2011. That wasn't the panel's job.

Perhaps Harris can tell the rest of us "what's going on" and what should happen next year? Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made some noises about Post-2011 humanitarian aid. If Harris is satisfied by this, why doesn't he just come right out and say so?

Ujjal Dosanjh: "The issue isn't what committee is doing what. The issue is whether or not these issues are being studied. The issue with respect to Post-2011 is going to be studied by the other committee," he said.

The "other committee" Dosanjh referred to is the Standing Committee on National Defence, which is in fact not studying the issue, and has no mandate to study the issue, and would be the last place to talk about the issue anyway. It's the committee that generals and military experts are routinely summoned to attend in order to patiently instruct earnest and well-meaning MPs in the subtle differences between howitzers and ham sandwiches.

It was in fact the "special" Afghanistan committee that was explicitly tasked with the very job Dosanjh doesn't want the committee to do. The relevant cabinet ministers have consistently said it's up to Parliament to decide what Canada's post-2011 role in Afghanistan should be, so this isn't something you can easily lay solely at Harper's feet. The special Afghanistan committee is the lead House of Commons committee on the question. That's why it's called the "special" committee.

If the committee has decided that its job doesn't include advising Parliament about what Canada should be doing in Afghanistan, then why does it still exist? Why doesn't it just get out of the way and let Parliament get to work?

Mandates never carried out

The "motion" Harris referred to is the same March 2008 House of Commons motion that extended Canada's combat role in Kandahar to 2011 and created the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan in the first place. The committee's mandate was renewed in February last year and again this year on March 3.

Apart from issuing a report about training Afghan soldiers that everyone has already forgotten about, the committee has done nothing its mandate requires.

In both of its renewal motions, the committee's parliamentary leadership role on Afghanistan was confirmed. So were the two other big jobs the committee was established to do. The committee is supposed to "review the laws and procedures governing the use of operational and national security exceptions for the withholding of information" and "ensure that Canadians are being provided with ample information on the conduct and progress of the mission."

The committee has done neither of these things.

The committee hasn't just failed to address the problem of a policy vacuum on information-release exceptions. It has made the problem worse. The committee has in fact exacerbated the problem to the point of turning it into a constitutional crisis.

The Liberals say it's the Conservatives' fault for resorting to the most frivolous and partisan excuses to withhold all sorts of information. The Conservatives say the Liberals are beating dead horses and insinuating that Canadian soldiers are SS monsters. The NDP says the committee should put the matter aside and get down to business, but it hasn't once used its tie-breaking vote to get the committee back to work.

On its latter task, the committee has produced a dumpster load of activity reports and minutes records that you could spend days reading and you'd end up knowing less about "the conduct and progress of the mission" than you did when you started. Last month, in an unintentional parody, a Toronto newspaper headline referred to it as "the Afghan abuse committee."

Welcome to the roundtable

What follows is but one example of how irrelevant the committee has become to the work it was established to do.

The Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee is a grassroots, non-government group of Canadians from all walks of life and all political parties. Last Tuesday, at the National Archives, we hosted a roundtable discussion on the urgent question of what Canada should be doing in Afghanistan.

Among our panellists were Grant Kippen, the Canadian chairman of the Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission, which blocked the fraud-plagued first round in last year's Afghan presidential elections; Jawed Ludin, Afghanistan's ambassador to Canada; Nasrine Gross, an Afghan-American writer and human rights activist; Nipa Banerjee, the former head of CIDA in Afghanistan; Lewis Mackenzie, the author and retired major-general; Douglas Bland, Chair of the Defence Management Studies Program at Queen's University; and the Solidarity Committee's co-founder, Lauryn Oates, a human rights and gender equity activist.

The NDP's Paul Dewar showed up. So did Immigration and Citizenship Minister Jason Kenny and Senator Pamela Wallin.

