Manley concerned Afghan panel recommendations not being met

The chair of the panel that examined Canada's mission in Afghanistan has told CBC News he is concerned Ottawa may not be acting on key recommendations more than four months after his report was tabled.

The chair of the panel that examined Canada's mission in Afghanistan told CBC News in an exclusive interview that he is concerned the federal government may not be acting on key recommendations more than four months after his report was tabled.

John Manley responds to CBC senior correspondent Brian Stewart. ((CBC))
In its final report presented in January, the panel headed by former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley criticized Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government for being too close-mouthed in its communications strategy for the Afghan mission.

The panel also said the effectiveness of Canada's military and civilian activities in Afghanistan and the progress of Afghan security and government must be tracked.

But in an interview with the CBC senior correspondent Brian Stewart that aired Thursday, Manley said the Canadian government has not helped public understanding of the mission or of the many complex issues surrounding it.

"It certainly concerns me if we are not getting the information out to Canadians," said Manley, who, along with the other members of the panel, visited Afghanistan for 10 days in November.

"The Canadian focus is less and less on what the troops are doing, what we should be doing and in fact, whether our report is being implemented." 

In March, the Conservatives, with support from the Liberals, passed a motion that would keep Canadian soldiers in Kandahar until 2011.

The motion was contingent on two recommendations of the Manley report: that NATO allies provide 1,000 extra troops to help the Canadian effort and that Ottawa secure access to unmanned surveillance drones and large helicopters to transport Canadian troops around the region.

But details of the Afghan mission are still subject to tight information control by the Prime Minister's Office, while key departments, such as Foreign Affairs and the Canadian International Development Agency, remain media averse.

During his interview, Manley said the concerns raised by the panel surrounding what the government reveals about the mission are serious enough to threaten the mission's overall success.

"Our report included a large assessment of how things were going, and it was not a glowing assessment," Manley said. "In fact, I think we were pretty clear that if things didn't change, the whole effort in Afghanistan was in real peril of being lost."

The five-member panel also said Canada must place greater emphasis on diplomacy and reconstruction, and the Canadian military focus must shift gradually from combat to training Afghan national security forces.

Government working on 'signposts of progress'

A special cabinet subcommittee has been set up to co-ordinate Canada's efforts, as recommended by the Manley report.

Senior government officials insist the cabinet is very focused on Afghanistan, while sources say task forces within Foreign Affairs and CIDA are working to unveil a series of "signposts of progress" on the mission, perhaps as soon as mid-June, the CBC's Stewart said.

But Roland Paris, associate professor at the University of Ottawa's Centre for International Policy Studies, told CBC News that despite the urgent need for more information on the Afghan mission, there has been "no significant change" in the level of transparency or detailed reporting from the Canadian government.

"What we've been lacking is a very specific set of goals and clear benchmarks that we can use to evaluate whether or not we are making progress toward these goals," Paris told CBC News.

He added there is "much more detailed, much more unvarnished reporting" on the mission in Iraq than the mission in Afghanistan.

Earlier this year, International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda said the government would increase the number of briefings it offers reporters on the Afghan mission in an attempt to be more open about what is happening there.

"Our goal is to better inform Canadians about Canada's activities on the ground," she told reporters at a press conference in February.

But Oda also suggested the media was at fault for government's difficulty in communicating the Canadian mission's good news stories.