Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Politics mar Afghan training debate

What strikes me most about the commentary and debate on whether or not Canada should deploy 950 soldiers to Afghanistan after 2011 in a training capacity is that, instead of getting to the core issue of whether or not such a mission would be appropriate and should be supported or not, we seem to be restricted to complaints about process and evaluations of alleged gamesmanship and horserace implications.

So before we get bogged down in the political muck, let’s at least consider the policy first, shall we?

While like many Canadians I feel we’ve done our share in Afghanistan on the combat side and want to being our troops home, or at least out of harm’s way, I’d support a training mission post-2011. I do have several caveats to my support though

*It should be inside the wire with a “relatively” low risk level (ie. no active combat).

* We should be assured the Army has the capacity (personnel and materials) to take on this mission in what was expected to be a down-cycle of refresh ad resupply for them after the prolonged combat mission.

If I could be assured of those concerns then I'd support deployment of a training contingent post 2011. Why? Because I think training Afghan army and police is an important mission that is key to ensuring that when international forces do finally leave Afghanistan, they'll be leaving behind a relatively stable country with the capacity to defend itself, and grow and prosper.

I would like us to be putting more emphasis on humanitarian aid and development as well. I don't see a training mission as excluding that; we should be doing both. We are doing both. And as Andrew Coyne pointed-out on Twitter, if the country is safe enough for some to support civilians doing humanitarian development, isn't it safe enough for them to support soldiers doing inside the wire training of soldiers and police?

I think a big part of the problem has been the government ignoring what was one of the key recommendations of the Manley Commission: communicate better. Their about-face on a training mission came out of no-where, and details have been slow to trickle out. They need to build public support for this, and they're not doing a very good job yet. Part of the problem is that many are seeing this, either deliberately or in honest error, as an extension of the combat mission. That's not the case. Training and combat are two very different missions. This would not be an extension of the combat mission, that will end in 2011. This would be a new training deployment, much smaller with much less risk and no combat.

That's an important distinction to make, and with opponents deliberately trying to blur that line to inflame public opinion, the government and supporters of a training mission need to do a better job of making that distinction and providing more details to Canadians.

Now, on to the politics. I must say, I've found the politicking and the media coverage on this issue to be very disappointing. I'm particularly bemused that the same media who routinely berate politicians for uberpartisanship and not working cooperatively are viewing the issue only through a horse-race lens, and are attacking the Liberals for not politicizing the issue for partisan gain. But then I've never expected consistency from the media pundit class.

The Liberals have actually been calling for a continued training presence for several months now, so their position should come as no surprise. And it would seem to have been taken in the belief a training mission is appropriate and needed, as I don't see any partisan advantage in being out that far ahead of the issue. The Conservatives reversed themselves suddenly to come around to the Liberal position (the devil will be in the details of their actual plan, though) and the NDP has been fairly consistent in their no military presence of any kind at any time position.

Certainly there is room for a difference of opinion within any party on supporting a training mission or not, and within the Liberal Party there certainly is. That's welcome and healthy, and I welcome a debate on the merits. What I don't have time for though are self-important strategists that view this only as a political issue, that dismiss the merits of a training mission to make a purely political calculus: sure, maybe training is right, but we need to hold the NDP on the left and we can squeeze the CPC on the right if we oppose it, and the polls show... I find such purely political calculations nauseating and repugnant.

Rightly or wrongly, you should be willing to stand for something and defend it, not let focus grouping govern your belief system.

Finally, the debate on procedure. As I said, I think the government needs to make all the relevant details available to the public on what the training mission will involve. I'd welcome a debate in Parliament on Canada's role in Afghanistan post-2011, both training and humanitarian development. I do not, however, believe a vote by Parliament is necessary for a training mission to go forward. It's not a combat mission; deploying soldiers for training, development assistance, disaster relief, what have you, is the prerogative of the government of the day.

It would be perfectly acceptable for an opposition party to use an opposition day to move a debate and motion on the issue, but it wouldn't be binding. As long as the government has the confidence of the house, they're free to make such decisions.

UPDATE: It's not too often I get to say this, but Bob Rae is bang-on here. Actually, almost bang-on. I'd have avoided the Neville Chamberlain reference. Call it Jeff's first-rule of political discourse.

Our political culture is now all about trench warfare. Everything is supposed to seen through a partisan lens, and everything played to short term advantage. Anyone who asks “what’s best for Afghanistan ?”, or “what’s best for Canada, our role as a reliable member of NATO and the UN ?” is portrayed as some kind of poor sap who doesn’t “get” politics.

It’s called doing what you think is right, talking to the public about it, and worrying less about who gets credit. There’s something almost pathological about the state of our politics, to say nothing of political commentary, if we can’t have that kind of conversation.

There should continue to be a debate about Afghanistan, Pakistan, and how to deal with the range of failed and fragile states that are emerging across the world. But enough with the nonsense about who played the partisan game better.

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Ken S from Ramara said...

Blah! Blah!! Blah!!! Herr Harpo acts the way he does because Herr Iggy is weak and inept. Herr Harpo is exploiting the vacuum fostered by the fighting between the LIBs and Dippers!

Jeff said...

Thank-you for proving my point.

And blah blah blah.

CanadianSense said...

I disagree with your assertion the Government is to blame for the poor communication on the mission as per the Manley Report.

The opposition parties were obsessed with turning the committee into a circus to "get the government". How many months was spent alleging war crimes, cover up and than parliamentary supremacy for documents? Today what has been settled?

The majority of MPs failed to talk about the development, exit strategy and other issues in committee. The public naturally lost support with the media-war cover up, crimes allegations 24-7 from the opposition.

Ignatieff and Rae finally clued into to the reality on the ground or his Ken S. partially correct?

If the PM were playing small politics he could have used this opportunity as the Liberals did with Maternal health.

No vote saves the divisions within the LPOC and demonstrates the leadership on this very important file.

Too much blood has been spilled, this should not be about partisan politics.

Some bloggers get it, some don't.

What is the % of troops volunteering to go back and finish the job?

Gene Rayburn said...

Shorter CanadianSense: It's all the Liberals fault once again. I got a speeding ticket! Those damn Liberals caused my car to speed!

It just makes my head explode sometimes. The disjointed argument and inability to stay on topic. Plus the consistent blame of others and praise of the government while claiming to be non-partisan. That pile of horse hockey can be smelled all the way out here by the second narrows bridge in Vancouver!