Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with my colleague from Labrador.
First of all, like all my colleagues on both sides of the House today, I want to pay tribute to the men and women in the Canadian Forces for serving their country and their government in such an exemplary manner.
I will draw primarily on the first half of the speech that the Leader of the Opposition gave in February, in order to give some background and explain how we have reached the point we are at today.
First came Operation APOLLO. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, of which Canada is a founding member, invoked article 5 of its charter, which declares that an attack on one member of the alliance is an attack on all. This marked the first time in the history of NATO article 5 had been invoked. The principle underlying article 5, collective security, is one for which Canada will always stand.
In 2002, therefore, Canada went to Afghanistan under a UN mandate with 31 of our allies. For six months, roughly 800 Canadian soldiers joined the international coalition in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban. This mission had a clearly defined purpose and a clear exit strategy.
After the Taliban was overthrown, the international community had an obligation to remain in Afghanistan to help stabilize and rebuild the country, one of the poorest countries in the world devastated by 30 years of foreign invasions and civil wars, and thus came Operation ATHENA.
In February 2003 Prime Minister Chrétien decided that Canada would lead the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, in Kabul for one year. This was a multinational force, involving many countries, whose mission was to provide security in the capital to assist the newly created Afghan transitional authority and to help set the appropriate conditions for presidential and parliamentary elections. The Afghan elections took place successfully and peacefully, thanks in part to the assistance provided by Canada, and resulted in the election of President Hamid Karzai.
With 2,000 Canadian troops on the ground and General Hillier commanding the 6,000 strong ISAF force, Canada's effort was at the time our most significant mission in decades. Our soldiers did an outstanding job earning the praise and respect of our allies and of all Canadians.
From the outset, the Chrétien government worked hard to secure a replacement nation for Canada once the one year ISAF mission ended. Consequently, in 2004 Turkey replaced Canada as the lead nation in ISAF. We were able to reduce our presence on the ground, remaining engaged with about 750 troops as well as a major development assistance contribution. At this time, Canada's commitment to Afghanistan became our largest bilateral development program in our history.
Also in 2003, with the support of the Afghan government, UN-NATO assumed responsibility for the ISAF mission. Shortly thereafter, NATO again, with the full support of the Afghan government, decided to expand its presence outside of Kabul and gradually expanded its involvement for reconstruction and security throughout all Afghanistan. Thus were born the provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs.
As part of the NATO expansion, the previous government, led by the member for LaSalle—Émard, decided to establish a provincial reconstruction team of roughly 250 personnel in Kandahar province. Many countries have PRTs throughout Afghanistan. Their mandate is to establish the authority of the Afghan government throughout the country and to assist in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
In addition to the PRT, the previous government committed a task force of about 1,000 troops to Kandahar for one year, from February 2006 to February 2007, to work with our allies to provide security in this dangerous region and to facilitate the transition from a U.S.-led mission to a NATO-led one.
The key objective of this mission was first and foremost reconstruction and establishing security, recognizing that we would be undertaking this crucial work in a dangerous region. The government was under no illusion this mission would be more dangerous than our previous engagements in Afghanistan, as was said repeatedly by the then ministers of defence and foreign affairs.
However, Canada, NATO and the Americans had not anticipated how violent and dangerous Kandahar would become in 2006. Between January and May 2006, eight soldiers and one diplomat were killed. That contrasted sharply with the seven fatalities the Canadian Forces sustained in Afghanistan over the previous four years.
By May, a mere three months after Canada's combat force went into Kandahar, the current government knew that we were facing a significant and violent insurgency, well beyond anything NATO had experienced in the past or for which it had planned. Before too long we saw that the Canadian effort in Kandahar had shifted from the original overriding objective of reconstruction to fighting a violent insurgency.
Faced with a rapidly deteriorating security environment, the Conservative government did not take the time to determine whether and how our mission could still achieve the goals we had set up. Instead, the Prime Minister extended the mission by two years without having obtained commitments from our allies to help us cope with the changed situation.
The Conservative government made no prior effort to obtain assurances from the government of Pakistan, for instance, to secure its border with Afghanistan, across which the insurgents move with impunity. It received no assurances from our NATO allies to replace Canada at the end of our mission.
In addition, the Prime Minister said that this mission would not hinder Canada's ability to undertake peace support missions elsewhere, such as in Darfur or Haiti. However, within a few weeks of the vote in Parliament in May last year, the defence minister made it clear that Canada no longer had any such troop capacity. General Hillier, the Chief of Defence Staff, has more recently confirmed this.
Let me quote the Prime Minister during that May 17, 2006, debate before the vote later that evening as to why, perhaps, we are doing what we are doing today. I am quoting from Hansard. He said:
We are asking Parliament to make a commitment in three areas: diplomacy, development and defence.
All three are inextricably linked. In a moment I want to go through what we are asking Parliament specifically to support over the next couple of years.
I think I also need to be clear, given the events over the last 24 hours or so, of what the consequences would be if there were a No vote. Let me be clear on this. This would be a surprise to this government. In debates in this chamber up until last month and in private meetings until very recently, we had every reason to believe that three of four parties, which have consistently supported this action, would continue to do so.
Should that turn out not to be the case, this government is not in a position to simply walk away or to run away. What the government will do, if we do not get a clear mandate, the clear will of Parliament to extend for two years and beyond, is proceed cautiously with a one year extension.
I put it to the House that the mindset of the Prime Minister, and it has been demonstrated by the responses and comments from the Minister of Defence, may very well be of the government pursuing this beyond February 2009. The Prime Minister said that in his speech in the House in May of last year. It is therefore important that we make this quite clear. The will of Parliament, and we will determine that with a vote on this, is that after February 2009 another member of NATO will do what Canada has done since last year in Kandahar.
It is not walking away, cutting and running. It is ensuring that NATO, which is the lead agency in this endeavour, ensures that the load is shared by its members and not carried punitively by one member of NATO. That is the intent of the clarity of this motion. I sure hope my colleagues understand this is the extent, nothing else, and none of the imaginings we have heard today.
In closing—and I do not necessarily blame the government for this—the main objective of our mission in Afghanistan, which is the development and reconstruction of Afghanistan, is being neglected and is not being met.
When we as the government make decisions on behalf of Canadians, we have to consider what Canadians want. Canadians do not want to be in Afghanistan indefinitely, and they certainly do not want to be there for military reasons alone. Defence must be balanced by development and diplomacy, and this government does not seem to want to respect that balance.
With the adoption of a motion such as the one before us today, we hope that the government can refocus Canada's mission in Afghanistan, at least until February 2009.