It has been Canada’s biggest, bloodiest and most costly single foreign policy enterprise since World War II.**
But the Canadian military and civilian aid mission to Afghanistan is going virtually unmentioned during the campaign for Canada’s federal election on May 2nd.
The issue is viewed as taboo by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his advisers, who have gagged Canadian officials working in Afghanistan by restricting media interviews for the duration of the election campaign half a world away.
The Harper government’s nervous evasions mark a retreat from the steely determination that launched the Canadian Forces’ combat mission to Kandahar in 2006.
That operation will end this summer, with a contingent remaining in the country to train Afghan security forces.
At the outset of the combat mission, Harper decreed that Canadians were placing their lives on the line to secure Afghanistan from terrorism, supplanting chaos with Western-styled democracy and sound governance.
“Incredible progress has been made,” he proclaimed on a visit to Kandahar in May of 2009.
“The foundations of democracy have been laid; basic human rights and freedoms are being restored; private enterprise is growing; millions of children are going to school; basic medical care has improved; and the infrastructure of a viable economy is emerging…”
Two years on, the spectre of Hamid Karzai’s corrupt and increasingly anti-Western regime in Kabul, together with Pakistan’s continuing support for the Afghan Taliban, has made Canada’s mission a potentially explosive campaign theme.
And not only because 155 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan, the gravest sacrifice since 516 Canadians were lost in the Korean War.
Harper’s own take on the democratic process provides a troubling contrast to the high-flown values he espoused in Kandahar.
One Canadian veteran of the campaign to create good governance in Afghanistan tells Skyreporter:
“How can we look someone like Karzai in the face and tell him he has to do a better job when Harper shows complete contempt of parliament here?”
The current Canadian election was triggered, in part, when the Speaker of the House of Commons ruled that Harper and his ministers were in contempt of parliament for misleading members over the cost of an anti-crime bill.
Now a leaked draft report by Canada’s Auditor General states that the government misled parliament to secure a $50 million slush fund, doled out by Harper’s industry minister to pet projects in his own constituency.
The money was purloined from a border facilities program and redirected under the guise of preparing for last year’s G8 summit (see “West Adopts Taliban Lunacy To Help Secure Leaders’ Photo Op” on page 2 of Recent Stories).
“You can't just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk as well,” says the specialist, who asks to remain unnamed while he continues his work in the region.
Another Canadian official familiar with the daily oversight of the Afghan mission, as directed from the Prime Minister’s Office, tells Skyreporter:
“What does it say about the attention span of our political establishment that Afghanistan only comes up in this election campaign when it’s revealed the Prime Minister’s former point man on the file is compromised by prostitutes, influence peddling and fraud convictions?”
The official refers to Bruce Carson, a senior aide to Stephen Harper who was unmasked in March as a disbarred former lawyer convicted of three counts of fraud prior to his hiring by the Prime Minister.
The revelation was triggered by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigation into Carson’s alleged influence peddling. The scandal has come complete with lurid tales of Carson’s relationships with two live-in professional escorts.
“So now we have Bruce Carson as a bigger discussion point than the thousands of Canadian troops committed in Afghanistan, and the billions of Canadian tax dollars,” laments the official, who remains in public service and spoke on condition of anonymity.
He says Carson routinely took part in phone briefings with Canada’s top foreign affairs, police and military officers.
“From the spring of 2007 he managed some of our most sensitive information on the Afghan file. He did much, much more than just brief the Prime Minister before question period.
“He had a major role in spin control. He helped shape Canadians’ views about the mission.”
As reported previously here, the Harper government has been obsessed with controlling Canadian public opinion on Afghanistan.
Bad news has been suppressed, particularly regarding the Karzai regime (see "Afghan Quagmire Silences Canada’s House of Commons" on page 5 of Recent Stories).
That’s never been more the case than now, as Harper strives for an elusive majority in the May 2nd election. At the polls in 2006 and 2008, Canadians granted him only minority parliaments.
Still, Canada’s future role in Afghanistan should be a hot election topic. One estimate pegs the cost to taxpayers of any ongoing training role for the Canadian Forces at $700 million per year.
But it appears that neither money, nor pride in Canada’s battlefield sacrifice, will pierce the electoral debates of a nation where low voter turnout has made the word democracy synonymous with complacency.
Explain that to the people of Afghanistan, who still long for just a foothold on Stephen Harper’s “foundations of democracy."
**Many thanks to those readers who cite Canada's valiant role in the Korean War (which was stressed in paragraph 10 above).
However at a cost expected to exceed $18 billion, and at nine years and counting since the first Canadian troops were killed in a friendly fire incident in April of 2002, the Afghanistan mission is arguably Canada's most daunting and complex single foreign policy endeavour since the Second World War.
Most significant, it is our least decisive, due largely to irresolute political leadership.