Pro-US Panel Was Key in Extending Canada’s Afghan Mission

VANCOUVER – Buoyed by the recommendations of a government-appointed blue-ribbon panel, Canada’s parliament last week approved a motion to extend its combat mission in Afghanistan until the end of 2011.

The outcome of the motion was effectively predetermined, as the two largest parties in the House of Commons – the Liberals and the governing Conservatives – agreed on the wording of the resolution in the weeks leading up to the vote.

Conservative Defense Minister Peter MacKay called the vote "historic" and applauded the "bipartisan consensus" it achieved. Liberal leader Stephane Dion characterized the resolution as "basically the Liberal motion on Afghanistan."

The political debate about the motion to extend the mission was shaped by the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan, a study group appointed by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and led by former Liberal Foreign Affairs minister John Manley.

The Manley Panel, as it came to be known, was created by the prime minister in October 2007 and foreshadowed the importance of the parliamentary vote on Afghanistan, which took place within the context of a Conservative minority government. Without approval from the Liberal members of parliament, the Conservative confidence motion would not have passed, thus bringing down the government and forcing a federal election.

For their part, the Liberals were hard-pressed to vote against the Afghanistan intervention given that it was Liberal governments that brought Canada into the mission in 2001 and into the heart of the counterinsurgency war in Kandahar in 2005.

The motion passed 198-77, with the New Democratic Party and Bloc Quebecois in opposition. NDP leader Jack Layton criticized a "carte blanche" the motion afforded and urged Canadians to "remember this during elections."

During the vote, protesters in the House of Commons public gallery chanted "end it, don’t extend it," while demonstrations against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan took place in more than 20 cities across Canada on Saturday.

While the Manley Panel was bipartisan in affiliation, its members shared an essential vision of the importance of Canada’s integration with the United States. Stephen Clarkson, a professor of political economy at the University of Toronto, told IPS that the panel "was clearly selected on the basis of reliably delivering a pro-U.S interpretation of the Canadian interest."

The panel included three senior officials from the era of conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, including Derek Burney, a key architect of the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement; Jake Epp, a former cabinet minister and oil executive; and Paul Tellier, former head of the Canadian National Railway and Bombardier Inc.

The fifth panel member, former journalist Pamela Wallin, recently served as the Canadian Consul General in New York. For his part, Manley’s significant efforts to integrate Canada-US security apparatuses with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge after the attacks on New York and Washington on Sep. 11, 2001 earned him Time Magazine Canada’s "Newsmaker of the Year" in December 2001.

"They are all either conservative Liberals, or Conservatives who have an involvement in the United States-Canada relationship," said Clarkson, who has written extensively on US-Canadian political and economic relations and is the author of "Uncle Sam and Us."

"Since Canada’s role in Afghanistan is so obviously connected to Ottawa’s desire to please Washington, it was very unlikely they would recommend anything other than staying in Afghanistan," he said.

Shortly after the publication of the panel’s report, the Manley committee’s executive director, Elissa Goldberg, was appointed Canada’s top civilian representative in Kandahar, where she said she will be facilitating the "overall leadership and strategic direction" of Canada’s mission.

The significance of the report on the outcome of the vote was clear. Defense Minister Peter MacKay immediately pointed to the "important work of the Manley Panel [which] formed the basis for members of parliament to draw upon." Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier called the report "key" to the vote and said it was "appreciated internationally."

Bernier told reporters on parliament hill that the motion allowed the prime minister to go to the upcoming NATO summit in Bucharest "with a strong mandate in his pocket." The Bucharest meeting is considered an important strategy session for NATO, as the security conditions continue to deteriorate in Afghanistan.

The motion which passed in parliament stated that the "extension of Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan is approved by this House expressly on the condition that NATO secure a battle group of approximately 1,000 to rotate into Kandahar, no later than February 2009."

The parliamentary extension also calls for Canada to secure transport helicopters and improved unmanned aerial surveillance drones, something the Manley Panel also recommended to reduce the number of casualties of Canadian soldiers. Since 2002, 82 Canadians have been killed in Afghanistan; 31 of the last 33 combat fatalities resulting from roadside bombs.

Speaking at a conference of senior government officials and policymakers in Brussels on Sunday, MacKay pushed his request for additional NATO troops in Canada’s area of responsibility: "Come up with a thousand troops and you get to keep 2,500," he said, referring to the number of Canadian troops stationed in Kandahar.

US President George W. Bush said last week that he intends to use the Bucharest summit to persuade allies to ramp-up the fight in the south. "We’re mindful of their request, and we want to help them meet that request," President Bush said of the Canadian contingency.

Retired Canadian Major-General Terry Liston told IPS that the troop request is simply a political gesture, far short of what NATO generals on the ground say is required. "Just in Kandahar province, according to American [counterinsurgency] doctrine you’d need about 16,000 soldiers," he said. "It’s a drop in the bucket, the 1,000."

Meanwhile, in anticipation of the so-called fighting season in Afghanistan, the United States has sent and additional 3,600 Marines on a seven-month deployment to southern Afghanistan. The Marines, about half of whom have already arrived in the country, will operate under Canadian Major-General Marc Lessard and NATO’s Regional Command South, which includes Helmand and Kandahar provinces – the heart of the Afghan insurgency.

A report of the United Nations secretary-general earlier this month detailed a sharp increase in insurgent activity in 2007, an average of 566 incidents a month compared with 425 a month in 2006. Data from the United States Central Command indicates a concurrent rise in NATO and US airstrikes during that same period – 2,926 bombs dropped in 2007 up from 1,770 in 2006. More than 8,000 people were killed last year, including at least 1,500 civilians, the U.N. said.