Let’s pause for a moment to consider the bizarre situation that John Manley finds himself in today. He is one of the last influential Liberals left who is willing to defend the Liberal conduct of the war in Afghanistan. And because he is willing to stand behind that record, he stands accused of being … a tool of the Conservative government.
Certainly no one can deny that in accepting leadership of the nonpartisan panel that will examine options for Canada in Afghanistan after February 2009, Mr. Manley has helped make life more difficult for Liberal leader Stéphane Dion. Given the solid credentials of the panelists and his own lack of foreign-policy heft, Mr. Dion was in danger of marginalizing himself if he challenged the Prime Minister’s appointments. So the Liberal leader has had no choice but to stand mute as Mr. Harper moves the Afghanistan file to the back burner, removing from play one of the few high-profile issues that the Liberals can use to chisel off votes from Conservatives.
The options include the total withdrawal of Canadian personnel in February 2009, which, in theory, would create the greatest problems for the Prime Minister, whose partisan base largely favours staying the course. But it’s a funny thing: When you talk to liberals who aren’t Liberals, it seems as though quite a lot of them want also Canada to stay put, and in a fully-loaded fighting capacity. Just yesterday, the top UN official in Afghanistan told NATO members that “Now is not the time to wobble” on the military commitment to securing orderly, decent Afghan government. The NGOs in the region would like to see more focus on neglected priorities in Afghan development, and are concerned with civilian casualties, but on the whole they want (and need) Canadian soldiers to stay. Human Rights Watch has argued that, if anything, there aren’t enough ground troops in the country — that, in fact, less dependence on aerial weaponry would reduce civilian combat deaths. The Senlis Council, with its provocative ideas for legitimizing Afghan opium production, certainly wants us to stay and fight.
Aren’t these the kind of people the Liberal Party usually tries very hard to side with? And another question: Isn’t Afghanistan the Liberals’ war anyway? You’d never know it from the way the old lions Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin are behaving. In his new memoir, Mr. Chrétien blames Mr. Martin for putting Canadian lives in jeopardy through indecision: “When my successor took too long to make up his mind about whether Canada should extend our term with the International Security Assistance Force, our soldiers were moved out of Kabul and sent south again to battle the Taliban in the killing fields around Kandahar.” Mr. Chrétien is unapologetic about his own stance: He thought he had secured a “good” deal for Canada by cynically creating the appearance of full participation in the NATO mission without the risk of actually putting boots on contested ground, but Mr. Dithers messed it all up by actually anteing up our fighting men in the fight against Taliban terror.
There’s just one problem: No one else who has studied the decision seems to see it that way. Whatever one thinks about the Kandahar move, bureaucrats and scholars say, Prime Minister Martin actually acted quickly on the data and scenarios presented by Defence Minister Bill Graham and the Chief of Defence Staff, Gen. Rick Hillier. At least one former bureaucrat, Defence assistant deputy minister Kenneth Calder, has argued (admittedly self-servingly) that no one — not NATO, not the Prime Minister, not Gen. Hillier — could then have foreseen how hot the war in the neighbourhood of Kandahar would become. Yet on the whole, the Martin camp now seems content to let anti-war commentators promote a “swindle” theory. Gen. Hillier, goes the story, promised with honeyed words that the fighting in Kandahar would go smoothly, while reminding the Prime Minister that frontline involvement in Afghanistan would help mend U.S.-Canada relations damaged by Mr. Martin’s stubbornness over continental missile defence.
It would be nice if Mr. Martin would step forward now and remind everyone that the final decision belonged to him, and no one else. And it would be nice if Mr. Chrétien refrained from criticizing his successor’s conduct of a war in which he embroiled Canada way back in 2001 — especially given that our participation on the front line in Afghanistan should be a point of pride, not buck-passing shame. But these two men are out of public life and can afford to play at sculpting their “legacies” with selfish, exculpatory stories founded on blurry hindsight. They don’t have to step up and do — dare we say it? — the Manley thing.