Sunday, October 30, 2011

Blame-casting Canadian-Style

Yesterday's attack in Kabul, killing many Americans and one Canadian, has re-raised a bunch of questions about the politics of the Afghanistan mission in Canada, along with a blog that blames the CBC for killing the mission, a CBC story that promotes the Granatstein and Bercuson piece that I already discussed.  The basic question for the moment (on twitter anyway) is who is to blame for the ending of the Canadian mission?  Let me run through the candidates before I address the dubious nature of the question itself. 
  • The media

    • The aforementioned post by Unambiguously Ambidextrous [U.A.]argues that CBC's focus on the detainee issue undermined Canadian morale, ultimately leading to the collapse of the mission.  I would agree that the media focused largely on the wrong issues most of the time, as the detainee mess might have been the closest thing to the Somalia disaster but was still far from it.  The Canadians actually did a fair amount of due diligence--never accused of beating detainees (although there was one officer who was prosecuted for killing a wounded Taliban), stopping the turning over of detainees to the Afghans when there were reports of abuse and so on.  What the Canadian media never conveyed well was that Afghanistan was not Bosnia nor Kosovo--that NATO and everyone else treated Afghanistan as if it had a government with all the sovereignty stuff that entails.  Which meant that Canada faced difficult choices, just as every other country operating in the country.  The initial detainee agreement might have been insufficient, and, yes, some detainees got beat afterward the Canadians handed them over.  BUT this was not American-style rendition where one deliberately turns folks over to be tortured. 
Argus Reid surveys compiled by yours truly
    • The problem with U.A.'s assertion about detainee news and public opinion is that public opinion turned south long before the media focused on detainees.  Nope, the public starting opposing the war in the fall of 2006--when Canadian Forces did two unexpected things in fairly significant numbers--get killed and do some killing.  I am still unsure how much of the opposition was about aversion to Canadian casualties versus the identity crisis created by Canadians doing more than peacekeeping--killing folks.
  •   The opposition.
    • The opposing parties focused on the detainee stuff as well, with the only real Parliamentary oversight anywhere during the mission focused on the detainee issue.  Not the intel failure in 2006, not the challenges of having too few soldiers for a huge expanse of troubled territory, not the challenges of working with a corrupt government, etc.  Part of this may be a result of something that I will eventually write up--that British style parliaments do not really do oversight--they don't have the tools (security clearances), nor the inclinations.  They would rather bash a policy publicly without information than hold government officials feet to the fire in private sessions.
    • As an American wandering through the snows of Canada, I was surprised to find that the duty of the opposition here is to oppose, even mindlessly or inconsistently, rather than to come up with positions on policies due to their deliberate application of their view of the national interest.  This gets to Phil Lagassé's obsession about cooptation and to the lameness of the Liberals.  Phil argues that the Liberals, by signing onto the mission in 2008, confused the Canadian public by sharing responsibility for the Afghan policy (I will get back to this in a minute).  Instead, I am more focused on the Liberal stance on Afghanistan after it lost power.  
      • That is, the Liberals started this mission under Paul Martin, then lost an election, moved into opposition and then became highly critical of the mission.  Martin (in an interview after he lost power but before he retired from parliament) said that he now opposed the mission because Harper was not doing enough of the civilian stuff (governance and reconstruction); that the mission became too onerous so that Canadians were not available to peace keep in Haiti, Darfur or the Middle East; and that Martin only agreed to doing it for a year or two and was expecting countries to rotate in and out of Kandahar. 
      • This was such utter crap that the Canadians should have been confused.  The Canadians were doing less of the civilian stuff in 2006-07 in Kandahar because the Taliban killed Glynn Berry and created a much more hostile environment than Martin had expected (so the blame goes to Martin for having screwy expectations).  Canada proved able to intervene in Haiti recently so that is moot.  Regarding Darfur: Canada learned in other places that going into a hot zone without the US/NATO is a bad idea, so Darfur was not going to happen even if there were troops available.  Oh, and the Middle East peace didn't happen because the Canadians were unavailable?  Nope.  Lastly, Martin's rotation idea?  When do countries rotate into and out of wars? 
    • Still, the Liberals cannot be blamed for the lack of leadership by the Harper government.
  • Harper's weakness.
