Sunday, March 4, 2007

election: referendum on afghanistan! (YES PLEASE)

Election's polarizing issue could be Afghanistan
Mar 03, 2007 Scott Reid TheTorontoStar

There could be a referendum this year.

Not in Quebec. No matter who wins the provincial election, there is little appetite for another vote on separation.

But keep your eye on Ottawa.

Quiet clues have been dropping that suggest the next federal election could become a de facto referendum on Canada's future in Afghanistan. In fact, the timing of our troops' withdrawal from Kandahar could end up determining who next sits in the prime minister's chair.

Granted, you have to squint to see that against the current landscape.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is softening his appearance with new promises of aid – slapping a $200 million coat of fresh paint over the military green he's covered himself with since taking office.

The Liberals also argue for increased aid and, more to the point, leader St├ęphane Dion says he will respect Parliament's vote to keep our troops in place until 2009.

With that, most commentators declared the Afghan issue politically neutralized. Such an analysis, however, underestimates the significance of what still divides the two parties.

Dion's statement may have been read by media as a declaration to remain in Afghanistan until 2009. But it should be more properly understood as a commitment to withdraw troops the minute that deadline is reached. Also largely overlooked was his pledge to consider rotating our soldiers to other parts of Afghanistan as early as 2008.

The Prime Minister refuses stoutly to make the same commitments – leaving open the possibility that he will accept plans drafted by the defence department to keep our troops in Kandahar until at least 2011.

This is no small difference of opinion.

If the fighting this spring is as fierce as predicted (and let's hope it's not), it is possible, even probable, that the Afghan war could eclipse all other public concerns. That would create a nationwide debate over the timing of withdrawal, resulting in a 1988-like election – one that asks the public to resolve a single, critical policy dispute. Voters would choose between Harper's commitment to remain in Kandahar indefinitely and Dion's plan to withdraw troops in early 2009.

Like the free-trade election, such a scenario would divide public opinion and force voters firmly into either the Conservative or Liberal camp. The NDP and Greens would be squeezed much as Broadbent was, as voters anxious to see their policy preference enacted turn to only those parties capable of forming government.

Harper does not want that kind of election. Not because he worries about the effect of such a polarizing debate; this is a man who urged Alberta to barricade itself behind a firewall. Divisive politics is not his particular allergy.

His real anxiety is that such an election would render his tenure extremely vulnerable. Already, he has bowed to focus group research that tells him what his own instincts did not: that he sounds too much like George Bush. He knows that such a campaign would further associate him with an unpopular Republican foreign policy that many historians term an unprecedented disaster.

More importantly, such a campaign would bring unwelcome scrutiny of his own policy failures in Afghanistan.

The Prime Minister deserves credit for pressuring our NATO allies to do their part in Kandahar. Similarly, he is justified in pointing out that the original mission was launched under the previous Liberal government.

But the unmistakable truth is that this is Harper's war and he alone is responsible for our current predicament. It was his desire to eschew peacekeeping in favour of a more muscular combat focus. It was his minister of defence who characterized "retribution" as the government's motivation for our mission. It was his willingness to extend our Kandahar duty that relieved pressure on our NATO allies. And it is his insistence to leave open our commitment beyond 2009 that further takes our allies off the hook.

For their part, the Liberals express little enthusiasm for a referendum-election either. The caucus remains obviously conflicted about the mission. And the front bench displays all the comfort of a cat in a bathtub whenever Kandahar is raised. If Canadians make this issue their top concern, the Liberals will need to quit conveying insecurity about the legitimacy of their own position.

In truth, Canadians were robbed of a debate over the extension of our Kandahar mission. They have every right to at least expect a debate about what happens after the 2009 deadline passes.

Articulating a principled alternative to Harper's Afghan policy is not something the Liberals should shy away from. It is not unpatriotic. It is not a disavowal of our soldiers' sacrifice. It is needed. And it may be the key to waging and winning the next referendum.

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