Sunday, March 11, 2007

defense committee in afghanistan: O'Connor hamstring the committee

Commons defence committee to assess successes, failures in Afghan mission
March 11th, 2007

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CP) -
Parliamentarians, replete in flak jackets and helmets, stepped off a military transport Tuesday looking as though they were ready for battle, but theirs will be the battle of the briefing room.

Eight members of the all-party Commons defence committee, charged with examining Canada's role in this war-torn country, are not expected to meet any local Afghan officials, nor set foot off Kandahar Airfield to view reconstruction projects.

Their assessment of the Conservative government's deepening involvement in this nasty guerrilla war, which could shape party positions in an anticipated spring election, will largely be based on a barrage of prearranged briefings and PowerPoint presentations from Canadian military and government officials.

They will, however, tour various facilities at the NATO base, including a recreational boardwalk, a cement factory, a newly installed banking machine and the hangout of soldiers - dubbed Canada House.

"We're not going to see much, but maybe that will change," New Democrat defence critic Dawn Black said of the itinerary.

Black, whose party has called for Canadian troops to be withdrawn from fighting militant Taliban forces, has asked to meet with Afghan officials.

"It's not on the itinerary, but we'll see," she said as she wrestled to get out of her bulletproof vest. "I've got a number of questions to ask them."

Among the questions she hopes to ask is whether Canadians are "truly making a difference for the lives of the men and women in Afghanistan" - something her party is skeptical about. In the Commons, the NDP have repeated accused the Conservative of being more interested in fighting a war than the humanitarian side of the mission.

Not allowing the committee outside the airfield was a decision of Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor, said Brig.-Gen Tim Grant, commander of Canadian troops in Afghanistan.

"The movements of the party, the limitations on where they can go, have been directed by the minister," he said.

While not expected to travel in convoys along the sometimes treacherous highways of Kandahar, other visiting dignitaries have been shuttled to different locations by U.S. helicopter, but Grant said given the pace of operations there isn't a lot of air transport to go around.

The military said it would try to find some helicopter time with the U.S., Dutch or British.

"If they could see the (reconstruction) projects, it would be an added bonus," said Grant. "There's no doubt about that.

The general conceded security was a concern, but refused to elaborate on the arrangements, suggesting reporters direct those questions to the minister's office.

The restrictions come at the same time as NATO commanders boast about the relative calm in Kandahar province following last fall's Canadian-led offensive to dislodge militant fighters from arid farmland west of Kandahar.

Liberal foreign affairs critic Ujjal Dossanjh accused O'Connor of trying to hamstring the committee.

"I believe it's highly improper for a minister of the Crown to interfere with the travel of the committee," he said later in the day as MPs shook hands with soldiers and presented gift at the recreation centre.

"The minister has ordered the general not to let us go out of the wire because of safety reasons. I thought that was the kind of decision that one makes on an operational basis. The general makes that decision. What does the minister know about safety sitting in Ottawa?"

Dossanjh said he's also concerned that no meetings were scheduled with Afghan authorities.

"It would be important to talk to the Afghans, yes, absolutely," he said.

Grant said they'll try to accommodate the request to meet Afghan officials, but cautioned that many of them are out of the area.

Even though the NDP has taken an unpopular stand among the military, Black said she's not anticipating a hostile reaction from soldiers, who have privately and on Internet message boards taken to calling her party leader Taliban Jack (Layton).

Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant, who is eager to meet Petawawa, Ont.-based troops, many of whom are her constituents, was asked whether Black's attendance was going to make things uncomfortable.

"She's on the committee," Gallant said with a smile and a shrug.

Grant said military officials hope to show the committee that Canadian troops are doing a wonderful job in Afghanistan, trying to help the country get back on its feet.

"When they leave I hope they have a very clear idea of the contribution we are making," he said.CBC link: