In late June, as parliamentarians were packing up for the summer, Stephen Harper seemed to suggest a potential shift in his minority government's approach to the war in Afghanistan. In a departure from months of rhetoric by government and military leaders about an open-ended or even decades-long extension of the military role, the Prime Minister stated that extending Canada's mission in Kandahar beyond February 2009 would require "consensus" from all four parties in the House of Commons.
Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin was among those who interpreted Harper's statement as a veiled admission that a major concession would be coming on this most important foreign policy file, and that Harper would not seek to extend the counter-insurgency operation beyond the current 2009 end date. "Make no mistake," Martin wrote, "these were code words for the end of our war mission. He was essentially saying that in a year and a half, other North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners can take their turn at the combat role." (1)
As Martin pointed out, such an about-face would be a concession to public opinion, and it would certainly seem difficult to imagine a "consensus" in the House that would please the Conservatives. But was Harper's statement really a preview of a change in course, or merely a hint of a new PR campaign to prolong Canada's involvement in the war in Afghanistan. The Prime Minister may well only be signaling a new strategy of co-opting the language of mushy "opposition" to the Afghan debacle coming from the bulk of his parliamentary opponents.
Both the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois have said that they want the current mission to end in 2009, though they have made it clear to varying degrees that they would continue to support the occupation of Afghanistan in other ways, perhaps with a deployment to a less volatile region. The Liberals, of course, are hypocrites of the highest order when they try to position themselves as being in favour of peace. It was under Paul Martin, in 2005, that Canadian troops were sent to Kandahar without any debate. And it was only with the help of the votes of high profile Liberal MPs like Michael Ignatieff that Harper was able to push the 2009 extension through parliament. (Almost five years too late, Ignatieff recently expressed regret for his support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but there is no sign of such a mea culpa on the Afghanistan vote). The New Democratic Party's policy, meanwhile, does call for an immediate withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan.
A recent Strategic Counsel poll indicates that a clear majority is now opposed to Canada's role in that Central Asian country (2). Conducted July 12-16, the results found 59% opposed to the mission compared to only 36% in favour. For those with intense feelings on the matter the margin was even wider, with 27% strongly opposed compared to a mere 7% strongly supporting. In Quebec, a staggering 75% said they were opposed. This sampling of public opinion, notably, comes on the heels of a sustained and costly publicity push by the government. It seems that all the military ads and boosterism - the Stanley Cup's trip to Kandahar for a ball hockey game featuring Rick Hillier and Dave "Tiger" Williams stands out as a memorable example of this disturbing trend - have been unable to overcome the grim reality of the war. Canadian troop fatalities now stand at 66, while Afghan civilian casualties (never reported as dramatically, when they are covered at all) are taken in the dozens by air strikes on a regular basis.
While we all ponder what strategy Harper will try to push when parliament reconvenes, a certain George W. Bush is coming to Canada next week, in what will surely be the last official visit by the deeply unpopular war president. Bush last visited in November 2004 and, despite riding an election win high, sparked anti-war protests across Canada. (You might remember Bush's joke about thanking those who waved at his motorcade with "all five fingers"). This time, Bush will meet with Harper and their Mexican partner Felipe Calderon. They will gather under a heavy police and military presence just outside of Ottawa in Montebello, Quebec, to discuss implementation of the Orwellian-named Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), a framework for initiating what has been called a 'NAFTA Homeland Security model'.
Bush's fondness for "Steve" Harper is well established. White House spokesperson Tony Snow reported that a July 31 phone call between the two discussed the August summit, and that Bush thanked the Prime Minister for Canada's ongoing role in Afghanistan. The war is bound to be a major topic of discussion behind the closed doors, security fences, and riot police at Montebello. Outside the perimetre, and in cities across the country, protesters will be condemning both the domestic implications of the SPP and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Vancouver, a Monday August 20 rally by No One Is Illegal gets underway at 3p.m outside Canada Place (Waterfront Station), meeting up later with a 5:30pm protest at the Vancouver Art Gallery organized by StopWar, the Council of Canadians and the Vancouver & District Labour Council.
The anti-war movement, for its part, won't be changing course until the troops are brought home from Afghanistan. Harper, in the past, has said that he would not change course on the war even if that meant losing power in Ottawa. Bush's visit can only further weaken support for the Prime Minister's handling of the war. It's a safe bet that Harper's PR flacks and handlers are working overtime this summer in order to "nuance" the "messaging" of the Afghanistan operation, but not in order to really change the nature of Canada's involvement in the occupation. Rather, the PM is looking for a new spin, in order to prolong the war and the better to overcome a population in Canada that now seems stubbornly averse to warmongering.
-Derrick O'Keefe is co-chair of the Vancouver StopWar Coalition, and a member of the Canadian Peace Alliance steering committee.
(1) "It's about time Mr. Harper listened to the people," Lawrence Martin, Globe and Mail, June 25, 2007.
(2) "Most Canadians oppose Afghanistan mission: poll," CTV.ca, July 18, 2007.