Thursday, March 11, 2010

I Bet You Thought It's Just The Combat Mission That's Coming To End Next Year, Right?

As a a direct consequence of the political paralysis that has seized Ottawa in recent months, almost all activity undertaken by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in Afghanistan has been stymied by a built-in 2011 sunset clause that Canadians have never been told about. Pretty well all non-military reconstruction and development work is to end in 2011. The Ottawa press gallery hasn't noticed it. Parliament never debated it. It has just happened, partly by accident, partly by design and partly by incompetence, but mostly because of political cowardice.

This is one of the key findings in the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee report, Keeping Our Promises: Canada in Afghanistan Post-2011 - The Way Forward, which I took the lead in writing. While the tabloid "Afghan abuse" rumpus has been keeping us all entertained, everything our soldiers have been fighting and dying for has been quietly tossed under the bus. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has mentioned that some sort of aid assistance will be available after 2011, but nobody knows what that means, Parliament isn't talking about it, and almost everything Canada is doing in Afghanistan - dozens of small-scale and large-scale projects and initiatives, all over Afghanistan - comes to a screeching halt in 2011.

The paralysis has meant that all forward planning is practically impossible. The most senior CIDA officials have been left with no direction about commitments beyond the current fiscal year. The Solidarity Committee has been advised by CIDA officials that they are not even at liberty to discuss this issue with us. Canada’s partners in the Afghan finance ministry are mystified about what, if anything, Canada will continue to contribute to the Afghan government’s basic payroll and recurrent costs. The Canadian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar has been led to believe it will continue its work beyond 2011, but it is not certain whether any Canadian soldiers will be involved in providing security for any PRT-initiated aid and development projects.

How has this happened?

The March 2008 House of Commons resolution that extended Canada's "combat mission" in Kandahar to 2011 also delegated the work of addressing Canada’s engagements in Afghanistan to a new House of Commons committee. The Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan was established to make “frequent recommendations on the conduct and progress of our efforts in Afghanistan.” The Committee was supposed to travel to Afghanistan and the surrounding region, meet regularly with Canada’s ministers of foreign affairs, international cooperation and defence, and other senior officials. The Committee was also tasked with reviewing laws and procedures related to the thorny matter of Afghanistan-related operational and national security exceptions to the disclosure of information to Parliament, the Courts and the public.

Here's the real scandal: The Committee has done none of these things.

Instead, it has rendered itself irrelevant to the central question of Canada’s current and future engagements in Afghanistan. It has become paralyzed by the very operational and national security exceptions it was originally intended to review. Opposition members’ say this is because the government has flouted laws and procedures requiring the disclosure of information by unjustifiable and arbitrary resort to national and operational security exceptions. Specifically, the Committee has become deadlocked over disclosure of memoranda related to the Canadian Forces’ handling of Afghan detainee issues going back to a time well before the Committee was established. Government members say this has occurred because of the Committee’s own overweening focus on the matter of Afghan detainees and an unreasonable demand for release of information that properly falls within national and operational security exceptions.

All very fascinating, right?

The “detainee file,” curiously, is the one Afghanistan-related policy conundrum that was already resolved by the time the Committee was established. The detainee-abuse questions the Committee persists in raising, whatever their merit, have no relevance to existing operating protocols governing the detention and transfer of Afghan detainees from Canadian Forces custody to Afghan authorities. New detainee protocols, developed in collaboration with NATO, were put in place in response to the recommendations of the same March 2008 House of Commons resolution that created the Committee in the first place. Nevertheless, it has gotten so that last month, in an unintentional parody, a headline in a Toronto daily newspaper referred to the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan as the “Afghan abuse committee.”

The Committee has failed to discharge its mandate to review the law and procedures governing operational and national security exceptions to the ordinary disclosure of information. Further, the Committee has compounded and exacerbated the problem it was tasked to address, to the point of forcing what some observers have described as a constitutional crisis.

At the very moment when the taxpayers' investment of more than $18 billion is about to pay real dividends in Afghanistan, Canada's entire engagement there - a critical component of the most ambitious project in the history of the United Nations - has been hijacked. If this Committee were a parliamentary committee of the Wolesi Jirga in Kabul, we would all be citing it as an illustration of Afghan institutional dysfunction, an unfamiliarity with the basic rules of parliamentary procedure, and a consequence of more than 30 years of war.

