Has the Conservative stand on Afghanistan changed?Posted in Reality Check Posted on October 3, 2008 10:31 AM | Permalink
By Ira Basen
The Canadian mission in Afghanistan provoked a lively debate during Thursday night’s English language leaders' debate. Two questions were particularly contentious.
Have the Conservatives changed their position on Afghanistan?
"There will be some who want to cut and run, but cutting and running is not my way and it's not the Canadian way. We don't make a commitment and then run away at the first sign of trouble. We don't and we will not, as long as I'm leading this country." — Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Kandahar 2006.
“You changed your mind. You said again and again and again that we don’t need an end date. It would be a mistake, a failure. We need to stay until the job is done, whatever that means.” — Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, leaders' debate, Oct. 2, 2008.
The Reality: Until announcing at the beginning of the campaign that Canadian troops would be leaving Afghanistan at the end of the current parliamentary mandate in 2011, the Conservative government had always shied away from announcing an end date for the Afghan mission.
In April, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay declared: “We do not talk about how we might retreat or withdraw. That is not part of the public discourse that will help our troops.”
The objectives of the mission also appear to have changed. Speaking to troops in Kandahar in 2006, Harper declared that Canada was fighting to create a “democratic, prosperous and modern country” in Afghanistan.
These were ambitious goals and the passage of time has demonstrated they were perhaps too ambitious. Now, the core of the mission appears to be to get the Afghans to manage their own security. And in the leaders' debate, Harper indicated that the best way to accomplish that objective is to set a deadline and leave. “If we never leave, will the job ever get done?” he wondered.
The reality is that prior to this campaign there does not appear to be any evidence that the Conservatives believed that the best way of accomplishing Canada’s objectives in Afghanistan was to set a firm deadline for leaving.
Is Afghanistan a UN mission?
Harper: “This is the United Nations mission. People talk about George Bush. This was a mission approved by the United Nations.”
Green party Leader Elizabeth May: "The current mission is not a UN mission. The initial NATO process received a UN sanction. It’s not the same thing as a UN mission."
The Reality: The United Nations Security Council gave the go-ahead in late 2001 for the International Security Assistance Force, which was established by the United States and NATO allies. The UN has no influence over how the ISAF, which has a mandate to offer support to the Afghan government, conducts its military operations.
The Security Council set up the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) in 2002, with the mission aiming to look after UN reconstruction and relief efforts. The mission currently has about 1,300 staff in Afghanistan; about 80 per cent of them are Afghan nationals. Their effectiveness is severely limited by the deteriorating security situation throughout the country.
So Harper is correct to say that NATO troops in Afghanistan were approved by the UN.
But May is also correct when she says that is really not the same as saying this is a UN mission. When Canadians refer to the “mission” in Afghanistan, they are generally talking about the U.S.-led NATO military mission that are soldiers are part of. This is the “mission” that will be coming to an end in 2011. Presumably, our involvement with UNAMA will continue past that date.
About the Authors
Ira Basen joined CBC Radio in 1984 and was senior producer at Sunday Morning and Quirks and Quarks. He was involved in the creation of three network programs The Inside Track (1985), This Morning (1997) and Workology (2001), and produced the award- winning radio documentary series Spin Cycles (2007). He has also written for Saturday Night, the Globe and Mail and the Walrus. He taught at the University of Toronto, the University of Western Ontario, and Ryerson. He is a co-author of the Canadian edition of The Book of Lists (Knopf, 2005).
John Gray has worked for a number of Canadian newspapers, including most recently more than 20 years with the Globe and Mail, where he served as Ottawa bureau chief, national editor, foreign editor, foreign correspondent and national correspondent
Mark Gollom has been a news writer for CBCNews.ca since 2003. He's worked as a reporter at the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen and the Toronto Sun. Mark has a degree in political science from the University of Western Ontario and a diploma in journalism from Centennial College in Toronto.