Montreal is undergoing its third political debate in just as many weeks. On the heels of such topics as reasonable accommodation and voting while veiled comes the debate over Canada’s involvement in war-torn Afghanistan. Preceded by a televised appeal by Hamid Karzai pleading for the support of the Canadian public, especially Quebecers, the International Conference on Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan was launched to discuss the future of the Canadian intervention – beyond February 2009.
“I would like to address directly to Quebecers who wish to support an extension of the mission past 2009. I know Quebecers are an outspoken people, a proud people, and a responsible people. Quebecers who would like to see us through our work, and be proud when we finish it,” said Minister of Foreign Affaires Maxime Bernier.
Officially coordinated by Le Centre D’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales (CERIUM), the three-day french-speaking conference featured a list of dignitaries including former Deputy Secretary General to the UN, Louise Frechette; vice-president of the Canadian International Development Agency, Stephen Wallace; editor-in-chief of La Presse, Andre Pratte; just to name a few.
Notably absent was General Rick Hillier, Chief of the Defense Staff of Canadian Forces, who was originally invited to deliver the keynote address. He was replaced just ten days before the conference by Minister Bernier.
“We felt that the best person to represent a global perspective was the minister [.] it became clear that it was a must,” said Lt.Col. Roland Lavoie, Head of the Defense Public Affairs Learning Centre.
Speakers and panelists discussed the different facets of Canada’s intervention, which included the military situation, progress of development, and the establishing of Afghan governance. Almost all speakers advocated for an extension of the mission beyond Canada’s previously-made mandate of halting active combat by February 2009.
Straight-away, the conference was met by loud and disruptive protestors. During the opening dinner and presentation, activists of Block the Empire, an “anti-imperialist contingent” based out of QPIRG Concordia, and other protestors stood up and shouted during Minister Bernier’s speech. They condemned the conference and called Canada’s mission an “occupation” bent on extracting economic benefits from Afghanistan.
“Kick them all outside! Kick them all outside! Those are some good words for democracy!” said a protestor in response to others in the crowd who called for the activists to leave the hall.
However, members of the audience were given mikes towards the end of the night to ask questions or voice their opinions on the intervention.
Afghan Ambassador to Canada, Omar Samad, stressed the importance of keeping Canadian troops in his country to help stabilize it.
“I can assure you, ladies and gentleman, at the end of the day, the Afghan people, especially those who have suffered tremendously for the past six years, the women, the children, and the men, are extremely grateful for what your country has done to help.”
Asked by the Concordian during a satellite link-up at the conference between Montreal and Kandahar, of how he would rate the Afghan National Army’s ability to control and defend territory, Commander of Canadian troops in Afghanistan General Guy Laroche responded that Afghan troops were still operating in conjunction with Canadian forces for the time being.
“They operate in the provinces of Khandahar and Uruzgan. But again, while they don’t control every sector, the Afghan army has made remarkable progress in recent years. And the Afghan army today is capable of conducting operations, while minor, that make a difference on the ground and assuming security in certain sectors.”
Recent reports indicated that Canadian troops had to recapture territory they previously controlled and turned over to the Afghan Army and police in Khandahar Province. Specifically the area of Panjwaii/Zhari just west of Khandahar captured by Canadian troops just last fall.
Elaborating further, Canadian Forces Lt. Col. Remi Landry (Ret’d) stated that “right now, they need us. We are making a difference.”
Barnett R. Rubin, Senior Fellow for the Center on International Cooperation of New York University, responded “If you look at the objective indicators, one would be foolish to be optimistic about Afghanistan. But nevertheless, there is more [hope] in Afghanistan now than there was six years ago. There are incomparably more resources at the disposal of the people in that country, to make their lives better now than they were at [six years ago].”
Stephen Wallace, Vice-President of CIDA, spoke at length about the successes his agency has made in helping Afghans. “It is enormously difficult to stabilize an economy emerging from a conflict that Afghanistan has. With very little to work with in terms of institutions, the economy has actually doubled in the less than four years.”
But he was quick to point out that “You can’t have development without security.”
Are Quebecers buying it?
Prof. Pierre Martin, Director of the Chair in American Political and Economic Studies at the University de Montreal, confirms the widely-held belief that Quebecers tend to view Canada’s intervention in Afghanistan less favorably than the rest of Canada.
However, he said that Quebecers’ opinions have not changed significantly as of late, and have actually improved slightly towards supporting the mission.
He emphasized that the difference in opinion between Quebecers and that of the rest of Canada is not related to aspirations for sovereignty whatsoever, but rather on their distinct lack of trust for American foreign policy.
However, to him, one thing is clear: “No matter what we say, to the community of experts, the one determining factor [on public opinion] is what is happening in reality. It’s not the public information campaigns, it’s not image campaigns or other such related measures. If the situation is indeed very bad in reality, the public would take note,” said Martin, referring to the effect of media reports on the war.
“If the war has very little chance of success or if it becomes a stalemate, people will take note.”
At various points during his presentation, he repeated the importance of justifying the mission to Quebecers (as well as to Canadians) in order to garner their support. He used his babysitter as an example to illustrate a common reaction of ordinary people towards the war. After asking her what she thought of Canada’s intervention, he got this answer: “I don’t know why we are sending troops over there to kill people.”
“There is a lot contained within that answer,” he said. “Put simply, […] we don’t give enough reasons. ”
“All the ones who are concerned about the intervention in Afghanistan are largely convinced that there is a good reason, but that doesn’t mean that people are able to perceive what this reason is,” said Martin.
Andre Pratte, editor-in-chief of La Presse, pointed out that the responsibility falls on the government to properly justify the mission to Canadians.
“[They] need to be convinced that this role of combat is sometimes important to keep the peace. But there remains a lot of work to do.”
When asked why some of the more positive aspects of the war, such as numerous humanitarian and reconstruction efforts have not been portrayed well to Canadians, Pratte responded by saying “I tend to think that it is the government proposing this policy that should do better. This [conservative] government has been particularly inefficient in explaining the mission.”
It’s a promo, not a debate
Voices from the opposition of the mission were heard during a round-table discussion by a panel of experts mediated by the host of CBC Daybreak’s Mike Finnerty.
The question period, at times openly hostile and confrontational, allowed members of the public to voice their questions and opinions on the war.
Nadia Alexan, a social-justice advocate and recent candidate for the political party Quebec Solidaire, angrily stated that “Unfortunately the first casualty of war is the truth. The government has been lying to no end to us!”
Another unidentified audience member asked why Canadian troops were occupying Afghanistan.
Retired Lt. Col. Remi Landry, sitting on the panel, quickly pointed out that “Canadians aren’t occupying Afghanistan, they are helping train Afghan forces to take control themselves.”
He added that the mission was sanctioned by the United Nations and under a NATO banner.
Unfortunately, not many people were given the opportunity to be heard. Non-panel members were given barely 20 minutes to speak while speakers of the conference had longer opportunities. More than half of those who were intent on addressing the panelists never had a chance.
Whether or not the conclusions reached by its panel members affect the government’s policy remains to be seen. But with a minority government that seems likely to be toppled any day now, Canada’s future in Afghanistan seems to be up in the air.