Globe & Mail
Commentary on the Manley Panel on Canada's Future Role in Afghanistan
John Manley and his fellow panelists have done this country a tremendous service. Their report is the single most useful contribution in the past two years to the debate over Canada's role in Afghanistan. Its honesty and clarity stand in stark contrast to the Conservative government's overly managed messaging strategies and the opposition parties' lack of credible analysis of the Afghanistan mission.
While the panel's recommendations will be debated over the coming weeks, its unvarnished description of conditions in Afghanistan and lucid assessment of the options facing Canada are, in themselves, important and welcome. If these descriptive elements of the report help to foster a more informed political debate on the future of our mission, the panel's work will have been a success, even if its specific prescriptions are contested.
But surely we should expect more from our party leaders. There is too much at stake in this mission - for Canadians, our allies, and the Afghan people - to accept anything less than a serious effort, at least between the government and the Official Opposition, to find common ground on Canadian policy for the period following February, 2009.
Nor is there any need for an immediate vote in Parliament on Canada's future in Afghanistan. The panel wisely suggested deferring such a vote until after next April's NATO summit in Bucharest. The alliance recently launched a major review of its strategy, and the results of this review are expected to be discussed at that meeting. Canada will be in a much better position to make judgments about the future of the international effort - and the prospects for additional commitments from our NATO partners - after that meeting has taken place.
Indeed, NATO urgently needs to conduct this strategic review. The security situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating since 2005. Failure to reform key Afghan government institutions, including the deeply corrupt national police, is reportedly having a demoralizing effect on the Afghan people. Neighbouring Pakistan, where insurgent training camps are located, has become even more unstable in recent months. While there are some signs of improvement in Afghanistan, particularly in development indicators, the overall picture is distressing.
The panel is unsparing in its description of these problems, but it also correctly notes that the situation in Afghanistan is not hopeless, and that a return to chaos and civil war would have grave consequences for regional and international security - not to mention for the people of Afghanistan itself, who have suffered through three decades of conflict. The good news is that the Afghan people continue to strongly support the international presence (yes, including NATO combat troops), and that neither Kabul nor any provincial centres are on the verge of falling to the Taliban, who are still too weak to operate openly in most parts of the country.
Given all this, the panel made an interesting choice. Rather than focusing narrowly on Canada's specific role in Afghanistan, they framed Canada's policy choice within the context of the larger international effort. If NATO cannot get its act together by February, 2009 - specifically, by sending reinforcements to Kandahar, and by developing a strategy that has a reasonable hope of success - Canada should leave. The ingenuity of this recommendation is that it is simultaneously a self-interested and public-spirited ultimatum to our allies. On one hand, it would reduce the risk of our troops being mired in a hopeless mission without adequate support. On the other hand, it would also be an inducement to the rest of the alliance to do what NATO needs to do: face up to the urgency of the situation in southern Afghanistan and adjust its strategy and resources accordingly.
We can debate whether Canada's main "ask" - the deployment of at least 1,000 additional International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops to join the Canadians in Kandahar - is enough. We might also wish to seek assurances that Canadian forces in Kandahar will be fully replaced by another country at a specific later date. Liberal leader Stéphane Dion is not being unreasonable when he talks about the importance of rotation among NATO contingents. The key question for the federal parties - and for Canada's dealings with NATO - may ultimately be the timing and circumstances of this rotation, rather than the principle.
In short, Mr. Manley and his colleagues are calling for stronger Canadian leadership. The Prime Minister should, himself, spearhead a diplomatic effort aimed at pressing for a more effective NATO strategy. We should use our impending decision to exert leverage, not just for the sake of being influential, but to help NATO and to help ourselves.
At home, too, greater leadership is needed, according to the panel. The government should provide Canadians with regular, detailed and honest reports on the progress of the Afghan mission, recognizing that no strategy is worth its salt without reliable and relevant benchmarks.
While their report will not end the controversy over our role in Afghanistan, the members of the Manley panel have captured and articulated the essence of the problem we collectively face. For doing so in an extremely short time - and over the Christmas holidays to boot - they deserve our thanks.
Roland Paris is director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa