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A soldier of the Afghan National Army stands guard during a patrol in Musa Qala, Afghanistan, Dec. 15, 2007. (Rafiq Maqbool/Associated Press)

In Depth

The 39th Parliament

The Afghan debate: Where the parties stand on the deployment of troops

Last Updated February 2008

Stay and fight, or come home soon. When it comes to the deployment of Canadian troops in Afghanistan, the voting public is all over the map.

So, too, are Canada's four main federal parties.

The Liberals began the Afghan deployment in the wake of 9/11 but have been internally divided almost from the outset on how or whether to continue it.

Witness former prime minister Jean Chrétien's 2007 memoirs in which he slagged his successor Paul Martin for miring Canada in a real war in the southern province of Kandahar. Or the 2006 parliamentary vote in which the majority of Liberals, Stéphane Dion among them, voted against extending the mission beyond February 2007.

Afghanistan at a glance

Population: 32 million, one million fewer than Canada

Per capita income: $261 a year in 2005, less than Haiti

Number of foreign soldiers: 40,000 from 39 countries

Canada's contribution: 2,500 soldiers and $1.2 billion in promised aid over 10 years

Military cost to date: $6.1 billion for the five years beginning in February 2002

Since he became prime minister in January 2006, Stephen Harper has, somewhat surprisingly, taken direct ownership of the Afghan engagement — in four years as opposition leader he had barely mentioned the issue in Parliament.

As PM, however, he has now sought on two occasions to extend Canada's military presence there, a further four years in fact, from what would have been the Liberal cutoff in February 2007 to the now proposed end date of December 2011.

Harper's plans, however, are highly nuanced and have evolved considerably over just the last few months. At first, he was proposing merely a general plan to extend Canada's military mission in Afghanistan a further two years, until some point in 2011. Then it was only if NATO coughed up a further 1,000 soldiers and other military equipment to help the fight against a resurgent Taliban.

More recently, in an attempt to forge a bipartisan Afghan policy with the Liberals, Harper introduced a revised government motion on the mission that adopts much of the language of an earlier Liberal motion. Its key elements include substituting the words defence and security in place of military engagement and offering to strike a different, though unexplained, balance between the three prongs of Canada's Afghan policy — defence, diplomacy and development.

Notably, this newest motion explicitly gives the government the authority to strike the balance that it feels most effective between these three components. It also sees Canadian troops staying on in Kandahar until the very end of 2011, a few months longer than the Liberals had envisioned, but only if NATO (or the U.S.) comes up with 1,000 more combat soldiers by February 2009 to help out.

Some of these developments are no doubt designed for short-term electoral advantage: For the governing Conservatives, having a bipartisan shield around something as controversial as Afghanistan can only help neutralize this issue in an election campaign.

But some should probably be seen in the context of international gamesmanship. Ottawa, in concert with Washington and London, has been trying to break down the resistance of NATO allies in Europe to sending more combat troops of their own to the tougher regions of Afghanistan, notably Kandahar.

In any event, all this bluster and manoeuvring raises the question: Where do the parties stand on Canada's role in Afghanistan?

Platforms in a nutshell

  • The Conservatives: Would keep Canadian troops in southern Afghanistan until December 2011, essentially with the same three-part mandate they have now — to train Afghan troops, provide humanitarian relief and fight the Taliban insurgency. A caveat is that NATO or the U.S. would have to provide an additonal 1,000 combat soldiers to the Kandahar theatre, where fighting has been fierce. Ottawa is thinking of buying or leasing combat helicopters and unmanned drones itself to assist the combat mission.
  • The Liberals: Are now prepared to keep Canadian soldiers in Kandahar past the 2009 deadline — a big policy change for Dion — but want them to concentrate on training and humanitarian aid after that point. The Liberals are on record as wanting to see an end to combat missions as of February 2009 but that condition is not explicitly stated in the parliamentary motion.
  • The Bloc Qu�b�cois: Wants Canadian troops home as of February 2009, the date Parliament previously agreed to in the spring of 2006 when the mission was first extended.
  • The NDP: Wants troops brought home immediately and other NATO countries to step into the breach.

The history of engagement

The Conservative party and Stephen Harper, in particular, have come a long way since February 2002 when Canadian soldiers first landed in the central Asian country, their first direct combat mission since the Korean War.

Afghanistan was barely on Canada's radar at that point. Diplomatic relations had been severed in 1979 when the Soviets invaded. And the Conservative party predecessor, the Canadian Alliance, had little on its foreign policy books besides bettering relations with the U.S.

By the time Harper took over as Alliance leader in 2002, about 800 Canadian troops had been sent to the Afghan capital, Kabul, to help keep the peace.

Harper's main concern in those days was the buildup to the war in Iraq. He argued that Canada should send a clear signal to Saddam Hussein by joining the coalition of nations being put together by the United States and Britain.

This was not the governing Liberal view at the time. In fact, Chrétien was determined to keep Canada out of Iraq and saw the Afghanistan mission as Canada's contribution to the so-called war on terror.

In his memoirs, Chrétien said that he used all his diplomatic skills to get Canadian troops posted to the relatively safe environs of Kabul and blamed his successor, Paul Martin, for allowing Canadian troops to be redeployed to the tougher Kandahar region in the south.

Hillier General Rick Hillier (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Many observers say Martin was swayed by Gen. Rick Hillier, Canada's top soldier, who had trained extensively with U.S. troops and was making a strong case for Canada taking on more of a fighting role in Afghanistan in conjunction with the military's new "three-block war" policy. That is where the armed forces are expected to engage in armed combat, stabilize a region and help with humanitarian efforts at the same time.

