Afghanistan debate? Bring it on!

Let's see where the Liberals, Bloc and NDP stand on our commitment to continuing the mission

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The Gazette, Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The opposition parties have been clamouring for a debate and a vote on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan and, suddenly, they're going to get one this afternoon and tonight in the House.

Previously, Prime Minister Stephen Harper opposed even a debate, much less a vote, on our role in Afghanistan. Then he permitted a take-note debate last month, but with no vote. Now, he's allowing both on the same day. In fact, it was negotiated among the House leaders of all four parties.

So, what gives?

Well, the decision to re-deploy Canada's 2,200 troops from Kabul to Kandahar was made by the Martin government last summer, when the House wasn't even sitting, and when the media weren't paying much attention.

The government sent the chief of defence staff, General Rick Hillier, out as its point man. There was never any sign of the then prime minister, Paul Martin, or any explanation to the country of the dangerous new mission our troops were taking on.

It was the difference between patrolling the streets of a relatively safe capital city, and leading a provincial reconstruction team in the most dangerous corner of a country famously inhospitable to foreigners. There were local war lords. There were Taliban remnants. There was a murderous insurgency. And Al-Qa'ida was right next door in the mountainous wilds of Pakistan.

There was no debate and no vote then, and no need for one either, when the Conservatives came to office in February, since the re-deployment was already a fait accompli under the previous government.

But the Kandahar commitment expires next February, and six to nine months notice would be required to replace the Canadians in the event we were to leave. Harper doesn't intend to leave, he means to extend the mission for another two years. While the character of the mission isn't changing, the duration is.

So, you want a debate? Let's have one. You want a vote? Let's vote. Right here, right now.

For the opposition, this is like the dog catching the car. Now what?

Are the Liberals, who took on this mission, now going to vote against extending something they first authorized? Will the Bloc and the NDP vote against extending the mission to please their pacifist constituencies? Then they would be accused of not supporting Canada's troops. Gilles Duceppe might not be troubled by that, but Jack Layton would be left squirming.

While we're at it, Jack, let's have that debate you wanted about deploying some troops to Darfur, for some good old Canadian peacekeeping in the middle of a civil war.

Let's extricate ourselves from a mission that's already dangerous enough, and put ourselves in the middle of tribal warfare that has already taken at least 180,000 lives in Sudan, where the government in Khartoum has warned that "Darfur will be a graveyard for any foreign troops venturing to enter."

If there's to be any semblance of peace there, it will be brokered by the UN, with the leadership of the United States. It isn't Canada that's going to stop a genocide of perhaps Rwandan proportions, not by showing up and saying, hey, we're the nice guys. It isn't Suez and it isn't Cyprus, peacekeeping between factions who want a reason to stop the shooting. Nobody is in that business any more. Get over it.

While we're at it, let's ask why we're in Afghanistan in the first place. We're in Afghanistan because we're not in Iraq. When Jean Chretien decided in 2003 that, absent a UN authorizing resolution and proof that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, he couldn't join George W. Bush on the road to Baghdad, he needed cover that Canada was at least participating in the war on terror.

We'd played a small role in the liberation of Afghanistan and could play a larger role in its reconstruction, and 2,000 troops were sent to Kabul. As in Kandahar later, the soldiers are playing an important role in supporting and protecting civilian efforts to build a civil society from a failed state.

This is where opponents of the mission lack institutional memory going back even five years. Under the brutal Taliban dictatorship, girls were not allowed to go to school, women were not allowed to work, and summary executions were conducted in stadiums. Oh, and they played host to Osama and the gang.

Those are all good reasons for us to be there, at the invitation of a democratically elected government, in a country where people took their lives into their hands just to cast a free vote.

Let's have that debate. Bring it on.

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