Afghanistan falls off election radar screen

  • September 29, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - With 97 Canadian soldiers dead and many more injured, a record year for attacks on development workers and mounting evidence that NATO is losing the war in Afghanistan some might have expected the war to be a major issue in the Canadian election campaign.

"It's not an issue because the Liberals gave the issue away when they voted for the Conservative extension to 2011, so there's no difference really between the Conservative and the Liberal position on this," said left-leaning Rideau Institute defence analyst Stephen Staples.
In the first week of campaigning Prime Minister Stephen Harper committed to pulling Canadian troops out of Afghanistan, not just out of Kandahar province, at the end of 2011. Though the Liberals criticized the vow as an election stunt, they failed to offer a concrete alternative.

Project Ploughshares senior researcher Ernie Regehr is almost glad Afghanistan isn't dominating election news.

 "You can just imagine how the whole thing would be distorted when one side says we need to negotiate and the other side says 'So you want to give excuses to terrorists?' It would degenerate into a kind of tit-for-tat," Regehr told The Catholic Register.

Catholics for Peace spokesman Steve Barringer continues to advocate an immediate pullout so Canada can refocus its mission on development and diplomacy.

"Having bought off the people with a date of 2011, the idea is that now we can focus on more important things," said Barringer. "We don't believe it has been taken care of."

Even if the pull-out date is no longer a matter for debate, there's still plenty to talk about concerning Canada's involvement in Afghanistan, said Staples.

"A real, honest discussion of the war should be happening all the time. It should always be a matter of debate and of constant evaluation," said Staples. "That's what healthy democracies do. And we owe it to the soldiers who are there to say that we're constantly looking at this, we're thinking about them, it's a top-of-mind issue."

Canada's Catholic bishops highlighted Afghanistan in their Federal Election 2008 Guide with advice that a Catholic take on any war favours reconciliation and views all war as tragedy. In his annual report to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, CCCB president Archbishop James Weisgerber said on Sept. 22 that Canada lacked clear goals for its mission in Afghanistan.

"If these goals are not articulated, it is difficult to determine bench marks, and almost impossible to evaluate successes and failures," said the archbishop.

The electorate should be engaged in a debate on how to move Canada's policy toward actively seeking a negotiated solution, said Barringer.

"In other words, getting invitations to people like the Taliban to come to the table and talk," said Barringer.

Engaging a peace process is the only hope Canada or NATO have of leaving Afghanistan with lasting, measurable achievements, said Staples.

"All the plans talk about delivering aid or building schools or part-time workers or these kinds of things, but all of that is wishful thinking while the fighting goes on - and any gains will be momentary," Staples said.

The hard part will be persuading the Taliban to negotiate now that they are militarily successful. As long as they are gaining more and more control over rural Afghanistan by inflicting casualties on Westerners - both troops and development workers - they have less reason to negotiate away possible future gains by laying down their arms, said Staples. Negotiations might have been much easier a couple of years ago when the Taliban was on the run.

"They (the Canadian government) squandered many opportunities to end this war," said Staples.

Regehr's encounters with committed and professional Canadian diplomats stationed in Kabul have him convinced that negotiations are still possible and would be fruitful. The diplomats just need an all clear signal from Ottawa, he said.

"The professionals on the ground there are a little bit more attuned to the need for negotiation and reconciliation than are the political leaders at home," he said.

Regehr points out that Afghanistan is an election issue south of the border where Domocratic candidate Barak Obama has proposed shifting American military resources away from Iraq and creating a surge-like increase of troops in Afghanistan. There's a real choice to be made between increased militarization and negotiation and development, said Regehr.

"The temptation is to say that the solution is not a military one, but then all the solutions we talk about are how to beef up the military effort," he said.

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