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Canada–An Election Call Over Afghanistan? Bring it on

February 14, 2008 by  


Courtesy Thomas Walkom

Stéphane Dion’s Liberals wanted to avoid an election focused on Afghanistan. They will not get that chance.

The resolution tabled in the Commons two days ago by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s governing Conservatives is blunt and to the point. Subject to conditions that now seem likely to be met, it calls for Canadians troops to stay on fighting in Kandahar until at least the end of 2011.

It essentially says that those who don’t support the government are sissies. And it dares the opposition to defy it.

Desperate Liberals insist there is room for compromise. “Is it in the national interest for us to plunge the country into a bitter election on an issue where I think Canadians desperately, right across the partisan divide, want us to pull together?” deputy leader Michael Ignatieff asked on Friday.

What Ignatieff really meant is that he fears his party might lose if Afghanistan becomes an election issue.

And indeed it might, particularly if Dion, Ignatieff and foreign affairs critic Bob Rae continue to send conflicting signals as to what a Liberal government would do.

But no matter how much this resolution is parsed, there is no room for political compromise. Canadian troops will either continue fighting on in Kandahar past February 2009, as Harper demands, or they will not.

The Liberals can shift ground again, thereby cementing in the public mind the image of Dion as indecisive. Or they can take Harper on.

In that sense, it becomes immaterial how the opposition parties end up bringing the government down. The Liberals might prefer to defeat Harper’s budget before the Afghan resolution comes to a vote at the end of March. But if they think they can finesse the war this way, they are almost certainly wrong.

Unless the Canadian economy begins to deteriorate more quickly than most analysts predict, budget issues will have to share top billing with Kandahar in a spring election.

And why not? John Manley, the former Liberal foreign minister whose advisory report has become Harper’s touchstone on Afghanistan, argues that the war is too important to become an election issue. That’s a tried and true elitist position. But when else will we get a chance to pronounce on what is surely the most important foreign adventure the country has been involved in since Korea?

Certainly, there are clear choices. The Conservatives and Liberals are essentially happy with the current NATO strategy for dealing with the Taliban insurgency. But Harper would have Canadians troops stay in Kandahar for almost four more years while Dion insists that they be sent next year to a different part of the country in largely non-combat roles.

Jack Layton’s New Democrats have adopted a more fundamental critique. They argue that the entire NATO counter-insurgency strategy is wrong-headed and that Canada should withdraw its troops from Afghanistan until it can persuade the United Nations to recast its intervention along political lines rather than military lines.

So bring on the election. The Conservatives are attempting to paint their opponents as either unpatriotic or weak-kneed. The opposition is trying to portray the government as war-happy. This is the usual barroom rhetoric.

In fact, no major party is arguing, in the words of the resolution, that “Canada should simply abandon the people of Afghanistan.” Conversely, none is calling for perpetual war. Rather, all are proposing very different ways for dealing with something we never asked to be part of.

Let’s hear what the politicians have to say. Let’s decide. Let’s get on with it.

Thomas Walkom’s column appears Thursday and Sunday.

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