Mr. Speaker, this is my first opportunity to formally address the House since the people of Vancouver South honoured me with re-election as their member of Parliament on January 23. I was deeply honoured by this reaffirmation of their confidence and I am very pleased that my first address since re-election is on an issue of so much importance, not only to my constituents but to all Canadians.
I want to thank the leader of our party, a most respected former minister of national defence, to have entrusted me with the role of defence critic. Much of the renewal of confidence and sense of purpose we have seen in our Canadian Forces in recent times is a legacy of his leadership.
I am pleased to speak in the House for the official opposition regarding Canada's military mission in Afghanistan. I would like to commend the Prime Minister for finally coming around to our view, that a take note debate is the right and proper forum through which to engage members and Canadians in a dialogue concerning our mission in that strife torn and troubled land.
There is no more solemn choice for any free and democratic government than that of deploying the men and women of its armed forces into a combat zone. There is no more binding obligation on a government that asks such sacrifice of its sons and daughters than that of explaining why it is in the national interest.
In recent weeks brave Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan have been killed in the line of duty. Others have been grievously wounded. Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, have received the awful news that they dread most. Canadians have looked to us, their elected representatives, for reassurance that the mission is worth the loss.
I am here tonight, on behalf of the official opposition, to offer Canadians an emphatic, yes. Our government agreed to this deployment. We believed then and we believe now that destroying root and branch the agents and infrastructure of supply and training that made Afghanistan into a safe haven for international terrorism is in Canada's vital national interest.
Moreover, consistent with the Liberal government's international policy statement of April 2005, we believe that stabilizing, reconstructing and democratizing failing or failed states such as Afghanistan is the primary organizing principle for Canada's future foreign military operations.
Following the events of September 11, 2001, the United Nations authorized a coalition intervention in Afghanistan where the retrograde Taliban government had provided safe harbour to the al-Qaeda masterminds of the attacks on New York and Washington. Some 800 Canadian soldiers were deployed to the Kandahar region as part of this initial deployment. They earned praise from our coalition allies for the exemplary manner in which they carried out their duty.
In 2003, when NATO took over the international security assistance force in Kabul, Canada contributed the largest contingent of forces to the mission, numbering close to 2,000. In 2005, Canadian Forces returned to Kandahar and established a provincial reconstruction team comprised of about 250 Canadian Forces members as well as officials from CIDA, the RCMP and foreign affairs.
This past February, pursuant to a decision taken by the Liberal government, and at the request of the democratically elected government of Afghanistan, our forces increased their presence in the south of Afghanistan by deploying a brigade headquarters of approximately 300 Canadian Forces personnel and an army task force of about 1,000 personnel to Kandahar where they will remain for 9 and 12 months respectively.
This is a multi-faceted mission with a strong humanitarian component consistent with our 3D approach: defence, diplomacy and development assistance. It places an emphasis on building civil society and democratic institutions, and a commitment to reconstruction. We believe that incorporating these components into the mission is vital to a successful future for Afghanistan.
As government, we knew then that this would not be a quick and easy mission. We knew the enemy was determined and that casualties were a virtual certainty.
We also knew that the mission marked a shift from the traditional Canadian role of peacekeeping. However, traditional peacekeeping in the post-cold war and the post-9/11 world has changed to include humanitarian, security and reconstruction dimensions.
Reconstruction is not possible without security. The area must be secure in order for reconstruction activities to take place and to take hold. This work is done in a uniquely Canadian way. Our troops operate in a manner that is respectful of Afghanistan's sovereignty and the local customs of its people, all the while trying to lead by example by promoting higher standards of human rights and strengthening the foundations of Afghan democracy.
As I have said, the Liberal Party fully supports the deployment in Kandahar. We are proud to stand today for a decision we made in government. We are proud to support our troops in the field in an unqualified fashion.
However, in making such judgments a government has to balance objectives against risk. It must do so not only at the outset of a potential combat deployment but also over time. If there were to be a significant change in the circumstances surrounding this mission, if for example the government were to decide that it was extending the mission beyond the timeframe agreed to, then I would respectfully submit that the government has an obligation to bring such a matter before the House for debate.
The official opposition will be looking to the government, to the Prime Minister and the Minister of National Defence, to live up to their responsibilities by ensuring that progress toward the objectives we seek in common with our allies in Afghanistan is sufficient over time to justify the risk to our troops.
In conclusion, we reaffirm our support for our men and women in Afghanistan. We sent them in harm's way. They command our gratitude and our unwavering support. No matter how eloquent, words alone shall not suffice. As a nation we must summon and exercise the immense wisdom of which we are undoubtedly capable.
We have carved a line in the ragged hills of Afghanistan not with our words but with the legendary courage, the blood and the sweat of our men and women of the Canadian Forces.
On our side of that line is liberty and freedom from tyranny and poverty. Beyond that line is injustice, violence and repression. By creating security and liberty, and lending a helping hand through reconstruction, we shall help Afghanistan erase violence and poverty, and bring in a stable, free and peaceful Afghanistan.
Canadians want our men and women in Afghanistan to succeed. The government must engage Canadians in this ongoing dialogue and inform the country from time to time on the status of our stated goals in Afghanistan. Democracy demands it and Canadians deserve it from their government and their parliamentarians.