Dion's comments are way out of line

It isn't his timeline that's inappropriate; it's his timing and his choice of words

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The Gazette, Monday, April 16, 2007

Why is Canada in Afghanistan? Because we're not in Iraq.

That's the short answer. Canada played a minor role in the eviction of the Taliban and Al-Qa'ida in the fall of 2001, and deployed a few hundred soldiers in 2002.

It was only when Canada declined to join the U.S.-led coalition in the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 that the Chretien government suddenly announced Canada would be stepping up its commitment in Afghanistan to 2,000 troops, based in the capital of Kabul.

As Brian Stewart's CBC documentary made clear last week, this commitment by the civilian leadership was several times the troop strength recommended by the military command at the time. The mission was clearly politically motivated, so that the Chretien government could say to the Americans that Canada was doing its part in the war on terror, in a different theatre, one approved by NATO and the UN.

It was only in the spring and summer of 2005 that the Martin government took the decision to redeploy Canadian troops from the relative safety of Kabul to an offensive role in the disputed and dangerous Kandahar province in the south. It was well known in military circles at the time that the new chief of defence staff, Rick Hillier, a former field commander in Afghanistan, lobbied hard for the redeployment.

But in the summer of 2005, no one in the government, other than then Defence Minister Bill Graham, bothered to warn Canadians of the increased risk. While it was obvious that confronting an insurgency in the countryside was different from patrolling the streets of the capital, the then prime minister was nowhere to be seen or heard on the subject. Hillier was sent out as the government's public-relations surrogate, a political role he had no business playing but a political vacuum he filled quite capably.

But the Martin cabinet authorized the redeployment, and one of the ministers voting in favour of it was Stephane Dion.

In May 2006, the new Conservative government of Stephen Harper called a snap debate and vote in the House to extend the mission in Afghanistan by another two years, to 2009.

Most Liberal MPs who had voted for the redeployment, including Dion, voted against extending it. And Paul Martin, who as prime minister was directly responsible for putting Canadian soldiers in harm's way, did not even bother to show up for the vote that evening, even though he had been in Ottawa earlier in the day.

But from that moment on, Harper took political ownership of the mission in Afghanistan. Whatever happened would happen on his watch.

Last week, it happened. Six Canadian soldiers were killed by one roadside bomb, and two were killed in another. The first incident occurred on the eve of the 90th anniversary commemoration at Vimy Ridge, a First World War engagement in which 3,600 Canadians died. It was the worst week for Canada in terms of military fatalities since the Korean War.

Later in the week, Dion offered his condolences to the families and a sharp critique of the government, while vowing not to extend the mission if he becomes prime minister.

"We have to tell NATO that in February 2009, our mission in Kandahar is finished," Dion said. "We face the risk of getting bogged down with the current prime minister, of getting bogged down in an incompetent manner. Imagine what they would do if they had a majority. Happily, we will never find out."

So, to review the bidding, Dion voted for the redeployment while sitting at the cabinet table, voted against extending it a year later while sitting in opposition, and now says he will end it in 2009 if he's prime minister.

It isn't Dion's timeline that's inappropriate, so much as his timing and his choice of words. In a time of grieving, particularly at Camp Gagetown in New Brunswick, Dion chose to make the Afghan mission a wedge issue in domestic politics. "Getting bogged down"? That's pretty close to the quagmire.

There are plenty of reasons for Canada not to extend its stay in the south, including burden-sharing with other NATO allies who should do more of the heavy lifting. Which doesn't mean Canada shouldn't stay on in Afghanistan in less dangerous precincts, particularly in support of building a civil society in a failed state.

Just as it's inappropriate for Harper to suggest that critics of the mission aren't supporting Canadian troops, it's even more egregious for Dion to suggest that Canada is "getting bogged down" and "in an incompetent manner." That might be be aimed at Harper, but it reflects on the professional conduct of the mission in the field.

And this from a guy who voted for it, as John Kerry once said, before he voted against it.

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