What Went Wrong In Canada?

Anouk Dey looks at how political machinations in Ottawa dictated Canada's Afghan war effort.
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April 19, 2012

Canadian troops said farewell to Afghanistan 50 years after U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower said farewell to the American people and warned them of the threat war poses to democracy. Coincidence, as Einstein put it, is God’s way of remaining anonymous.

How does Eisenhower’s solemn caution on the influence of the military-industrial complex apply to Canada’s Afghanistan experience? According to those present when major decisions about Canada’s longest-ever military commitment were made, the war in Afghanistan fundamentally weakened Canadian democracy. Last week, when asked what went wrong in Afghanistan, former Liberal leaders Michael Ignatieff and Bill Graham suggested that the real wrongdoing occurred in Canada.


Two decisions, in particular, provide evidence of the war in Afghanistan’s assault on Canadian democracy:

May 17, 2006:

The Conservative government, still fresh off its win, held an emergency debate on extending Canada’s military presence in Kandahar through 2009. It was clear that the NDP would vote against the motion, as then-leader Jack Layton had objected to the initial redeployment to Kandahar a year earlier. The Bloc (remember them?) faced anti-war pressure from Quebec, and was also unlikely to support the motion. This left the Liberals holding the balance.

Bill Graham, interim leader at the time, allowed Liberal MPs to vote according to their individual preferences. The result was a split: The majority of the party, including leader-to-be Stéphane Dion, voted against the motion, while the rest, Ignatieff and Graham included, voted for it. Six hours later, the final tally registered 149:145 in favour. In other words, had two Liberals swung to the Dion side, the Conservatives would not have gotten their way.

According to Ignatieff, the Conservatives viewed the Kandahar decision strictly as a “wedge operation” – an opportunity to divide the opposition. As the former Liberal leader put it, the closed-door discussions that day hardly referred to the relevant evidence: the mounting violence in southern Afghanistan, the Canadian military’s counterinsurgency experience, the increasing interference from Pakistan, etc. Instead, the evidence deemed relevant focused on the internal dynamics of the Liberal party.

If this is true, then Eisenhower’s warning is all the more powerful. Following this vote, Canadian casualties continued to mount. In fact, reading through the list of casualties from the point at which the Canadian mission moved to Kandahar, one is struck by their frequency: one every two or three days.

It is not clear whether blame lies with the Conservative party, or whether other parties would have acted similarly if faced with analogous circumstances. What is clear, however, is that Canadian institutions were not equipped to deal with the war in Afghanistan. Rather than treating it as a war to be fought, they treated it as an issue that had to be dealt with.

Mar. 13, 2008:

As mentioned, Canadian casualty rates in Kandahar were very high – higher, in fact, than the casualty rates of all other NATO troops operating in Afghanistan. In addition, in the year following the May 2006 vote, the initial allegations of abuse of Afghan detainees began to surface. As popular discontent about the war surfaced, other parties began to make stricter demands for withdrawal.

When time came to renew the mission to Afghanistan, the prime minister’s main goal, according to Ignatieff, was to keep the issue off the political radar. Going through the Hansard record from this period, one is shocked by how rarely “Afghanistan” comes up. 

Consciously or not, the Conservative government relieved itself of ownership of the war in two ways. First, it appointed the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan (the Manley Committee) to issue a set of recommendations, which it promised to follow. Whether or not it was politically motivated, the decision to solicit expert opinion was a good one. Second, on the Manley Committee’s suggestion, the Conservative government positioned Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan as a training mission (as opposed to a military engagement), with the goal of withdrawal. In doing so, the Conservatives situated themselves as the dramaturges behind the denouement of an unpopular war begun by the Liberals.

Again, the issue here is not the way the Conservatives behaved. (As in May 2006, another party in a minority position may well have acted in the same way faced with similar circumstances.) The more pertinent issue is whether Canada’s democratic institutions are capable of dealing with a war like Afghanistan. Was it in the Canadian national interest for a war that cost Canadian taxpayers more than $18 billion – and invaluable lives – to be swept under the rug so that a minority government could stay in power? Handling a war, it seems, should never mutate into handling a minority government.

As we reflect on Canada’s decade in Afghanistan, the question may not be, “What went wrong in Afghanistan?” but rather, “What went wrong in Canada?” We must begin to consider what reforms to Canadian institutions will ensure we avoid another May 17, 2006, and Mar. 13, 2008. Eisenhower had the courage to demand this conversation from the American population. Perhaps, today, Canada’s leaders should follow suit.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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