Afghanistan Mission Debate

March-10-08

Hon. John McKay (Scarborough—Guildwood, Lib.):    Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine.

    I want to pick up on the comments by the member for Halifax. She referenced an Oxfam report entitled, “Community peacebuilding in Afghanistan: The case for a national strategy”. I, too, think it is well worth the read. It is an excellent analysis of part of the way forward.

    As many commentators have noted, the government has essentially photocopied the Liberal position on the future role of Afghanistan, and largely, so to speak, the political sizzle has gone out of the debate. I am hoping that the government actually responds positively to this motion so that we can enter into a substantive conversation as to where we go in Afghanistan instead of this eternal game of gotcha politics, which is really just playing with men's and women's lives, those of our own men and women and those in Afghanistan.

    Until recently, this exercise in gotcha politics has largely characterized the debate. I hope we can move off that to this motion for change. It really is a motion for change.

     It is conditional upon getting another 1,000 troops. I hope the government answers the questions put forward by the leader of the Liberal Party with respect to why 1,000 troops should make a difference, what the significance is in the number of 1,000, what exactly the troops will do, and whether an extra 1,000 actually will make a difference in Afghanistan.

    To be truthful, my expectations of improvement are not all that high, given that historically Afghanistan has long been the place where armies go to die and treasuries get depleted. In particular, in regard to Britain in the 18th century, I think there were two occupations, which ended in a rather unsatisfactory conclusion and drained the exchequer of Great Britain. We also have the more recent example of the Russian invasion in the last 20 years, in the past generation. It, too, was a very unsatisfactory experience for the Russians. Now NATO is in Afghanistan and we have been there some seven years. Of course, the Americans have their own version in Iraq, where there is an insurgency which is very difficult to control and is in fact depleting their treasury.

    Speaking of the NATO mission, the current mission in Afghanistan unfortunately has served to highlight some deep divisions among the NATO partners concerning the question of the appropriate role for the alliance in that desperate land. Despite the desperate state of affairs in that country, we still wish to believe that Afghans, like everyone else, wish to aspire to a greater sense of peace and security, much like other countries enjoy, and we are there because of that working assumption.

    That hope is the basis on which I support the resolution going forward and that eventually we will improve the chances of the Afghan people realizing the standard of peace and prosperity. This is the main reason that I think this resolution needs to be supported going forward to 2011.

    However, we should not be under any illusion that this is a war or an insurgency that can be won in a conventional sense, because the situation is a bit like a Hydra-headed monster. Once one element of the insurgency is dealt with, up pops another head. The unavoidable reality is that over the last three years the insurgency has increased. We have to ask some fundamental questions, which is the point of this debate, as to the best way to deploy our brave men and women in Afghanistan.

    It is easy enough to talk about the 3Ds. We seem to talk about the 3Ds all the time. Over the past year certainly, and over the past seven years, the emphasis has been on the deployment of military forces to the neglect of the other two Ds. It has not been working as it should. I do not want people to get all defensive on me, but surely after seven years, which is, incidentally, longer than we were in World War II, we need to ask some pretty basic questions.

     Afghanistan is an extremely complicated situation, mainly because it is a war on terror, and the war on terror is layered over a civil war, and the civil war is layered over tribal conflicts, and further, that is layered over personal disputes. It goes on and on.

      We get a notion of perpetual fermenting conflict in all of these layers. I wonder where we would be today if, for the past seven years, we had put as much money into the other two Ds as we have put into defence. Maybe if we had, we now would actually be aspiring to bring our troops home.

    In fact, Canada has no direct strategic interest in Afghanistan. We do not have any major businesses there. We do not have any resources that we are interested in. Essentially we are there to bring peace to the situation. Initially, we went in to help in the war on terror, but unfortunately, in the words of John Kerry, President Bush took “his eye off the ball”, and al-Qaeda, while defeated a number of years ago, still maintains some presence in this conflict.

    I want to mention, however, that I like the part of the resolution that shifts the emphasis of the mission, but it will be meaningful only if we put serious effort into conflict resolution among the Afghans themselves.

    I want to share two stories that relate to peace-building. A well known NGO in Canada submitted a very detailed peace-building initiative to CIDA. Its members had a great deal of experience. They certainly know what they are talking about. They were prepared to put up their own resources. The submission was received by CIDA and returned to them with an offer of $1,000 towards their initiative. Needless to say, that $1,000 was declined. The NGO was somewhat insulted. Therein lies something of the tale as to why we are not dealing with peace-building, or serious peace-building, in this country.

    The second story involves an elected senator in Afghanistan. He was to mediate a conflict between two tribes. Apparently there was a blood feud. I am not quite sure what it involved, but the solution was apparently to offer up two women from one tribe and give them to the other tribe. If in fact that is the level of conflict resolution in Afghanistan, is it any wonder that these layerings of conflict continue, whether it is a war on terror or inter-tribal conflicts, et cetera?

    My view of the matter is that Canada and our NATO partners need to get serious about these kinds of peace-building initiatives. My point in sharing those two stories is to emphasize that unless these kinds of low level episodes of violence are not resolved in coherent and just ways, it is highly unlikely that we will ever see peace in Afghanistan, and I fear that our troops will be there forever.

