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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

As the conflict in Pakistan heats up, it’s time to extend Canada's mission in Afghanistan

The Pakistani army is pushing deeper into the Swat Valley, in its offensive against Taliban militants, who now hold territory a mere 100 kilometres outside the nuclear-armed state's capital Islamabad. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has replaced the top American general in Afghanistan and committed tens of thousands of additional troops to the region. These events highlight just how much the geopolitical situation in the region has changed since the Canadian parliament voted the extend the mission in Afghanistan in early 2008.

The Canadian mission was extended beyond the existing 2009 deadline after the Manley Report endorsed the extension provided that other countries sent additional troops and the Canadian military acquired new equipment. The initial motion to extend the mission was watered-down in order to appease the federal Liberals, whose leader—Stéphane Dion—had voted against the initial extension in 2006.

Canadians should be used to Prime Minister Stephen Harper caving into Liberal demands and making their issues his own. First he abandoned his tough stance on the Afghan mission, initially expressing full support for it and then arguing that it should end by 2011. Then he flip-flopped on the economic file, first supporting sound economic policies and then running up one of the largest deficits in history. However, there is no reason to believe that this charade needs to continue any longer. A few months ago, I wrote about the possibility of a historic alignment between the Liberals and Conservatives on foreign policy issues, as it related to the war in Gaza:

Canadians may be rightly confused about where their federal political parties sit on the ideological spectrum these days. Dion tried to move the Liberal party to the left. The short lived coalition brought with it the possibility of uniting Canada's left-wing parties, which would have brought the NDP slightly closer to the centre. However, Ignatieff now seems to be moving the Liberals to the right, proposing tax cuts as a viable measure to stimulate the economy. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have flip-flopped on the economic stimulus issue, suggesting that if only they had heard of this Keynes guy before, they would have ramped up government spending years ago.

This ideological ambiguity prompted talk show host Dave Rutherford to ask the prime minister: "What does it mean to be Conservative today?" To which, by the way, the prime minister could not provide a very good answer. The ideological orgy now taking place on Parliament Hill may result in both the government and opposition parties taking a similar stance on foreign policy issues. And the less we hear about the bickering going on in Ottawa, the more we can get back to pretending that they actually have the power to fix the economy.

Beryl Wajsman, president of the Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal recently proclaimed that, "we may be very well moving into a new era of bipartisan foreign policy." He was speaking in relation to Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff's stance on the war in Gaza, an issue that has been polarizing for Canadians, but seems to have united Canada's two main political parties.

The same holds true for Afghanistan. Michael Ignatieff was one of only a handful of Liberals who voted to extend the mission in 2006. "I want to express my unequivocal support for the troops in Afghanistan, for the mission and for the renewal of the mission," said Ignatieff in a speech to the House of Commons.

With a Liberal leader who supports the mission, now is the perfect time to reopen the debate about extending our commitment to the war-torn country. For years, the Canadian left has tried to frame the debate over Afghanistan as though it were Iraq. With the left-leaning Obama administration increasing its forces in the region, however, it will now be harder to convince Canadians that this is anything but an important and just engagement. And make no mistake, the costs of losing the war are now higher than ever. Despite recent setbacks in terms of human rights, there's no question that the people of Afghanistan are better off now then they were under the Taliban. We can also not afford to allow Afghanistan to fall back into the hands of Islamic extremists only to once again be used as a base to launch attacks against the west. Besides our moral and legal obligation to go to war against those who perpetrated the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States, the situation in Pakistan may require that NATO have a substantial force in the area. We do not want the Taliban gaining another foothold in the region, which could be used to try and gain access to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

It is becoming increasingly clear that we need to link the Afghan war with recent events inside Pakistan. The Taliban has long used the border region between the two countries as a base to stage operations against our forces. Now that the Taliban is within striking distance of Islamabad, the costs of failure in either country would be devastating. The policy of linking these two countries together has been coined the "AfPak strategy" by the Obama administration. Canada would be wise to take note of the broader geopolitical consequences of failure in Afghanistan and reopen public debate on this issue.

As it stands, the government has done a lousy job of informing Canadians why we are in Afghanistan and why we must win this war. A recent poll put support for the mission at a mere 40 per cent. If Canadians were fully informed about the atrocities committed by the Taliban, the possibility of nuclear material from Pakistan falling into their hands, and the direct threats against our closest friend and ally coming from Pakistani militants, we would likely see much higher support for the mission from people on both sides of the political spectrum.

Posted by Jesse Kline on May 12, 2009 in International Affairs | Permalink


We have no business in Afghanistan. Let the US clean up their own mess. But that isn't really the goal is it? The goal is long term military intervention and political manipulation. After all, we need to "globalize" everyone, don't we?

Posted by: JC | 2009-05-13 6:00:23 AM

Renew the mission - we're in for as long as it takes.

Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2009-05-13 8:25:46 AM

The "libertarian" response is to disengage, and allow as many "refugees" into Canada as possible. The one caveat to becoming a "refugee" is that you have to get a one year mobile subscription with Rogers or Telus to qualify.

Posted by: The Stig | 2009-05-13 9:27:31 AM

I'll take JC's position and raise him one! The only true way to keep Canada out of the U.S. war on terror is to disband the Canadian military. Our military is no longer relevant to the real world. It doesn't have enough personnel or equipment to effectively act independent of foreign forces. We would save several billion in spending that could be applied to tax cuts. No Canadian military means no forces that can be deployed overseas. We don't have to worry about invasion because any attack on us would have the yanks moving north to protect the Alberta oil sands. No longer could we be forced to get involved in stupid peacekeeping missions. The RCMP should be strong enough to deal with any widespread civil disturbances. In turn, the gun laws could be altered to allow any Canadian to own rifles or pistols for home defense without restrictions. 32 million armed individuals could conduct quite an insurgency. In event of a local disturbance(ex: biker gangs run amok), the local armed citizenry could volunteer its services to the local police force.