The Martin redeployment was a 1,700-member battlegroup that was to have been deployed in Kandahar for a year, beginning in February 2006.

In his four years as opposition leader, Harper barely mentioned the Afghan mission in Parliament, according to the official record Hansard. Nor did he bring it up much during the 2006 campaign where he was forced to deal mainly with Liberal taunts that he had wanted to go to war in Iraq.

Just before the decision to redeploy was taken in May 2005, Washington weighed in with a carrot: Because of its Afghan contribution, Canada could bid on what was felt at the time to be lucrative reconstruction work in Iraq.

Conservatives in power

When the Conservatives came to power in January 2006, they inherited the four-year-old mission, which was beginning to change rapidly as Taliban forces regrouped in the tribal areas of neighbouring Pakistan.

For Harper, one of his first foreign affairs initiative as PM was a surprise visit to the troops there in March 2006. Then in May, the young Conservative government held a six-hour emergency debate on extending the mission, a vote that put all four party policies to the test.

The final tally (149-145), narrowly allowed the new Conservative government to avoid defeat and set the stage for Canadian soldiers to stay on the ground in Afghanistan for two more years passed their initial deadline, or until February 2009.

Most political observers saw the exercise as an attempt by the Harper Conservatives to exploit divisions within the opposition Liberals and portray himself as a decisive new-man-in-charge.

As for dividing the Liberals, it worked. The Liberals had held three parliamentary debates on Afghanistan when they were in office, in 2001, 2003 and 2005. All were "take note" debates that did not result in official votes.

The first real parliamentary vote was when the Conservative government forced the issue in May 2006. At that point, the Bloc and NDP voted against the Harper motion to extend the mission until 2009, but the Liberal's interim leader Bill Graham allowed a free vote.

Graham and 29 other Liberals, including the current deputy leader, Michael Ignatieff, supported the extension, allowing it to pass. The vast majority of Liberals, including the man who would become leader Stéphane Dion, did not. Dion's primary argument for voting against the motion was that he felt Harper was playing partisan games.

Harper, however, quickly went on to make Afghanistan one of his top priorities. He made two trips there to visit troops and he bumped up the defence allocation in his first budget.

Then, in the summer of 2007, he began laying the groundwork for a further extension beyond 2009.

The second extension

By 2007, the Afghan mission was becoming much more politicized. Part of this had to do with the number of casualties Canada was experiencing, which were proportionally greater than any of its allies. Another issue was the ill treatment of prisoners that Canada had taken and handed over to Afghan authorities.

The NDP was among the first to break ranks. Under new leader Jack Layton, it had objected to the Martin government's redeployment from Kabul to Kandahar in 2005. But it had also tried to walk a fine line between being critical of the mission's objectives and being supportive of Canadian troops.

In April 2007, however, Layton announced the party would be demanding an immediate withdrawal of Canadian troops from Kandahar, a position that was highly criticized at the time in the press.

Layton's view was that the mission had strayed from Canada's traditional role as peacekeeper. And he began urging the Afghan government to engage the Taliban in peace talks. While harshly rebuked by both Canadian and Afghan government officials at the time, the government of Hamid Karzai subsequently offered government positions to certain Taliban leaders if they would abandon the insurgency.

The Bloc also considered demanding an immediate withdrawal of troops around this time. Leader Gilles Duceppe floated the idea but then withdrew it in the face of critical reaction in the Quebec press.

Duceppe was an early supporter of the deployment in 2001 and 2002. And while the Bloc voted against extending the mission in 2006, it was ready to live with what Parliament decided: In the spring of 2007, for example, it sided with the Conservatives against an NDP motion for early withdrawal.

But when Harper began talking of extending the mission a second time, until 2011, Duceppe said enough: Withdrawal by February 2009, he said, is a "non-negotiable" demand for his party's support in the minority parliament.

The debate

Harper began talking about a second extension in the late summer of 2007. He told Australia's parliament in Canberra that although he understands Canadian support is divided over the mission, it would not be right to walk away from the Afghan people before they are ready to take over their own security.

In response, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, speaking in Montreal a few weeks later, set out his line in the sand: He called on the Conservative government to make it clear that Canadian soldiers will be out of their combat role in Afghanistan as of February 2009 — though they could remain, said Dion, in other capacities.

The Liberals argued that Canada should refocus the mission to add considerably more aid and training alongside the military role.

The Conservatives, however, did not embrace that distinction. Their speech from the throne in October 2007 merely argued that Canadian troops should stay on until 2011.

To make this plan more palatable, the government commissioned an independent panel chaired by former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley, to make a recommendation. After the panel reported in late January 2008, Harper's position changed again.

He said he would accept what he called the broad thrust of the Manley panel report — that Canada now not stay past the February 2009 deadline unless NATO or the U.S. helps out with a large increase in speciality helicopters and 1,000 additional fighting troops in the Kandahar region, to be in the theatre by February 2009.

Implicit, it seems, in the Conservative position is that Canada's military will continue to mount incursions against the Taliban when called upon, in conjunction it is hoped with NATO allies.

In their revised motion, the Conservatives adopted the Liberal language that says the military mission will consist of (a) training the Afghan forces, (b) providing security for development efforts in Kandahar, and (c) continuing responsibility for the Kandahar reconstruction team.

But what is not clear is the meaning attached to "providing security," particulary if the Canadian military's three-block policy is still in effect.

At one point, Liberal defence critic Denis Coderre mused that Canada should withdraw from the main NATO battlegroup in Kandahar. But no one else in the party pursued that notion and the idea appears to have been dropped.

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