Ottawa – John Manley and his panel on the future of Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan have delivered a late Christmas gift to Ste-phen Harper.
Their report hits all the right notes, endorses the government’s conduct of the war and calls on Canada to keep doing the same thing it has been – just more of it.
No rebranding of the mission is on offer.
Pre-release speculation was that Manley would urge a shift in the mission away from combat to training Afghan troops. Call the war training instead of combat, even though there is little difference, and maybe the Liberals will come on side.
At his press conference Tuesday, January 22, Manley sat in front of a photo of Afghan children and declared that the mission should continue indefinitely beyond 2009, until the Afghan army is able to continue the fight on their own, on condition that NATO provide an additional 1,000 troops to Kandahar province to assist Canadians, and the government acquire helicopters and unmanned surveillance aircraft.
There was some mild criticism of the government’s current approach, identifying a need to focus more on diplomacy and reconstruction, and calling on the prime minister to play a more active role in pressing for greater support from NATO.
But this is really just window dressing around what is a major endorsement of the current military mission.
The demand that more troops be deployed by NATO or else Canada will withdraw next year is likely a bluff, since an additional 1,000 troops could easily come from the U.S., which is already sending over 3,000 more Marines to Afghanistan.
The report and press conference were largely a rehash of previous government announcements and demands. They had the requisite finger-pointing at NATO for not providing enough troops and at Pakistan for not securing its border where insurgents cross freely into Afghanistan, and the obligatory tribute to the bravery of our soldiers.
Was there any real possibility that Manley would come out with any new ideas to end the war, now dragging into its seventh year at a cost of $100 million a month, with Canadian casualties approaching 80? Probably not.
The panel itself was unbalanced, consisting of hawks from the Conservative and Liberal parties whose shared area of expertise is not the needs of Afghanistan but the desires of Washington.
Even more disappointing, the panel held its interviews with government and military officials and a smattering of development groups behind closed doors. Sure, individual Canadians concerned about the war were welcome to send them an e-mail, but that’s the modern equivalent of slipping a letter under the locked doors – hardly a legitimate public process.
The government and opposition parties will respond to the report in coming days, laying the groundwork for the return of Parliament next week.
Harper will no doubt use the report to argue that the military mission should be extended to 2011, two years beyond its current commitment to February 2009. The NDP and the Bloc Québécois will no doubt oppose the report’s recommendations.
Attention will focus on the Liberals now. After all, Harper has promised to put the extension of the military mission to a vote, and he needs at least some Liberal support. Stéphane Dion has repeatedly said he will not endorse an extension of the Kandahar combat mission beyond 2009.
When Harper set up the Manley panel last October, he had several objectives in mind. First was to delay having to make a decision on the Afghanistan conflict, and the panel has bought him time to rebuild support for the unpopular war. Second was to gain approval for the war and its extension, which Manley delivered nicely.
But Harper, in appointing a former Liberal MP to head the panel, probably hoped Manley would be able to reposition the mission in a way that might win the government some support from the Liberal benches in a vote on extending it to 2011.
And on this point, Manley has probably let Harper down. In reading through the report and listening to the press conference, I didn’t find much the Liberals could vote for.
Manley was clear that training did not mean abandoning combat – a central Liberal demand. As well, there was no mention of reducing or moving troops in Kandahar, another key Liberal demand.
In this regard, one can commend Manley for not trying to falsely portray training the Afghan national army as something distinct from combat, because it is not. In fact, the way the Canadian Forces train Afghan soldiers is by engaging in combat, fighting side by side.
When Parliament returns, the report will ensure that the issue continues to be a key part of parliamentary debate.
Even more, the war may play a role in spurring on an election. If Harper moves quickly to a vote on extending the mission without assured Liberal support, Canada’s combat role in Kandahar will be a key election issue.
Steven Staples is the director of the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute.