Thursday, January 7, 2010

Paul Martin, Rick Hillier and a New Direction For Afghanistan

I don't as a rule read Jonathan Kay's column (or for that matter, the National Post). He's far too right-wing, and when I say right-wing, I mean that he would probably be more at home inking copy for Glen Beck or Rush Limbaugh.

But it was Christmas Eve, and I suppose Mr. Kay was feeling a little festive, so in a gesture of peace and goodwill, he launched a full frontal attack on an op-ed piece written by former NDP campaign director Gerald Caplan, that had appeared in the Globe several weeks before.

Why did he wait until Christmas eve? Who knows?

Coal in his stocking? A bit too much eggnog? Waiting for Jacob Marley? It's any one's guess.

But our Jonathan was quite upset that Mr. Caplan was lamenting "My country seems to be slipping away in front of my very eyes..." I can relate, as can a great many Canadians. We have definitely taken a sharp right turn.

Now the National Post column was pretty much the same old, same old: Stephen Harper good, Jason Kenney new Messiah, where's my gun? ... ugh!

But then it took a kind of strange twist as Kay started toasting former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin. (Did I mention it was Christmas Eve and there may have been eggnog involved?)

Paul Martin will forever be known primarily as the guy who fumbled Jean Chr├ętien's dynasty away to Stephen Harper. But if there were more justice in the world — or at least among pundits — he would get his due for making the single most momentous prime ministerial decision of the decade: sending a Canadian combat mission to Kandahar in 2005.

At the time, it hardly seemed epic: Most Canadians didn't know Kandahar from Kunduz. But the military wonks immediately could tell this was a game-changer. Putting our troops in Kandahar, at the ideological and political center of Taliban territory, meant the Liberals were shedding decades of peacekeeper posturing, and were putting the country on a very real war footing.

"We're not the public service of Canada ... Our job is to be able to kill people," said Rick Hillier, another man who deserves credit for changing this country. The then-Chief of the Defence Staff described the Taliban as "detestable murderers and scumbags" — words that made men like Caplan whimper and run around in little circles. In the old Canada, one didn't say such things. To speak plainly about evil wasn't — what was Caplan's word? — sufficiently "restrained."

I remember feeling a similar alarm when I heard Hillier's words and especially his tone, but he seemed like a decent guy; so I just put it down to some kind of bravado. And besides, when Jack Layton called his remarks "disconcerting", he was accused of trying to "bestow the most ennobled status on the Taliban---that of victim", which of course is sheer nonsense.

But back to Paul Martin.

Now I never voted for the man. I didn't care for his campaign strategy, and as prime minister, he was too indecisive. I thought he was a great finance minister though and is making an excellent statesman.

In Jean Chretien's new book, he is suggesting that it was just that kind of indecisiveness that first put our soldiers at greater risk. After writing of his decision to keep us out of Iraq, and only agreeing to go to Afghanistan, so long as they were in a safer region, he continues: "Later, unfortunately, when my successor took too long to make up his mind about whether Canada should extend our term with the ISAF, our soldiers were moved out of Kabul and sent south to battle the Taliban in the killing fields around Kandahar."

In Paul Martin's book, however, he states that he was considering a change in our role, and did not just drop the ball. He still wanted a Peacekeeping force, but thought that Canada should be better trained and better equipped for combat, so he put money into the military and on the advice of his defense minister, Bill Graham; in February of 2005, appointed General Rick Hillier as chief of the defense staff.

As journalist and author Linda McQuaig puts in:

It was the Martin government that appointed Hillier chief of defence staff and began pumping large amounts of new money into military spending. Soon after his appointment, Hillier began pressuring Martin to agree to U.S. requests to increase and intensify Canadian involvement in the Afghan war. Martin was initially hesitant, but agreed to the deeper commitment in Afghanistan, only after extracting from Hillier a promise that the Canadian military would also have sufficient troops available to participate in vital UN peacekeeping missions.

At a meeting with Hillier and the defence and foreign affairs ministers on March 21, 2005, Martin stressed the importance of the Canadian Forces being prepared to help the UN intervene, particularly in the brutal fighting in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands of people had been killed. Despite Hillier's assurances that troops would be available for peacekeeping, the general argued the following spring—with the support of the newly elected Harper government—that the military was so overworked by the Afghan deployment that it lacked the soldiers to contribute to a UN mission to Darfur.'

Under Harper, the military's desire to transform itself into an adjunct of the U.S. "war on terror" was now perfectly in sync ... (HOLDING THE BULLY'S COAT, Canada and the U.S. Empire, Linda McQuaig, Doubleday Canada, ISBN 978-0-385-66012-9, pg. 73-74)

We were Peacekeepers no more.

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