Building Consensus on Canada’s Role in Afghanistan

John Siebert

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2007 Volume 28 Issue 3

The current Canadian Forces commitment to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Khandahar ends in February 2009. During the summer Prime Minister Stephen Harper and then Defence Minister Gordon O’Conner made it clear that changes are afoot in Canada’s military operations in Afghanistan. In so doing, the federal government potentially laid the groundwork to find “some degree of consensus among Canadians” on what Canada’s role will be after that date. Harper stated his hope for “a meeting of the minds on what the appropriate next steps are.”

If the Prime Minister really is seeking a broader consensus, participation in the Afghanistan discussion will have to go beyond the usual military and journalist pundits. A recent letter to the Prime Minister by the leaders of 12 Christian churches in Canada (CCC 2007) could be a helpful contribution to this wider debate. The letter respectfully offers principled commentary on key questions related to Canada’s current military deployment and aid assistance to Afghanistan.

Three Government initiatives over the summer suggest that the Prime Minister is willing to see the politically polarizing debate on Afghanistan shift into a genuine and more broadly based consensus-building exercise:

  1. The Prime Minister publicly called for a new consensus.
  2. A new emphasis was placed on having Canadian Forces train the Afghan National Army.
  3. Changes in how the Government will relay information on activities in Afghanistan were announced.

The call

At the end of the Spring session of Parliament, the Prime Minister made a public call for a new consensus. According to a National Post article (Blanchard 2007), Harper indicated that the Canadian mission in Afghanistan would not simply continue unchanged after February 2009 if “there is no consensus in Parliament to continue.” He is also quoted as saying (Canadian Press 2007), “I would want to see some degree of consensus among Canadians about how we move forward.… I would hope the view of Canadians is not simply to abandon Afghanistan. I think there is some expectation that there will be a new role after February 2009, but obviously those decisions have yet to be taken.”

There seems to be a great deal of ambivalence among Canadians who simultaneously want to “support our troops” but are increasingly leery about the overall mission in Afghanistan (Ipsos-Reid 2007). Naturally there is sadness about the deaths of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan and anxiety about further deaths and injuries to soldiers. When military service personnel are asked by their country to put their lives at risk, even with an all-volunteer military, the nation-state is making a rare foray into secular but nonetheless numinous territory, evoking reverence and awe at the extraordinary sacrifice. When so few of the deaths are the result of direct combat, frustration at home and in the field increases. A recent story in The Globe and Mail (Koring & Dobrota 2007) indicated that, of the 68 Canadian deaths examined, only 14 were the result of direct combat. The rest of the deaths resulted from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide attacks, friendly fire incidents, and accidents.

Canadians also don’t want development aid to disappear like water poured on sand. Afghanistan is now the largest single recipient of global official development assistance, which is expected to total $1-billion in the period 2007–2010. In these circumstances it is not encouraging to read about increases in heroin production, suicide bombings, successful placement of improvised explosive devices, the killing of civilians by the Taliban and ISAF troops, and the displacement of ordinary Afghans.

Opposition party criticisms of the Canadian Government’s handling of the military mission in Afghanistan and humanitarian and reconstruction aid seem to be reflecting rather than leading the general unease among Canadians. The Prime Minister’s call for a new meeting of minds among Canadians, if actively pursued, could raise the deadly engagement in Afghanistan above the hurly burly of partisanship. Where Canadian public attitudes go, Canadian politicians may follow.

More training, less fighting

In July, speaking on CTV’s Question Period, then Defence Minister Gordon O’Conner predicted that the training of Afghan soldiers over the next four or five months would allow the Canadian military to take on a reserve role before next February: “We’re hoping that by the end of this rotation … the so-called Vandoos rotation, we’ll have about 3,000 Afghan Army operating in the Kandahar province.… And as we train more and more of the Afghan army to carry out their own operations, we will continue to withdraw. With more emphasis on training … at some stage [we’ll] basically be in reserve” (Laghi 2007).

There is good reason to believe that Canadian Forces have been deploying differently in and around Khandahar since the 2006 Panjwaii offensive, which was the last time the Taliban attempted a large-scale conventional military assault in that region. Since then the insurgents have resorted to more classic small-scale hit-and-run guerrilla tactics supplemented by increased suicide bombing and placement of IEDs. The Canadian Forces have reduced their active pursuit of insurgents in favour of consolidating security in specific areas.

Would an operational shift in Canadian Forces deployment to primarily training provide a basis for a broader consensus, in Canadian society and Parliament, in favour of a continued Canadian Forces role in Afghanistan? It could, if such a shift were adequately explained by the Government and understood by citizens.

Enhancing communications

The Government has also taken steps to do a better job of telling Canadians what it is doing in Afghanistan and why. A Cabinet shuffle in August 2007 saw O’Conner replaced as Defence Minister by the younger and more politically experienced Peter MacKay, and Quebec politician Maxime Bernier taking over MacKay’s old job as Foreign Minister. Both MacKay and Bernier are reportedly good communicators. In addition, beginning on 4 September, there will be regular briefings every three weeks by senior government officials to help Canadians better understand the Afghanistan mission (Campion-Smith 2007).

Better communication could play a role in building a new consensus among Canadians in support of Canada’s activities in Afghanistan, if those activities were understood to fit into a long-term plan with a reasonable hope of success.