    • Harper was pretty clever to get the extension in 2008 via the Manley Commission.  After that, he lost his loving feeling for the mission, limited what anyone could say about the mission, and largely hid from it.  That is, he did not spend any political capital to speak to Canada to persuade them that the mission was important and consistent with Canadian values (of course, when I did that, I got smacked hard by commenters on my op-ed).
    • In my work on NATO and Afghanistan, I have traveled in countries where leaders tried to avoid talking about the mission and in ones where leaders stood in front of the mission.  As the work on public opinion demonstrates, it often follows rather than leads.  So, in countries where the leaders took stands on the mission, the mission remained popular longer. 
  • The Canadian political system.
    • Specifically: minority government in the Aughts. Perhaps Harper and the Liberals were just doing what any politicians would do, given how minority government combined with two pacifist parties. 
    • Plus, as I mentioned above, the parliamentarians are not trained, equipped or (excuse the phrase) incentivized to do real oversight.
  • Karzai
    • With friends like these, how can a mission continue?  The election fiasco, his initial stance on the so-called rape law, and all the rest helped to take the air out of the mission.
  • The U.S.
    • In Canada, the US is blamed for everything. It is part of being Canadian.  And, given that the US was distracted by Iraq, that the US did not deploy enough folks to Afghanistan until late in the game, that the US forced Canada to go to Afghanistan (as some folks here see it), why can't we blame the US?  Um, because Canada is still a sovereign country with tradeoffs of its own to face?  
  • NATO
    • Caveats killed the mission.  The whole "Canada is alone in Kandahar" myth and the reality that Canada paid a higher price than most other countries did undermine public support here.  But, then again, Canada was the country that kept NATO-izing the effort--in Kabul in 2003-04 and Kandahar in 2005-06.  That is, Canada wanted NATO involved, rather than ad hoc alliances, as it wants the US enmeshed in multilateralism.  And Canada used to have very strong restrictions (CANTBATS anyone?) and does again in and near Kabul, so Canadian leaders should not have been surprised that the Germans would not come to the south.  
  • The Mission
    • Doing counter-insurgency is very hard for any democracy, as success is about as hard to measure as it is to accomplish.  How do you sell the mission back home if you do not have great indicators to show the terrain gained?  Freeing much of Holland in 1944 was an easy way to tell the public back home that the Canadians were doing good.  Could not do that in Afghanistan.  Plus with the media focused on each and every attack and casualty (again, this weekend provides more evidence of this), it is hard to provide clear and coherent messages about the effort.
    • Many politicians and policy-makers griped about how confused the Canadian public was about the mission, blaming their own PR folks and the media.  But the mission was/is inherently opaque.  The counter-insurgency manual is chock full of counter-intuitive guidance like less is more.  This war is very different from the World Wars that populate the Canadian imagination and the peacekeeping efforts that dominate its identity.  No wonder the Canadians are confused--only folks who have never been to Afghanistan can see the place clearly (well, their views are clear but hardly accurate). 
This leads to the problematic definition of the question: who killed the mission?  No one really did.  Canadians fought hard for five years and did some peacekeeping in Kabul before that (and whatever the special operations guys have been doing on and off since December 2001).  That is quite a commitment for a modern democracy.  The Canadians left Kandahar in 2011, a year after the Dutch left Uruzgan ,and a few years before the rest of NATO departs in 2014/15.  So, was the mission killed at all?  Or did it expire due to natural causes?  Clearly, the public and politicians lost their taste for the effort, but given both how hard it was and how difficult it was to articulate how it fit into Canadian national interests, one might ponder how it lasted so long, especially during an era of minority government.  The Dutch government fell over this mission.  Well, perhaps it was an opportunity for an opposing party to bring down the government.  But why didn't the Liberals join with the rest of the opposition to bring down the Tories?  Perhaps because their party was falling apart and Harper was careful enough to keep enough support to make any election look like a repeat of the previous ones--more Tory-led minority government until 2011. 

The point is that the mission was incredibly hard, the situation was very confusing, and the political system did not foster deep thinking or hard decisions either to leave in 2008 or stay past 2011.  So, again, I do not think the mission was killed by any one actor, but was, to keep the metaphor going, a terminal patient.  It lasted longer than some would have expected but shorter than others would have liked.  It was going to end and not well. 

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