Posted by: Chaz | 2009-05-13 10:29:49 PM


I have some sympathy with your proposal to disband the military and enable Canadians to defend their homes, towns, cities and their country.

However, while I think you're likely correct that the US would step up out of their own interest if another country were to invade Canada, our security would not only be completely dependent on the whims of the Pentagon and politicians in DC, but we'd be defenseless against the US itself--not a situation that would give me much comfort. Unless all crown land were privatized (not a bad idea, IMHO), I don't see how Canada would be able to defend its peripheral land and water claims; many countries (the US included) would love to get the Canadian Arctic islands and passageways either into their own or international hands.

I propose that the Canadian military be downsized and refocused on defending this country, not bringing women's rights, public education and Enlightenment values to Afghanistan, contributing to feelgood UN missions or doing whatever the hell it is that they're doing in Haiti. A missile defense shield, a small but well-armed Navy focused on monitoring the coasts, a few strategically-located Army and Air Force bases, a functioning intelligence service, good policework, a well-armed populace and some sort of formal defense agreement with the US would likely be sufficient to prevent any attack on Canadian soil--at a much lower expense to taxpayers. If, as you suggested, Canadians were armed, I have little doubt that given the opportunity, they would readily enlist or form militias if these deterrents were not sufficient and Canada faced a real threat of invasion.

Is any of this remotely politically feasible in this climate? Unlikely, and it's not just because we have unimaginative leaders like neocon-lite Stephen Harper and Michael "Responsibility to Protect" Ignatieff. We're having enough difficulties removing the yoke of firearm restrictions and licensing, getting the government to recognize our right to own and enjoy fee simple property or removing unprofitable and anti-competitive state corporations from the government sphere.

For now, the least we can do is recognize that we have no real national security stake in Central or South Asia and under Article 5 of the NATO charter, we need only take those actions which we "deem neccesary...to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area" and get the hell out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, and certainly no later than the present withdrawal date in 2011.

To commit ourselves to Obama's "AfPak" strategy would be a giant mistake. Subsidizing and encouraging the Pakistani Army to turn their weapons against the citizenry, and pushing them to contribute forces to a US-NATO Afghanistan mission which 90% of Pakistanis oppose (as Obama is doing), can only lead to more instability for that nuclear-armed country.

Any knowledgable observer will tell you that the real power in Pakistan resides in the Army, not the politicians in Islamabad. Musharraf and his cronies looted the resources and treasury leaving the present government with little option but to take the billions of dollars of US support in return for cooperation in the War on Terror. At the same time, neither the officers, army peons, or the civilian population (especially so in Pashtun-dominated NWFP or Baluchistan) supports the orders being handed down to the Army from the political leaders or the US predator strikes within Pakistan which are somewhat noisily suffered by the government but still allowed to continue. At the same time, all evidence suggests that Pakistan's intelligence services are still sympathetic and closely tied to the Afghan Taliban and whoever can offer cash to stuff their pockets. Does this sound like a recipe for stability to you? Not to me--If anything it sounds like a recipe for increased instability and possibly even a military coup.

With Canada's assistance, Obama could help make this nightmare a reality.

Posted by: Kalim Kassam | 2009-05-14 12:27:47 AM

The recent events in Pakistan are no reason to panic and start talking of extending a mission that is already being sidelined by the US. The Taliban are rabble and not going to take Islamabad or see a nuclear weapon.

Canada is already on the hook for at least $30 billion if we pull out in late 2011. We are achieving very little for huge expenditures and should cut our losses and refocus our efforts as soon as possible.

That means the complete withdrawal of all CF with the exception of the defence attaché staff and people training the Afghans. Camp Mirage and any other bases intended to support the mission should be closed. The CH-47Fs and armed drones should be cancelled as well as any other big ticket item justified by the Afghan campaign.

10% of the resulting savings of at least $3 billion per year could be donated to NGOs for development and another 10% given to the Afghan security forces for equipment etc. We would be doing more to help Afghan civilians, more to defeat the Taliban, putting less wear and tear on the military and spending far less borrowed money.

Posted by: F.T. Ward | 2009-05-14 1:38:29 AM

Kalim, how much more would you downsize the Canadian military? We have 90,000 active and reservists only in the forces. They have limited capabilities and a lot of equipment shortages. The only thing that our current military has going for it is the high quality of our troops. My home defense concept would take into account the high quality of soldier that exists in most Canadian men. Yet, it also takes into account Canadians unwillingness to pay for a respectable military deterrent.
Finland is 5.3 million people but they have a well armed force of 350,000. Also, they have a higher level of gun ownership and less firearms restrictions. They are a small armed country that can send a lot of firepower at an invader. The end result is that their neighbor Russia hasn't tried to mess with them in 65 years!

Posted by: Chaz | 2009-05-14 10:48:54 AM

Most "libertarians" would like Canada's military to resemble San Marino's. The bulk of the military budget would be spent on fancy uniforms to impress visiting dignitaries.

Posted by: The Stig | 2009-05-14 11:19:45 AM

Quitting now is futile since we're about half-way through this war. it would be like sending the troops home in January 1917 before Vimy, or January 1944 before D-Day. Stay the course and onward to victory. Get more weapons such as Apache helicopters too.

Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2009-05-14 11:22:12 AM

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