Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Harper As Control Freak

I am shocked, just shocked that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper might have left the Minister of National Defence Peter Mackay out of the loop when making decisions about Afghanistan.  Murray Brewster is having some great press, publicizing his new book (not yet released) on Canada and Afghanistan.  The book (a classic case of a book I have read but not read myself) details how Harper tried to control the messaging of the war and seemed to leave the Minister of National Defence out of decision-making processes. 

Given all that I have heard and observed since I moved to Canada, I am not at all surprised.  For instance, the decision to send a new training mission to replace the combat mission was most obviously made with no consultation with military folks given that there was no NATO request for 1000 trainers nor places to put them.  That is why the mission went from being Kabul to "Kabul-centric."

One of the things I have been asserting lately, a product of my comparative study of the countries involved in Afghanistan, is that leaders that stand in front of the mission tend to foster more support.  Leaders that hide ultimately pay a price for that--at least in terms of support for the mission.  Harper was almost entirely silent.  Why?
In 2006, with Canadian casualties mounting, some of Hillier's people were frustrated with the fact the government was saying little about the war, allowing the NDP to fill the void with anti-military rhetoric and robbing the mission of public support.  That frustration "boiled over" during a meeting between Defence Department officials and the PMO on Sept. 6, 2006, in the immediate aftermath of bloody Operation Medusa, Brewster writes. Hillier chastised Harper's staff for what he considered a lack of moral support.
Insiders later attributed the silence to the PMO's difficulty in crafting a suitable political message.  "It was always a crisis," the book quotes one anonymous PMO official as saying.
"I think the reason there was so much silence was because we were trying to figure out how to transition the communications politically from a hard terrorism message to, you know, about women voting and all that stuff.”
That's why, Brewster writes, "there was no consoler-in-chief during that awful summer.
"The country that had not been at war in half a century was left to figure out for itself why its sons and daughters were coming home in caskets."
To be fair, this passage conflicts with an earlier passage in the piece focusing on how Hillier and previous Minister of National Defence Bill Graham were warning everyone that Kandahar was going to be different than Kabul--dangerous and that body bags would be coming home.

I do look forward to reading the book, as it will provide me with more proof of what we have come to understand about Canadian civil-military relations.  Given the controversies of the past few weeks, we could all use a dose of reality.

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