The church leaders’ letter

The Christian churches in Canada have a long history of commenting on international issues, including Canada’s response to the war on terror, and are already participating in the discussion on Canada’s role in Afghanistan. Such participation, by churches and other elements of civil society, is essential if a new consensus is to emerge. The church leaders’ letter to the Prime Minister, dated 16 August 2007, was the result of a particularly protracted gestation period that reflects the ambivalence of Canadians.

The letter opens with an expression of hope that the people of Afghanistan, with the assistance of the international community, “will be able to enjoy peace, justice, and security, an open government based on accountability and the rule of law, an economy that offers honest and humane opportunities to provide for their families and educational and social services that are available to all” (CCC 2007).

Hope is tempered by an acknowledgement of the complexities in Afghanistan arising from ethnic, religious, and ideological divisions; decades of civil war; and external depredations: “the internal wounds are deep and the prospects for reconciliation are uncertain” (CCC 2007). Nonetheless, the Afghan Government in June 2005 agreed to an “Action Plan” for “Peace, Reconciliation and Justice in Afghanistan” to deal with the perpetrators and victims of pervasive human rights abuses and start the long road back from violent conflict to a minimally functioning civil society. Establishing the institutions and processes for reconciliation over an initial three-year period is the basis for long-term peace. Canada is encouraged by the church leaders to do more to actively support the culturally appropriate implementation of this action plan.

In their letter, Canadian church leaders emphasize the need for Canada to increase diplomatic support for negotiations between the Afghan government and “Taliban insurgents willing to participate in peaceful negotiations” (CCC 2007) and to support diplomatic discussions among Afghanistan’s regional neighbours, such as Pakistan. No one now believes that there is any prospect for a short-term or even medium-term military solution that will allow Canada and the 36 other ISAF-member nations to win, mop up, and go home, leaving behind a relatively stable if still developing Afghanistan. Peace requires negotiating with the Taliban, the circumstances and timeline to be determined by formal and traditional political leaders in Afghanistan.

The church leaders “encourage deeper Canadian assistance for human rights initiatives in Afghanistan” (CCC 2007). Canada can demonstrate the appropriate protection of individual human rights in the proper treatment of detainees and strict adherence to international human rights standards and the Geneva Conventions.

The church leaders applaud Canadian efforts to assist Afghanistan in rebuilding its fragile state infrastructure. Unfortunately, fragile-state assistance is too easily confused with regime assistance. The current Karzai Government in Afghanistan suffers from significant handicaps, “including participation at high levels by officials accused of corruption and war crimes” (CCC 2007), and insufficient representation of significant parts of the population, “particularly the Pashtuns who are primarily located in the east and south of the country, where the insurgency is strongest. Canada ought to seek new opportunities for good and inclusive governance in partnership with Afghan civil society” (CCC 2007).

The church leaders praise Canadian support for reconstruction and development provided through CIDA and Canadian humanitarian and development agencies, but draw the Prime Minister’s attention to very high financial costs for continued military counter-insurgency efforts: “To be more effective in building peace, we believe a significant shift in Canada’s concentration of financial resources toward long-term human development is necessary” (CCC 2007).

The church leaders do not advise that Canadian Forces be withdrawn from Afghanistan. “Canada has an obligation not to abandon the people of Afghanistan. The vulnerable must be protected.” But a shift in the nature of the deployment should be “an important consideration in the ongoing public dialogue regarding Canada’s role in Afghanistan.” Such a shift and such a dialogue might lead to the meeting of minds among Canadians suggested by the Prime Minister!

The priority of the current military campaign against terror is misdirected. Referring to statements from 2001 the church leaders say again that “terrorism should be confronted, and that those who commit terrorist acts should be held accountable.” But, as they had in 2001, they also “urged that the campaign against terrorism be guided by due process and actions that honour the laws, values and freedoms that terrorism threatens” (CCC 2007).


Canada’s first priority in Afghanistan was to join in a costly military anti-terrorism campaign in the name of self-defence: stop the terrorists there or we’ll have to stop them here. A second priority was to provide aid and reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan to meet the needs of vulnerable civilians suffering from decades of war: more girls would now be able to go to school. Unfortunately, neither the military nor the humanitarian objectives are any closer to being met than they were five years ago when the Taliban regime was deposed. Many reports declare that the situation in Afghanistan is worse now than at any time since 2002. The church leaders’ letter effectively reverses these priorities, holding out the possibility that in the process both priorities may be better served.

The new consensus on Afghanistan called for by the Prime Minister cannot and will not take place without wider discussions and proposals, and potentially significant changes in Canada’s approach. The church leaders’ letter respectfully puts its oar in the water to advance this discussion among Canadians.



Blanchfield, Mike. 2007. Parliamentary consensus required to prolong Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan, PM says. National Post. 23 June.

Campion-Smith, Bruce. 2007. Ottawa vows to open up about the Afghan mission. The Toronto Star, 17 August.

Canadian Council of Churches. 2007. Letter from Canadian church leaders to the Prime Minister on Afghanistan. CCC Communiqué, 16 August.

Canadian Press. 2007. PM: No Afghanistan extension without consensus. 22 June.

Ipsos-Reid. 2007. Half (50%) of Canadians support Canada’s role in Afghanistan. 16 July.

Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Government of. 2005. Peace, Reconciliation and Justice in Afghanistan: Action Plan.

Koring, Paul & Alex Dobrota. 2007. Keeping Afghan police on the straight and narrow. The Globe and Mail. 20 August.

Laghi, Brian. 2007. O’Connor sees swift Afghan changeover. The Globe and Mail, 23 July.

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