Manley is inspired choice to head Afghanistan panel

The committee also takes the war off the parliamentary table until January

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Monday, October 15, 2007

Stephen Harper's appointment of John Manley to head an expert panel on Afghanistan is both a brilliant tactical stroke and a bipartisan gesture that is good for the country.

The appointment of the Manley panel doesn't take Canada's Afghanistan mission out of tomorrow's Throne Speech, but it does take it off the floor of the House for the fall sitting. The five-member panel will report in January, around the start of the winter sitting, and there is no need to debate the mission before then.

The Liberals, through their new shadow foreign affairs critic Bob Rae, immediately welcomed the appointment, and so they should have. Not only is Manley one of their own, not only is he answering the call of country, but he allows them to drop Afghanistan as a confidence question in the Throne Speech.

Stéphane Dion should grab on to it. There might be other issues on which he will either trigger an election or keep half his members out of the house to avoid one. And given the big lead the Conservatives have opened up in this weekend's Ipsos poll, it should not only be a preference, but a matter of survival for Dion.

Kyoto could still be an election-maker, especially if Harper taunts Dion with language in the Throne Speech about emissions- reductions targets being unattainable (because of the Liberals' sorry record in office, including Dion's 18 months as environment minister). But that's just a game of truth or dare.

Afghanistan is serious stuff. Time and again, Dion has said Canada's military mission in Afghanistan must end with the current Kandahar rotation in February 2009.

In appointing the Manley panel on Friday, Harper asked them to consider four options, although the PM added: "they may consider other options."

Option 1: continue training Afghan army and police personnel with a view to withdrawing from Kandahar in early 2009. Option 2: shift the emphasis completely to reconstruction and aid, leaving other NATO countries to assume our security role in the south. In both options, we are outta there, and just putting them on the table is enough cover for Dion and the Liberals.

Option 3: rotate military and aid efforts out to another province. This is the burden-sharing scenario, of another NATO country taking up a load we will have carried long enough. Option 4: withdraw all forces after February 2009 except for small units to protect aid workers. Still outta there, or at least out of Kandahar.

The bipartisan nature of the panel is quite striking, as are the impressive credentials of all five members. Manley was one of the outstanding cabinet ministers of the Chrétien era. As foreign affairs minister after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, he made waves by suggesting that Canada was punching below its weight in the world. He's been to Afghanistan twice, first as foreign minister in 2002 and earlier this year as a director of CARE Canada, one of the NGOs doing good and under-publicized work in the country. As he writes in an article in the current Policy Options: "We often seek to define Canada's role in the world. Well, for whatever reason we have one in Afghanistan. Let's not abandon it too easily. But let's use our hard-earned influence to make sure the job is done right."

You could spend a week drafting terms of reference for the Manley panel, but you couldn't put it better than that.

As for his fellow panel-members - Derek Burney, Paul Tellier, Pam Wallin and Jake Epp - this is an extremely high-powered group.

Burney is a former Canadian ambassador to the United States, chief of staff to Brian Mulroney and head of Harper's transition team. Tellier is a former clerk of the Privy Council who went on to become CEO of CN and Bombardier in Montreal.

Full disclosure, I've worked for them both in Ottawa, and these are guys who demand all the facts. At the end of the day, they don't sleep unless they have answers. Pam Wallin is the network journalism star who went on to serve Canada with distinction as our consul-general in New York. And Jake Epp, health minister during the Mulroney years, is head of Health Partners International, one of the NGOs in the region.

They have three months to travel to the region, weigh the options and come up with their recommendations.

Bipartisanship isn't easily achieved in our public discourse. It's more in the U.S. tradition of presidential commissions and advisory boards such as the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by Republican Jim Baker and Democrat Lee Hamilton.

There are lots of issues on which this minority House can divide and the government can fall. With the appointment of this bi-partisan panel, Afghanistan isn't one of them. Harper deserves credit for reaching out to a Liberal of Manley's stature. Manley, and his colleagues, deserve thanks for responding to the call.

 
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