    Actually, I would amend the last statement. We probably will be there indefinitely until at some point we simply get fed up and walk away from it. I do not think that would be very good for us. I do not think it would be very good for the Afghan people. I do not think that would be very good for the stated goals that we have in being in Afghanistan.

    What would a serious conflict resolution process look like?

    First, I believe we have to be intentional about building capacity. I realize that is an overused word. It is a type of lingo in the NGO trade, but we really need to remember that this country has known nothing about conflict resolution for a very long time. Afghanistan is a place where institutions are in fact corrupt and where justice is quite clearly hit and miss, more miss than hit.

    Second, capacity building is absolutely essential and it should be taught in Afghan schools, because we have to inculcate that view into the children of Afghanistan.

    Third, it needs to be involved in everything we do there, including our deployment of troops. It needs to be involved in everything from aid to diplomacy to troop deployment.

    To drive that point home, the fourth point is that we need to drive it into the heads of every Afghan official we meet, every political official, every politician, every warlord, every police officer, every judge, and every man, woman and child in that country.

      I do not want to sound Pollyannaish, but unless we have peace-building from the ground up, then this will be a perpetual conflict. However, I do want to be recorded as supporting the fact that this is a motion for change. I hope this motion for change will go forward.

Ms. Alexa McDonough (Halifax, NDP):

    Mr. Speaker, I commend the member from the Liberal caucus who just spoke for acknowledging what it appears the Conservatives, with whom the Liberals have entered into an alliance around supporting the continuation of the counter-insurgency war, are not willing to admit.

     The member for Scarborough—Guildwood has quite correctly acknowledged that what we are seeing in Kandahar is not an improvement in the security situation but in fact a deterioration. He spoke about the recent Oxfam report, to which my colleague referred a few moments ago, “Community peacebuilding in Afghanistan”, in which it is absolutely acknowledged that security is deteriorating.

    Red Cross officials have echoed those concerns and have talked about how really serious it is that NATO-sponsored provincial reconstruction teams often are treated with suspicion by Afghans, who believe that the teams are being controlled by foreign soldiers and so on. The UN has acknowledged 34 aid workers killed in the previous six months, with 76 abducted and 100 convoys and facilities looted. The UN World Food Programme reported that in the month of October alone 30 of its vehicles had been attacked and looted at a cost of $750,000 in stolen aid, compared to just five such attacks in the previous 12 months.

    Given that reality, how is it that the member and his colleagues feel comfortable and feel that it is a responsible thing to do to critically sign on to a continuation of that counter-insurgency mission in Kandahar instead of getting onto a solid path of building peace?

Hon. John McKay:

    Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the insight of the member's question. We in the Liberal Party simply are not prepared to abandon our situation in Afghanistan, but I want the hon. member to note that there are clear timelines laid down for change in the characterization of the mission. I want this period of time, from now until 2011, to be used to change that whole view of how we do this mission.

    Thus far, we have gone on a kind of linear basis, so to speak. First, we have to get the defence situation and security taken care of, then we provide aid, and after that diplomacy, or diplomacy and then the aid. We seem to want to go one, two and three. We always want to seem to put pacification first and then everything else afterwards.

    I am advocating for a more holistic approach in which we continually do all three and also that resources be deployed in a far more substantial measure on aid and diplomacy, and that in fact peace-building becomes integrated into our entire deployment of our troops, so that it is not just simply security first and then we will worry about delivering aid afterwards. I appreciate that it is not an easy situation, but we do have to start somewhere. I only wish we had started seven years ago with this kind of initiative.

Mr. Ed Fast (Abbotsford, CPC):  

    Mr. Speaker, I commend the hon. member for his comments and for supporting an ongoing role for Canada in providing security in Afghanistan. I was pleased to hear that he himself, and I believe he committed for his party, would not abandon Afghanistan and would not abandon providing the kind of security that is required to continue the diplomatic efforts that are going on there as well as the huge job of rebuilding that country.

    In order to make some progress, we are going to have to continue the job of reconstruction in that country and continue delivering humanitarian aid, but some people have proposed that there actually be a dialogue started between the Taliban and the ISAF forces to try to work toward some kind of an ongoing peace in Afghanistan.

    Does the member himself believe that discussions with the Taliban and trying to work to some kind of a solution with them, and bringing them into that process, is advisable? Or does he believe that it would be counterproductive to rebuilding Afghanistan?

Hon. John McKay:

    Mr. Speaker, in some respects, the hon. member's question is a touch simplistic, and I do not say that in an insulting sort of way. I simply think that having a war with the Taliban or having dialogue with the Taliban is a bit simplistic.

    The argument that I hope I have made in the course of my speech is that peace-building needs to start with these tribal feuds, with these situations in which justice is very much an absent concept in Afghan civilization and dealing with those things. If that leads to conversations with Afghan leaders, some of whom may well be Taliban, so be it.

    The only way in which we will create a situation for peace in that country is if we work from the ground up and develop actual peace-building initiatives on a small basis, whether it is intertribal or within provinces. Those are the kinds of civilized infrastructures that are required in order for peace and justice to prevail. If they do prevail, then there is some chance that the conflict will go down.