What was happening on Parliament Hill that day? The whole place was vibrating with a reportedly shocking revelation. It seems that back in 2005, the Liberal government was warned that Afghan detainees were at risk of torture at the hands of Afghan authorities, but the Liberals, worried about a Guantanamo Bay sort of controversy, went ahead with detainee transfers anyway.

Exactly the same story appeared in Montreal's La Presse on April 28, 2007. That's "progress" for you.

Meanwhile, in the real world, everything has moved on.

Canada faces changed reality in Afghanistan

The Canadian Forces held Kandahar for four bloody years, and now the horizon that 140 of our soldiers died trying to reach is finally within sight. Nobody's proposing a continued combat-role, battle group engagement in Kandahar. But nobody wants a disgraceful abdication of Canada's global responsibilities or a betrayal of the promises Canada has made to Afghanistan, either.

You can't call it George Bush's war now. The disastrous American "we don't do nation-building" policy was abandoned years ago. Southern Afghanistan is being flooded with fresh American recruits, and a new NATO counter-insurgency strategy is showing every sign of success.

You'd never know it, but there is a tremendous amount of goodwill and common ground about Afghanistan among Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats. Nobody wants a cheap "exit strategy" that sells out to the Taliban. But nobody wants to leave Afghanistan saddled with an autocratic Pashtun khanate jerryrigged out of corrupt and decadent patronage networks, either.

Since early January, the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee has been canvassing opinion within the Afghan-Canadian community and among Canada's academic, NGO and activist-expert opinion leaders. We've travelled to Afghanistan and we've consulted widely across the spectrum of Afghan opinion. We've met with key figures in Afghanistan's pro-democracy movement, old mujahideen leaders, progressive Afghan MPs, women's rights leaders, government officials, young civil rights advocates, teachers, and journalists.

The consensus is astonishing.

What everybody tells us is that a legacy of democracy is what the world should be leaving in Afghanistan, and that Canada should take the lead. They may not be streaming through the streets in the way we've lately seen Iranians enliven their struggle, but after 30 years of war and tyranny, millions of Afghans have had a glimpse of democracy. They want more. They're not turning back.

Afghans want our help

There's nothing inscrutably exotic about Afghans. They want what we want: equal rights, the rule of law, a representative and accountable government, freedom of speech and assembly, a liberal and generous education, an entitlement to basic health services, and a fair chance at prosperity.

It's the vision that should form Canada's post-2011 strategy: an uncompromising investment in the institutions and the culture of Afghanistan's embryonic democracy, not least in the machinery of fully free and fair elections. We should commit to a long-term, robust dedication to Afghan literacy, learning, and the life of democratic ideas. The whole package would cost only a fraction of a full-bore military commitment.

Afghans should lead this. They want to, they can, and they will, but they're going to need a lot of help. What they tell us is that among all of Afghanistan's partners, Canada is the country that should champion this cause.

Canada isn't like the other leading ISAF nations. Canada isn't like any of the regional powers. Unlike Iran or China, Canada is a rich and healthy democracy. Unlike Russia, the United States, Britain or Pakistan, Canada has no 19th century history of foreign conquest, and no sordid 20th century authorship of the proxy wars that reduced Afghanistan to an abattoir and a madhouse.

Canadians are different. We don't cut and run. We stand and fight. Our soldiers don't kick down doors. They knock. That's what Afghans themselves tell us. It's why Canada is trusted, and it's why Afghans do not want Canada to just pack up and leave.

But it isn't an easy truth to tell. None of it fits with the fashionably "anti-imperialist" narrative that has infantilized the Afghanistan debate in Canada. Neither does it suit a cynical, security-focused foreign policy cut from tattered and moth-eaten conceptions of the national interest.

The root cause of Canada's political paralysis is the deadlock between these two obsolete paradigms. It's a quagmire of old and decrepit arguments. It's time to move on.

It's time for a new and proper Canadian debate about Afghanistan. We have to stop thinking about 2011 as the end, and start planning for a new beginning.

We have to start right now.

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