Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Harper should lead the debate on Canada's mission to Afghanistan

The London Free Press,
By Rory Leishman

While Prime Minister Stephen Harper has shown commendable leadership in backing the deployment of Canadian troops in Afghanistan, he is needlessly jeopardizing the broad political consensus that is essential to the success of this vital mission, by refusing to countenance renewed debate on the matter in Parliament.

In 2001, the Conservatives and New Democrats joined the Liberals in backing the decision of the Chretien government to commit Canadian troops to the liberation of Afghanistan. The Liberals still support this mission, but Stephane Dion, the party’s astute foreign affairs critic, insists: "We should talk about it. We should build stronger support through a debate. But we don't want to second-guess. It's a very important mission and we want to be there."

NDP leader Jack Layton likewise insists it’s time to reconsider Canada’s Afghanistan commitment, especially in view of the dangerous assignment that our troops have recently taken on in the violence-torn Kandahar region. Instead of opposing such a discussion, Harper should lead it as he did in his inspirational speech to Canadian troops in Kandahar last week. "Our Canada is a great place, but Canada is not an island," Harper warned, "And what happens in places like Afghanistan threatens and affects all of us back home in our own country."

The same can be said about what goes on in Iraq, Iran, North Korea and numerous other sanctuaries for terrorists around the world, yet many Canadians are blind to the danger. Despite the deaths of 24 Canadians in the September 11 attack on the United States, they naively suppose that we Canadians would be safe if only Canada were to withdraw from all but peace-keeping operations overseas and retire into splendid isolation in North America.

Former Liberal prime minister Mackenzie King entertained much the same naive view in the 1920s. Despite the mounting turmoil in Europe, he opposed any Canadian military contribution to collective security through the League of Nations on the supposition that Canadians live in "a fire-proof house, far from inflammable materials."

King, to his credit, promptly abandoned this delusion upon the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. And having learned then the folly of trying to appease foreign aggressors, he saw to it in 1949 that Canada would do its part in containing Soviet imperialism, by becoming a founding and active member of the NATO alliance.

Today, NATO is engaged with a different, but no less dangerous enemy. The 2,300 Canadian troops serving in Afghanistan are part of a NATO assistance force that also includes large contingents from Germany, Italy and France. Soon, a substantial Dutch force will join this mission as well. Working together, the NATO allies are determined to crush the Islamist terrorists in Afghanistan rather than sit back and allow them to mount another terrorist strike like the one last year on the transit system in London, England, that killed more than 50 people and injured 700.

The NATO assistance force in Afghanistan is also trying to help the Afghan people to transform their country from a quasi-medieval wilderness of Islamist warlords into an effective and prospering democracy. Canada’s contribution to this noble goal includes a provincial reconstruction team near Kandahar and a commitment of $100 million a year in foreign aid, which makes Afghanistan much the largest recipient of Canadian bilateral assistance.

Our brave troops in Afghanistan can be counted upon to uphold the glorious fighting traditions of the Canadian armed forces. What, though, should be done to provide them with better equipment to protect themselves and carry the fight to the enemy? How long might Canadian troops have to remain in Afghanistan? And at what cost?

Afghanistan now has a democratically elected president and government, but if that fragile democracy were to collapse in sectarian strife, should Canada promptly withdraw its troops? Or should the NATO allies collectively resolve to keep their fighting forces in Afghanistan so long as necessary to prevent the Taliban from regaining power and turning the country back into a haven for Al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorists?

These are just a few of the serious questions raised by Canada’s mission to Afghanistan. Harper should take the initiative in assuring they get thorough consideration in the next Parliament.

No comments: