Stephen Harper may have titillated front-page editors by wandering Kandahar in combat gear this week, but can he dodge pressure for a parliamentary debate?
On the 50th anniversary of peacekeeping, our troops are knee-deep in U.S.-controlled counter-insurgency, seeking their inner warrior, as one embedded reporter put it, amidst the stark Afghan landscape.
MPs pushing for a debate in the House may be speaking for many Canadians trying to absorb the sudden, historic shift in mandate introduced by stealth by the Liberals.
What kinds of issues would emerge in a national debate? How about the mistaken assumption that the potential for diplomacy and mediation is already exhausted?
That's an issue explored by Dr. Seddiq Weera, a Canadian citizen of Afghan origin and a professor of peace studies at McMaster University, now based in Kabul. "It is a failed mission for Canada to invest in military solutions and neglect the peace and reconciliation measures addressing the underlying causes of the war," he says.
An adviser to the ministry of education and the National Commission on Strengthening Peace in Afghanistan, Weera maintains that the international community should not have boycotted the Taliban and the grouping around warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar at the November 2001 Bonn peace talks that culminated in the installation of the Hamid Karzai government.
The National Commission, he says, is not receiving the funding and technical support required to draw in the disgruntled parties that opposed the Northern Alliance, which came to power with the assistance of the U.S. These forces are now shut out of the current political process.
After conversing with former Taliban supporters willing to join the mainstream, he reports that "it became to clear to me that they are enraged by acts of discrimination, as they claim, by their former enemies who hold key positions in the Karzai government."
A debate over whether we have done enough to encourage negotiation among warring parties would necessarily question the way Canadian troops have been absorbed by Operation Enduring Freedom.
Why, asks former Canadian disarmament ambassador Peggy Mason senior fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International relations at Carleton University, are we serving under the Americans rather than waiting for the NATO peacekeeping force to arrive in Kandahar in the summer?
While Europeans in the non-U.S. NATO force stationed in Kabul put development and humanitarian assistance on the front burner, she says, the U.S. coalition forces prioritize counter-terrorism in the countryside.
But Mason is no advocate of withdrawing Canadian forces. "To me, the best-case scenario would be to get the coalition forces out immediately, to make it absolutely clear that this is a new beginning, that we are bringing the [NATO] security force to work with the people. The story has not been put to the Canadian public yet that the Americans have screwed up in Afghanistan. It parallels Iraq."
One complicating factor is a shortage of NATO troops available from Europe to replace the Americans slated to join their colleagues in Iraq, says Paul Rogers, a British peace studies professor at Bradford University and a columnist for the Open Democracy website.
"I think the dynamic that is likely to emerge is heavily dependent on whether the anticipated Taliban "spring offensive' turns out to be substantive as I think it will be. If so, NATO member state reluctance will almost certainly increase, with U.S. troops unable to leave, whatever the Pentagon's preference."
Looming large in any Canadian engagement with the U.S. is the matter of rights abuses at the American-controlled Bagram prison. Following a contentious debate in its Parliament regarding the contribution of its troops in Kandahar, the Dutch government has proposed the setting up of a NATO-managed detention centre in Afghanistan.
Michael Byers, the Canada research chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia, is disappointed that Canada has not backed this effort. He's not sure the solution (offered by a December agreement between Canadian Forces and the Kabul government) of transferring prisoners to Afghan authorities will work, because of their own human rights shortcomings and the possibility that Americans could still gain access to suspected insurgents.
Dr. Walter Dorn, professor of security studies at the Royal Military College of Canada, also wonders how our government has been able to get away with underplaying the American command of the Canuck effort.
Dorn notes that media references to the command of Brigadier General David Fraser are technically correct he does head the multinational brigade in Kandahar. But missing is the fact that Fraser ultimately reports to two U.S. generals above him, one a two-star and the other a three, he adds.
"The chain of command is deliberately vague, so that people cannot say if this is a purely U.S.-run operation."
Dorn also joins the legion of others questioning the viability of combining counter-insurgency with development work. "Mixing mandates removes mission clarity and reduces international support," he says. "It also confuses the Canadian public, the population in the mission area and even the soldiers themselves."