How about extending a bipartisan hand?

If Mr. Dion is still open to argument, here's why withdrawing in 2009 will damage the national interest

Afghanistan - une guerre masquée

Some time in the next few months, Parliament will almost certainly debate and vote on a motion to extend Canada's current mission in Afghanistan. In fact, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion has vowed to force a snap vote on the mission at the first available opportunity. Meantime, the government has replied with less than clarity, as it has done so often these days. The Tories and the Liberals are playing partisan politics with one of the most serious issues the country has faced in decades.
Despite the Liberal Leader's increasingly shrill rhetoric against mission extension, withdrawal in February of 2009 will severely damage Canada's national interest. Mr. Dion - and the Tories - ought to make a serious effort at finding a bipartisan way of extending the mission. That can only happen if both parties take a serious look at how they have approached the issue thus far.
Supporters of the mission, including some prominent Conservatives, have labelled the mission as Canada's contribution to a "world war" against Islamic extremism.
That is a mistake. It has sowed untold confusion among Canadians who - if they know anything about history at all - know what a world war is. Afghanistan is not Normandy or Vimy Ridge. It is very important the Taliban do not regain control of Afghanistan and make it a safe haven for al-Qaeda, but the Taliban do not pose an existential threat to Canada's existence. If mission supporters dial down the rhetoric, the atmosphere surrounding this debate might get clearer and less poisonous.
The government might even gain some traction if Stéphane Dion were shown more respect. He demonstrated both his political courage and his commitment to Canada beyond any doubt when he engineered the Clarity Act after the 1995 Quebec referendum.
Mr. Dion might have deep philosophical reasons for opposing mission extension - he certainly acts as if he does - but he might not. He is, after all, the leader of the same party that produced the 2005 International Policy Statement (IPS), which took Canada into Kandahar, introduced the concept of the 3 Ds (development, defence, and diplomacy) and pledged to restore Canada's place in the world by, in part, rebuilding the military. The IPS is the blueprint for much of what the Tories have done.
Mr. Dion should think about how an election over this mission will damage the very national unity he himself holds so dear. It may ultimately shatter the Liberal Party as the conscription election of 1917 did.
Mr. Dion should also give Stephen Harper some credit for breaking a significant precedent when he sought a Commons vote on mission extension in May, 2006. That was the first binding vote on a Canadian troop deployment by Parliament since 1939.
If Stéphane Dion is so intellectually stiff as to go ahead with his threat no matter what, then only his own caucus can stop him, which is highly doubtful. But if he is still open to argument, he ought to consider some very cogent facts:
First, victory over the Taliban will not be possible without more help from Pakistan, but that help may be just around the corner. The rapidly evolving political situation gives new hope that Pakistani acquiescence to Taliban activities may be coming to an end. If President Pervez Musharraf and the exiled Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister, arrive at an agreement that sees him leaving the military and Ms. Bhutto returning to office, secularism will be greatly strengthened. If so, action to curtail Taliban activities may be close and we must surely wait to see how that situation unfolds before we decide what to do.
Second, Canada cannot stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, but given two Liberal government decisions to intervene militarily in Afghanistan and a third to send Canadian forces to fight the Taliban in Kandahar in 2005, we have a strong moral obligation to stay until the Afghan National Army is large enough, well-enough trained and well-enough equipped to secure the country. Pulling out now gives the ANA no chance whatsoever to evolve into such a force.
Third, in putting Canada back into Kandahar in 2005, the Liberals placed Canadian soldiers into the "thin red line" that must hold fast if there is any chance of ultimate victory over the Taliban. To pull them out now would make a mockery of Liberal policy decisions by the very government Mr. Dion was a member of.
Finally, although many Canadians disagree with the mission, majorities are often wrong. Canada is a representative democracy and the Liberals know as well as the Tories that sometimes things need doing that a majority of Canadians won't agree with. A large majority of Canadians were in favour of capital punishment when it was abolished back in the 1970s. The majority was wrong, Parliament was right.
What we need most now is a mature debate on the issues. There's no hope of maturity from the Bloc Québécois or the NDP, but it is surely not too much to expect that the man who puts himself forward as a potential prime minister of Canada treat this very serious issue with the respect it deserves. Up to now, he has not.
Director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary
David Bercuson is also director of programs for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.


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Director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary

David Bercuson is also director of programs for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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