Forget the "combat mission" business for a moment - nobody is arguing for a continuation of the Canadian battle group in Kandahar after 2011. What about our contributions to the entrenchment of democratic Afghan institutions? What about our promises of free and fair elections? What about helping Afghans build up a society free from misogyny, illiteracy and disease?

Where are all the troops-out bleaters who had all those big ideas about what Canada could contribute to Afghanistan's peace and security if it weren't for the exorbitant expense of the combat mission? Their day has arrived. Where are all their big ideas now? Where are the Conservatives who vowed never to "cut and run"? Where are all the Liberals who've been carrying on and on about "Canada's international reputation"? Nobody in Ottawa has any idea what non-military responsibilities Canada will be assuming after 2011. This is next year we're talking about, remember.

We're one of the world's richest countries, and a leading member of the 43-nation International Security Assistance Force, and we're leaving Afghans with the demoralizing impression that we have just given up, that our withdrawal is the harbinger of their coming abandonment by the international community. Because of the complete abdication of the political class in Ottawa, Canada is stumbling blindly towards the 2011 expiry of the multi-national Afghanistan Compact, leaving unaddressed the most fundamental questions related to Canada’s continuing engagements in Afghanistan. Canadians deserve honest and detailed answers to all these questions, and all we're getting is the same old partisan mumbo-jumbo.

Our government has made solemn promises to Canadians, to our Afghan friends and allies, and especially to the families of our soldiers, 140 of whom have given their lives to this cause. We weren't going to just run away. We were in Afghanistan to help the people build a democracy that they'd be capable of defending by themselves. We'd stand with them until they could stand on their own. Remember that?

Are we going to let our government get away with breaking those promises? If you were Haitian, would you believe our prime minister when he says to you that Canada is going to stick by you "until the job is done"?

Canada's debates about Afghanistan have become fatally polarized. This is getting us absolutely nowhere. The gridlock has got to be broken. We have to stop thinking about 2011 as the end of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan and start thinking about the chance we’ve finally got for a new beginning.

What the Solidarity Committee has found is a surprising consensus for a new and radically reshaped Canadian engagement. The consensus emerges from intensive consultations among more than 100 key opinion makers and organizations in Canada and Afghanistan. It's the broad outline of a way forward that unites the Afghan-Canadian community, CASC members from all political parties, and leading Canadian military, aid and academic experts. It also reflects an emerging consensus among Afghan government officials, prominent political leaders, and pro-democracy groups from across Afghanistan’s social spectrum.

Read the whole report. Write your MP.


Blogger natasha said...

Terry, I'm one of those who always believed we need to stay in Afghanistan for the reasons you expound -- bring democracy, end misogyny, etc. But lately I've been wavering, wondering if it isn't hopeless -- so much tribal nonsense among the Afghan people. IMO, though, you are better informed than I on this matter, so I'll write my MP and CC it to the PMO and the Minister of Defence (for all the good it will do -- the only politician I ever get a response from is Jason Kenney).

4:45 AM  
Blogger ArmdRecceBoy said...

While I agree that the battle group has to come home (it's not really a matter of choice, given the recent federal budget's trimming of defence spending and the outright exhaustion of the Army), the question of the military involvement after 2011 is still a troublesome one.
The fact of the matter is that in Afghanistan aid, any aid, is inextricably intertwined with security. Or to put it another way, no military, no aid. This is the Taliban's choice, despite whinging in some quarters about militarization of aid. It's the Taliban after all that executes unarmed female aid workers for the "crime" if giving rural Afghan children polio vaccinations.
So the question to me is, how do we structure our military involvement in Afghanistan after 2011 to best protect and deliver aid? How do we get CIDA and DFAIT to put aside their bureaucratic squabbling and turf wars and work with the CF to actually accomplish something?
Complicated questions and ones with no simple answers, but ones which aren't even on Parliament's horizon.

9:38 PM  
Blogger Kurt Langmann said...

Give 'em hell, Terry. In for a penny, in for a pound.

12:24 AM  

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