Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff is finally taking the brave lead of Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae ( "We have an obligation to see this thing through . . . . The door is open to serious discussion in Canada and between Canada and NATO about what the future looks like"), for which Rae has been so churlishly traduced
. Ignatieff is calling for a "frank national conversation" about Canada in Afghanistan post-2011.
This is good. This is also the view of many Conservative MPs, although it is not the view from the Prime Minister's office, where Stephen Harper sits glumly, wanting no debate about it, and wanting shut of the entire business, content to allow his ministers to look like idiots whenever the subject comes up.
So, good for Ignatieff.
Set aside the fact that his endorsement of a post-2011 training role for our soldiers (see "Ignatieff Calls For Afghan Training Post-2011"
) provides only slightly more clarity than Defence Minister Peter MacKay's musings ("Afghan Deployment Past 2011 Possible: MacKay"
). It's a start.
Set aside the fact that the Liberal Party's simultaneously-released Canada in the World: A Global Networks Strategy
sounds more like a marketing plan for an ambitious high-speed internet system than a foreign-policy blueprint. Nevermind that the think-paper places India, the world's greatest democracy, in the same narrow policy framework as China, the world's greatest police state. Nevermind that apart from one or two oblique refererences to democratic institutions, the word "democracy" doesn't appear in the 24-page document even once.
Or perhaps we should pay that point some mind in the Afghanistan context, straight away, because that's the worrisome bit. There is nothing that either Ignatieff or Harper have said about this country's continuing role in Afghanistan (humanitarian, institution-building, and so on) that the Iranian regime or the Pakistani military could not also have said. It's all very well to pledge to persist in Afghanistan after 2011. Tehran certainly intends to do just that. But for what? Here's Harper, for instance
: "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." That could be Ahmadinejad talking.
Let's all try to be fair about this and take Ignatieff at his word. He wants a frank, national conversation about Afghanistan, and this is the beginning of the Liberal contribution to that conversation. Here's to hoping that in their next contribution, Ignatieff will be clear that at least a healthy fraction of the $1.7 billion annual dividend that arises from the withdrawal of the Canadian Forces battle group from Kandahar, which his party proposes to spend on its "Global Networks" strategy, will be spent on building up the embryonic institutions of Afghan democracy. Perhaps the Conservatives will show some leadership now on this very point.
Perhaps Rae might raise this matter specifically as he persists in his efforts to build multi-partisan unity on the Special Committee on Afghanistan about a way forward. Rae has the advantage of an honourable opposite on that committee in the person of lead Conservative Laurie Hawn. He should use this advantage.
Ignatieff is showing real leadership on the Afghanistan question and this should not be derided, even though it does come terribly late. It has been my own privilege to have worked closely these past months with the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee, which has been calling for a frank national conversation about Afghanistan post-2011 since 2008. This year alone, I've travelled for this purpose to Afghanistan twice. In Ottawa on March 9, CASC released its own findings that reveal an existing consensus of sorts
after consulting widely across the spectrum of expert opinion and Afghan-Canadian public opinion, and most importantly, Afghan opinion. To the purpose of engaging Canadians in a "frank, national conversation" about Afghanistan, over the past few weeks CASC has hosted public meetings in Halifax, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary and Edmonton.
We should welcome the Liberals' decision to join the conversation. The Liberals need to be encouraged. Not praised, certainly not yet, but encouraged.
For the record, here's what the Liberals' "Global Networks" thinkpiece has to say about Afghanistan:Canada’s role with NATO in Afghanistan was the right mission at the right time. The mission remains an honourable one, supporting security and development for men and women in a troubled land previously governed by a retrograde Taliban regime, which provided safe haven to the Al-Qaeda architects of terror attacks, including those of September 11, 2001.Canada’s sacrifice has been profound. Nearly 150 men and women have lost their lives, with many more facing disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorder. The government estimates it is spending nearly $1.7 billion this year in incremental costs on the mission, compared to $39 million for all other Canadian overseas military missions combined. This worthy, dangerous mission will intensify in the summer of 2010, with the likelihood of more Canadian casualties through the rest of this year, and into 2011. Canadian veterans deserve the best possible care and support once home, and to that end the Veterans Charter must be adjusted to reflect the circumstances they face today.The Harper government has refused to lead any discussion about whether Canada should play a role in Afghanistan after the completion of the combat mission in 2011, and if so, what form it would take.The purpose of the mission, from its beginning, has been to help the people of Afghanistan become able to govern themselves and assume responsibility for their own security. That task will not be completed at the end of Canada’s combat role.In light of its hard-won credibility, the sacrifice of those who made it possible, and long-standing solidarity with our NATO allies, Canada should pursue a post-combat role, for a fixed period, based on training of police and military personnel in a staff college setting in Kabul, and civilian capacity-building in various areas of public administration vital to building stable, competent and transparent governance in Afghanistan. The objective is to help the Afghan people build a better future for themselves. A responsible, transparent decision process on such a role will require the Harper government to engage in dialogue and provide information to the Canadian public, and Parliamentarians. Its exercise of these democratic obligations is overdue.Contributing to the capacity of the Afghan people to govern themselves effectively continues to be in Canada’s interest. If they do not achieve that goal, the country risks becoming again the safe haven from which Al-Qaeda could resume its previous threats and planning against western democracies. Building on hard-won gains to help achieve effective governance would therefore enhance our own security, and help justify Canada’s contribution to training and governance capacity-building after the combat mission.Any post-combat presence for Canada must also include a substantive role in the diplomatic process and any political talks on Afghanistan’s future. A Liberal government would appoint a Special Envoy to the peace process for the region.Under the Harper government, Afghanistan has seemed to represent the entirety of Canada’s role in the world. Apart from partisan rhetoric and the occasional photo op, there has been little else. Under a Liberal government, an experienced and resourced military will be a significant asset in the service of a much broader vision of Canada’s international opportunities, obligations and pursuit of our interests beyond Afghanistan. The practical framework for that vision is the comprehensive approach to human development described above, which will marshal Canada’s military strengths, together with diplomatic, development, trade and cultural strengths in a “whole of Canada” engagement with the world, underpinned by Canadian-inspired concepts of Peace, Order and Good Government, and the Responsible to Protect. Under the Global Networks Strategy of a Liberal government, Canada will transition from a narrow focus on combat in Afghanistan to a broad and ambitious set of objectives for Canada in the world, bringing to bear our interests, values and capabilities.