Sunday, November 07, 2010

Canucks in Afghanistan Post-2011: 'Journalism' conceals what it purports to reveal.

OTTAWA—Canadian troops could remain “behind the wire” in Afghanistan involved in training local troops after their combat mission ends next summer, the Star has learned.

If that's the case then Canada's fattest newspaper, the Toronto Star, has just admitted without the slightest trace of embarassment or irony that it has only now "learned" what perhaps millions of Canadians have known for months - that Canadian troops "could remain" in Afghanistan in some sort of training role after July, 2011.

Defence Minister Peter Mackay has conceded this possibility more than once. The Opposition Liberals have explicity urged Prime Minister Harper to consider a training role for Canadian troops. The Conservatives on the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence have suggested a post-2011 training role for our soldiers. Not a few members of the Conservative cabinet and caucus have indicated their warmth to the idea. The House Special Committee on Afghanistan - even its New Democratic Party members -has expressed its willingness to consider a proposal along those very lines.

The Toronto Star's Bruce Campion-Smith is a fine reporter, but his awkward resort to the antique journalistic convention "the Star has learned" reveals two things. First, the steam-whistle construction of that sentence would have been useful only if the Star had "learned" that everything we already thought we knew about this was wrong, when in fact the opposite is the case - this should tell you that the "news" is actually happening elsewhere. Second, the newsworthiness of what Campion-Smith has learned is fatally occluded by his necessary source-protection resort to the euphemism "senior government official." It's there that the newsworthiness of this story, such as it is, truly lies.

In sum, it looks like the PMO's reptilian strategy of being deliberately (and disgracefully) obtuse on the matter of Canada's post-2011 role in Afghanistan may be at last shedding its tail or laying an egg or eating its young or something. Whatever is happening, you won't learn much from the Toronto Star article, and if there is anything faintly newsworthy in its content you don't come to it until the 11th paragraph.

After we are told that the Star's "source" has referred to Canada's decision to pull its combat troops as "non-negotiable" (it would be only newsworthy if the source had said the opposite), we learn: "That's a message Prime Minister Stephen Harper intends to deliver in several weeks in Lisbon, Portugal, when he meets with fellow NATO leaders." Thus, even the buried substance of the story has a whole dog-bites-man quality to it. If Harper were intending to say anything other than that in Lisbon, then we would have had the potential for a news story here.

But something newsworthy does appear to be happening. You can tell because CTV News is running with a similarly weird dispatch, except in CTV's case the first sentence is directly contradicted by the third sentence of its own report. First we're told that "some" Canadian soldiers will move to Kabul to train Afghan troops, and then we're told no "final" decision has been taken, and indeed troop-training is only one of three options under consideration by cabinet.

Where's the news in that? The news is that the PMO appears to have finally allowed the federal cabinet to actually talk about it. In the sleepy-hollow atmosphere of Ottawa, this is actually bombshell stuff. Norman Spector wants to reduce it all to a case of the Prime Minister "flip-flopping." It is nothing of the kind. Prime Minister Harper has committed no flip from which to flop. He has kept shtum, like some sort of pensive emir, and he's been allowed to get away with it. For more than a year.

You can bet that the "news" that Canada might have soldiers in Afghanistan post-2011 will incite all the usual hysterics among the troops-out faction. Their loudest windbags will be upset that Harper, their quietest but most influential fellow traveler, appears now to be allowing his officials to leave the hoi-polloi with the impression that he might not object to the sort of scheme that Parliament would obviously endorse, if he'd succumbed to the whim to allow Parliament to consider the matter in the first place.

Either that, or the prime minister's handlers have simply decided that it's better to have the punditocracy blathering on about what all this "news" might mean than having attention too closely paid to just how outrageously Ottawa has been screwing over Canada's veterans and wounded soldiers.

Or maybe it's simply a case of journos attending this conference and trying to get some sort of response to such comments as were heard from the Yankee Senator John McCain: "We try to point out to the Canadian government and people that we appreciate all the sacrifices that have been made enormously, but we also would hope that they would consider leaving trainers there."

You can keep your appreciation, Senator. Canadian soldiers have not been fighting and dying in the dust of Afghanistan so that they might be better appreciated by the King of Amerikay. We weren't there to please his less-glamorous predecessor, and we shouldn't be expected to stay in Afghanistan to make Barack Obama happy, either. Yes, he is very different than the geezer who sat on the throne before him. He's got a nice Jewish first name and an Irish last name. So what?

Which brings us to the question: What have our soldiers been fighting and dying for, anyway? What is a fitting post-2011 Canadian tribute to their sacrifice and suffering? How can we more deeply entrench the institutions of peace, order and good government among our brave Afghan allies all over their country, in all the democratic spaces opened up by Canadian soldiers these past four years down in the ditches of Kandahar?

There is no debate worth having except that one, and it doesn't matter if the exit-strategy-obsessed Americans or our own troops-out prime minister might worry about the result. It should be a robust, open and public debate. It should be led by Parliament, not followed by Parliament.

Some proper journalism would help it along, too.

