Recent polls do not augur well for Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan. Is the battle on the home front definitely lost or can opinion turn around in the coming months ?
That’s a critical question for Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the wake of Tuesday’s throne speech in which he made his first-ever admission that his government was prepared to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond 2009.
But will he succeed in rallying opinion ?
At one point, that may have seemed impossible, but there is a growing belief that a turnaround in public opinion might not be impossible after all.
Last week, participants at a policy retreat known as the Banff Forum were asked whether they supported the Afghan mission.
Although there were reservations, a strong majority of those present answered positively. Most participants even endorsed extension beyond 2009, in sharp contrast with opinion polls.
Interestingly, many participants admitted that their opinion had shifted from negative to positive in the course of the discussion.
Even if the prospects for success in Afghanistan are uncertain, this sample of well-informed citizens concluded that Canada’s military presence in that troubled country is worth the cost.
As we brace for months of debate on the Afghan mission in the quiet context of the Manley review panel, or perhaps soon in an election campaign, can we expect the same from the Canadian public as a whole ?
That is probably what Harper was counting on when he unveiled in the throne speech that Canadian troops might stay in Afghanistan beyond 2009.
But will he succeed in rallying opinion ?
Why not ? After all, the case for Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan to support the country’s reconstruction has strong merits.
Nonetheless, obstacles abound.
The first obstacle is the widely held belief that Canadian troops are in Afghanistan mainly in response to pressures from the U.S.
Those who hold that opinion are overwhelmingly likely to oppose the mission, whereas those who believe that Canada’s involvement stems from a multilateral commitment – who are still a majority – are much more likely to support it.
The problem is that Harper’s Conservatives are the only unequivocal partisan voices in support of the mission and, for those who don’t intend to vote for them – a majority of Canadians – Harper’s foreign policy is perceived as so closely aligned with that of the Bush administration that he has been unable to make a credible case for multilateralism.
Another obstacle is the difficulty for many people in understanding the link between the military presence and the humanitarian and reconstruction aspects of the mission. Hardly anyone would disagree that helping Afghanistan recover socially and economically from decades of conflict is a goal worth pursuing.
Although Canadian civilians who work over there do not always approve of the way some allies conduct military operations around them, few if any of them would welcome an immediate withdrawal of their country’s troops.
Nonetheless, polls show that many of those who oppose the military mission also support the reconstruction efforts.
Such cognitive dissonance may be excusable on the part of individual citizens, but from a political party, it is nothing short of irresponsible.
A third obstacle to a turnaround of public opinion is the imbalance in the distribution of the burden among allies in Afghanistan.
Given that Canadian troops have been in the thick of the action and have sustained a higher level of casualties than most NATO countries, Canadians are entitled to believe that their country has paid its dues and it’s time for others to take their turn.
The greatest test of the Harper government’s diplomatic skills will be its capacity to convince one of its allies to do what Paul Martin’s government agreed to do on Canada’s behalf in 2005 : take the heat in the most dangerous regions.
Meanwhile, as diplomats negotiate this rotation with allies, Jean Chrétien’s criticism of his successor for accepting the Kandahar assignment – somehow implying that it was okay to participate in a multilateral mission, as long as others paid the price for it – is simply appalling.
In the end, success in passing the buck to other allies would probably be most likely to bring about a major shift in opinion on the mission, but that is far from a done deal.
The last obstacle, of course, remains Quebec, where opinion is most strongly opposed to the Afghan mission, and where a turnaround would seem most difficult to achieve.
Quebecers’ historical reluctance to support armed interventions abroad is only part of the reason.
On nearly all perceptions or attitudes that shape opinion on Afghanistan, most Quebecers just don’t believe the arguments in favour of the mission.
Yet, if federal elections were called soon, Quebec is where the Conservatives might make the most gains.
That puts things in perspective.
On the home front, Afghanistan is only a battle. What matters is to win the war.
Battle on the home front : Changing public opinion
Afghanistan - une guerre masquée
Pierre Martin49 articles
Pierre Martin est professeur titulaire au Département de science politique de l’Université de Montréal et directeur de la Chaire d’études politiques et économiques américaines (CÉPÉA). Il est également membre du Groupe d’étude et de recherche sur la sécuri...
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Pierre Martin est professeur titulaire au Département de science politique de l’Université de Montréal et directeur de la Chaire d’études politiques et économiques américaines (CÉPÉA). Il est également membre du Groupe d’étude et de recherche sur la sécurité internationale (GERSI)