Paterson Chair in International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs
One refrain I heard during Canada’s time in Afghanistan was that Canadians were confused about Afghanistan. Well, after more than 12 years in Canada, I can say that I am still quite confused about Canada. How so? Last night, there was an emergency debate about Canada’s deployment of 69 troops (Special Operations Forces) to Iraq to do training. I think the point of the debate was to provide some clarity about this effort, but if so, it failed miserably.
The Liberals called for this debate and only had a handful of members show up. If this is something that is vital, which is kind of implied by the term “emergency debate,” one would expect a better turn out.
The New Democrats sent a significant number of members to show up and, mostly, demonstrated that it takes the Defence file more seriously than the other parties. Of course, they still provide more confusion than clarity about whether votes are required for deployments (they are not and have rarely taken place).
The Conservatives sent only a few members and only their B team. There was no prime minister, there was no minister of foreign affairs, and there was no minister of national defence. I have engaged in long discussions on Twitter and in person with some smart people about Canada and how accountability is supposed to work up here. As a result, I get that having any representatives of a party with strict party discipline means that the entire party, including its ministers, are being represented and held to account. But the optics, well, suck.
If the idea of such efforts as this debate is to hold the ministers to account, should not the ministers show up? Are they incapable of discussing these issues? Is it that the Conservatives do not want to lend this debate any gravitas that comes with the ministers?
Indeed, the government has done a fine job of sowing confusion. What are these troops going to do? Advise and assist. OK, does that mean that they will serve as mentors to the Kurdish forces and the Iraqi army? That is, will they provide the same kinds of functions as “omelets” in Afghanistan—Observer, Mentor, Liaison Teams—that went into battle with the Afghans? Probably not since there is all this discussion of non-combat. But what purpose can advisers serve, especially if they are only to be sent for a thirty day mission that might (will certainly) be extended? Given the crisis in Iraq and Syria, how is non-combat training likely to make a difference in the short term? Don’t the forces in Iraq really need the U.S., Canada and others to embed their advisers to provide leadership during battles and connections to U.S. air support and to logistical support?
To put the confusion cherry on top of the confusion sundae, Jason Kenney, the immigration minister (interesting choice), argued that this mission is a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) effort. That may be so, but this government has opposed the concept of R2P rather consistently and refused to label the Libyan effort as such even as R2P by everyone else involved saw it in this light. I understand that foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, but rampant inconsistency suggests that opportunism is driving things rather than principle. Which is fine, but it does lead to more confusion.
To be fair, one Conservative consistency that proves most confusing is its stance on deployments and the necessity of votes. Harper has called for votes when troops are being sent into combat—the two extensions of the Afghan mission and the three votes for the Libyan effort. For non-combat deployments, he has felt that votes are not necessary. The Liberals are being more inconsistent on this, especially given that their past has involved few votes but many deployments. The NDP would like to have votes all the time, but did not force a vote (that they would lose) here.
Here is where it gets tricky: votes may not be helpful. I have been persuaded by Phil Lagassé that holding a vote where opposition parties end up voting with the government can serve to “launder” responsibility for a military effort through parliament. Once the second extension vote took place in 2008, Afghanistan largely fell off the political agenda in Canada except for the detainee issue. This substituted for any real discussion of the larger issues at stake.
One last bit of messiness: the troops being sent are from the Canadian Special Operations Regiment. This makes sense as the Special Operators of the advanced democracies used to spend most of their time abroad training the militaries of other countries. It is only after 9/11 that SOF spent far more of their time doing “kinetic” stuff—fighting. In Canada, the deployment of SOF is very tricky since one cannot really discuss the secret stuff on the floor of the Parliament, yet the Defence Committee members do not possess security clearances so closed meeting are pretty useless.
The secrecy involved helps to explain why the government has been so incredibly vague. Of course, that still does not explain why a deployment with a 30-day mandate has an unknown start time. That is, we do not know when the clock started on the mission. Is there some reason why this must be secret?
I have no idea, and neither does Parliament.