Manley panel lays groundwork for welcome compromise

Recommendations might allow Liberals, Tories and Bloc to support the mission

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The Gazette, Wednesday, January 23, 2008

All the elements of a classic Canadian compromise are to be found in the Manley panel's recommendations on the future of Canada's role in Afghanistan.

The panel recommended to the Harper government yesterday that Canada's mission be extended beyond the current commitment of February, 2009, but doesn't say how long.

It recommends that Canadian troops remain in the country, and even in volatile Kandahar province to "continue with its responsibilities for security in Kandahar beyond February 2009, but calls for other NATO nations to step up and do some burden-sharing while Canadians also focus on training the Afghan army.

A commitment that, as the five-person panel put it in their 94-page report, "is neither open-ended nor faint-hearted."

This means the counter-insurgency against the Taliban in Kandahar province could be handed over to another NATO country as Canadian troops trained Afghan recruits while acknowledging "in reality training and mentoring sometimes means conducting combat operations with them."

Canada's combat role could essentially be ended, and the focus would be training the local military as well on building a civil society out of a broken country.

This is a role with which most Canadians, who see themselves as a peacekeeping country, would instinctively have a higher comfort level.

There is also the fact that Canada, in this dangerous part of the country, has taken a disproportionate share of casualties, having suffered about the same number of losses as the British, who have three times as many troops there.

So there is this about Manley's recommendation: It says we will have done our part, but it isn't cut-and-run. A very Canadian compromise.

Or as John Manley put it: "What is evident is that the commitment to Afghanistan made by successive Canadian governments has not yet been completed. The ultimate objective is to enable the Afghans to manage their own security."

This is an important point. The Chrétien government committed to stepping up our commitment in Kabul in 2003. The Martin government accepted the Kandahar mission in 2005, a much more dangerous role for Canadian soldiers than patrolling the relatively secure streets of the capital. The Harper government extended the mission in 2006.

Three quarters of the Liberal caucus voted against a resolution extending the mission they themselves had authorized in government. Among those voting against it was Stéphane Dion, now the Liberal leader, who sat at the cabinet table when it was approved. And Paul Martin, who authorized the redeployment to Kandahar as prime minister, couldn't even be bothered to show up for the vote.

Now Dion has a leadership moment. He has been calling for an end to Canada's combat role in February of next year. He has been very clear on that throughout the piece. Now Manley, a former foreign affairs minister from his own party, is recommending a transition out of a combat role without a hard deadline advocated by Dion.

The Bloc Québécois have also called for an end to the military mission, but have fundamentally supported the nation-building aspects of our presence there.

Only the NDP, which has called for an immediate withdrawal of all Canadian forces, would find nothing to support in the Manley report.

Manley also pointedly says Canada has to do a better job of delivering development money and assistance, and calls on the government to do a better job of explaining the mission to Canadians.

This involves the prime minister in three ways. First, Manley calls on him to create a cabinet committee, presumably chaired by the PM, to manage the so-called 3D effort for defence, development and democracy. And second, to get out in the country and drum up more support for the work of what Harper calls "our most committed citizens," who put it all on the line every day, in a distant and dangerous corner of the world.

And finally, Manley pointedly calls on Harper to "personally lead" an effort to persuade other NATO countries to step up, "making our voice to a degree commensurate to our contribution."

In other words, over to you, prime minister.

Manley and his colleagues - Derek Burney, Paul Tellier, Pam Wallin and Jake Epp - have produced a serious piece of advice, that is a significant contribution to moving the Afghan mission forward. They are public-spirited citizens, patriots in the best sense, who deserve the thanks of the entire country.

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