EDITORIAL - The Conservative government has corrected its mistake: Parliament will after all be given a chance, next Monday, to debate the presence of 2,300 Canadian Forces personnel in Afghanistan. But the debate will not be followed by a vote, even a non-binding one. After its initial reluctance to let the House of Commons anywhere near this issue, the new government has now got this exactly right.
MPs actually debated the deployment in the last Parliament, though few Canadians noticed, since it happened just two weeks before the government fell, when almost everybody was focused on ballots, not bullets.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's quick initial rejection of any debate in the new House looked like a kneejerk reaction. Now that he has visited the troops himself, and now that public-opinion polls show majority support for the Canadian role, Harper's reluctance has vanished.
Foreign Minister Peter MacKay has reversed the previous Conservative line, and now says "an informative, open debate right now, talking about what has already been accomplished, which is significant, talking about the multi-national force that is there, our co-operation within the UN and NATO mandates," would be good, not bad, for troop morale and useful for all Canadians.
This is making a virtue out of a necessity, in response to the point made by Jack Layton of the New Democrats and others: We really should be able to have a democratic debate about helping implant democracy in Afghanistan.
Well, then, why not have a vote, too? There is, as it turns out, a good reason.
A vote next week would be a foregone conclusion: The Liberals have just reconfirmed their support. The New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois are constrained by the undoubted public goodwill toward those 2,300 Canadians who are in harm's way. Bindingly or not, the current deployment would win a lopsided majority.
Some argue that sending troops into harm's way should be a job for Parliament, not just the cabinet. But it is not, historically. That's just as well, because a government that commits troops cannot change course with every political breeze. Our commitment in Afghanistan has another year, roughly, to run. Abrupt withdrawal before then would endanger allied soldiers, would betray the civilians we have promised to help, and would make a mockery of Canada's word in the world.
"You do not send men and women into harm's way in a dangerous mission with the support of our party and other Canadians and then decide, once they're over there, that you're not sure you should have sent them," Harper said in March, and he is right to make sure Parliament can't trump him on this, now or later.
Which brings us to the question of extending the deployment after next year. The government showed quick displeasure when General Rick Hillier, chief of the defence staff, overstepped his job limits by speculating out loud about Afghanistan being a 10-year job.
When the time comes for a decision about a second hitch in Afghanistan, Parliament can debate it. If the opposition parties choose then to force a vote of confidence on that issue, they can do so.
But until that day, these decisions belong to the government of the day.