UPDATE: Here is some proper journalism. Not much new, though, except for evidence that little Denmark is braver than Canada.


Blogger Jonathon Narvey said...

"Prime Minister Harper has committed no flip from which to flop. He has kept shtum, like some sort of pensive emir, and he's been allowed to get away with it. For more than a year."

This sort of prose is why I always look forward to reading anything by Terry Glavin.

Will be propping this and some other coverage on the CASC site in a bit.

9:16 AM  
Blogger said...

Re: "Prime Minister Harper has committed no flip from which to flop. He has kept shtum, like some sort of pensive emir, and he's been allowed to get away with it. For more than a year."

1) Good one (I take it you had a chance to watch "In the Loop"?)
2) Maybe not quite a year - this from PMSH, as of January of this year:
"There will be a phased withdrawal, beginning in the middle of the year. We hope to have that concluded by the end of that year. As you know the Obama administration, not coincidentally, is talking about beginning its withdrawal in 2011, at the same time we are. We will continue to maintain humanitarian and development missions, as well as important diplomatic activity in Afghanistan. But we will not be undertaking any activities that require any kind of military presence, other than the odd guard guarding an embassy. We will not be undertaking any kind activity that requires a significant military force protection, so it will become a strictly civilian mission." (More here.)

Still, the latest back-and-forth suggests nobody has made a final decision - say we stay, or say we go, please.

Keep up the good fight TG!

9:23 AM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

Thanks, Jonathon.

And Milnews - is that you, ER Campbell? If so, I think you are bang on in your analysis of the "sides" in this debate being Harper's "domestic/isolationist" camp on one hand and the "activist / internationalist" camp taking in just about everyone else among the Conservatives and Liberals (most New Democrats would have to be put into a third camp, and I will refrain from conjuring a suitably pejorative term for it).

The ambiguity is as you have described: "We will continue to maintain humanitarian and development missions, as well as important diplomatic activity in Afghanistan."

What does that mean? Anyone can say that - Belgium or Latvia at one extreme, Iran and Pakistan at the other.

Canada has made an enormous and welcome contribution to all that has been helpful about the international engagement in Afghanistan over the past nine years, and almost all of our Canada's towering credibility in that country was earned with the blood of our soldiers.

In the cause of Afghan sovereignty and democracy, Obama is proving to be a sell-out, no better than Donald Rumsfeld. But Canada can still play a pivotal role in bolstering the democratic forces in that country and leading the NATO and ISAF countries who want to leave behind more than a mere Popolzai khanate. CARE Canada has proposed a Canadian focus on the defence of women's rights; CASC has proposed a focus on democratic institution-building and education. Nobody, not CASC nor the Conference of Defence Associations, is proposing a continued presence of a full-bore battle group. But what will our role be? We have 8 months left. We should have decided, long ago.

The tragedy is that the PMO seems perfectly content to allow the legacy of the Canadian Forces' sacrifice in Afghanistan to be a minor role in gruel-bag distribution or other such pedestrian "humanitarian" functions. We all deserve rather more from Ottawa than that, not least our Afghan friends and the families of our own dead soldiers.

10:52 AM  
Blogger said...

Re: the factional debate, I have to footnote E.R. Campbell's enlightenment on that front via here about a year ago.

12:09 PM  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said... is Tony Prudori--who also posts at where E.R. Campbell abides. Clear?


12:13 PM  
Blogger dmurrell said...

My memory is foggy here, but a while ago Michael Ignatieff had criticized Harper for planning a total miltary withdrawal from Afghanistan. And even the media who had consistently opposed the military mission -- e.g. CBC News and the Globe and Mail -- questioned a total withdrawal.

So back then this is what I call political "role reversal": the Harper Conservatives shifted so far Red Tory "left", that the Liberals can start to feel safe by taking a pragmatice centrist approach (e.g., military training of Afghanistan military recruits).

I suspect that Ignatieff's early centrist position may have lured Harper back to a more pregmatic position. However, in last night's (Monday night's) broadcast news, Ignatieff was there ranting for Harper to unveil his plans for our military -- wanting "specifics". And as usual, the Ignatieff Liberals sound foggy and opposition-oriented.

Canadians are overwhelminly favouring a total military withdrawal -- and this is because of near-universal opposition from our left-leaning corporate media and the untter lack of any meaningful support for a military role from Harper, the Conservatives, or the military bureacracy in Ottawa.

2:26 AM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

Hi Dave. I wish there were a Red Tory "left" aspect to Harper's mysterious intransigence. A Red Tory PM would strive to assert a distinctly robust Canadian role in Afghanistan that would be highly (and properly) suspicious of American intentions.

It may be a simple matter of Harper hoping to bait Iggy, to force the Liberals out into a more "right wing" position so that the Conservatives are not isolated out there - that should tell you something about the maturity of Canadian politics; coming to the aid of Afghan democracy, women's rights and the sovereignty of a poor country harrassed and bullied by its neighbours is now considered a "right wing," Conservative position in Canada.

8:37 AM  

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