He said: Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to have the opportunity to participate and to address this House on such an important issue as was just outlined in the motion presented to the chamber.
I want to begin my remarks by doing something that is seldom done in this place and that is to express appreciation and respect for members opposite for taking part in this important debate. I am firmly of the belief that this sincere effort to forge consensus on this important subject augurs well for this Parliament and for the future of our country.
This is perhaps the most important debate facing our Parliament and our nation today. It has important broad implications for Canadians, Afghans and for the world.
It is also worth expressing special acknowledgement of the role of the Leader of the Opposition, the deputy leader of the opposition, and other members of the Liberal Party for bringing forward consensus at a critical time that can result in a truly Canadian position. This is rare in this often partisan-charged air of this chamber. We are seeing democracy in action, the very thing that we seek to protect and promote in Afghanistan.
By putting aside our political differences and our party lines on an issue such as this, we demonstrate to our fellow Canadians and those who put their faith in us that we can see the bigger picture, that we can come together on a cause that others from our country are literally prepared to die for and do what is right and just.
Coming together on this motion is demonstrative and reminiscent of previous times in our country's history when soldiers were deployed, when it was patriotism over partisanship.
I am personally grateful that we appear ready to rise above the rancour and personal sniping, and put forward a message to Canadians, Afghans and those around the world who are watching this debate, including the Taliban, that we are united.
We are a substantive and serious Parliament, responsive and responsible, on issues that matter. Behind the people who we send to far-off places to promote the values that we believe in, those acts of parliamentary union elevate us, and bring credit and credibility to public office holders.
As the Prime Minister has stated, the government broadly accepts the report and recommendations of the independent committee on Canada's future role in Afghanistan.
I want to thank John Manley, Pamela Wallin, Derek Burney, Paul Tellier and Jake Epp for their extraordinary dedicated efforts and important insights into the question of Canada's future role in Afghanistan. It is a comprehensive and well written report. It will contribute much to the debate before the House.
Subject to the conditions laid out in the motion before this House, this government supports extending Canada's responsibility for security in Kandahar to the end of 2011. That date would coincide closely with the benchmarks on development outlined in the Afghanistan Compact.
The government is already moving ahead to carry out several of the key recommendations made by the independent panel. A new cabinet committee has been struck.
Furthermore, the Privy Council Office established an Afghanistan task force made up of senior members of the government and the public service. Together with David Mulroney of Foreign Affairs Canada, the task force has coordinated this file over the past year.
These two groups will improve the coordination of the government's work in Afghanistan. In order to keep doing what we are doing in Afghanistan, we are pursuing discussions with our allies and partners to bring more troops into Kandahar.
We are also exploring all available avenues to ensure that our soldiers get the equipment they need.
To date Poland has come forward with two Mi-17 medium-lift helicopters to be made available for Canadian use at Kandahar airfield. We thank Poland sincerely for that contribution, and others we hope will follow suit, for we know that every little bit helps.
The government is committed to ensuring that our men and women in Afghanistan are positioned for success. With the proper equipment and support, we believe that success will come sooner.
I ask all members to weigh carefully the independent panel's report. It was comprehensive and instructive in the recommendations.
I urge all members, as well, to support this motion before us. It matters to Canadians, our soldiers and to the international community. The world is watching, including the people of Afghanistan and their oppressors. A falter or slip in support does in fact embolden and strengthen the terrorists to return and wreak havoc upon the people of Afghanistan again.
Canadians can be proud of what we are doing, proud of the role that we are playing, a leadership role in the international community's efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. We have played this role before, in the first and second world wars, and in Korea.
Whenever the world rallied against an aggressor, Canada was there early and saw those victorious efforts through. Canada is there again, once again at the forefront of a struggle with grave and global consequences.
Our role within the United Nations mandate, mission to Afghanistan, has been earned through commitment, hard work and sacrifice, and we have won the respect of the Afghan people, our international allies and partners.
On the backs of our soldiers rests more than just a uniform, but the pride and the purpose of a grateful nation. Those who take on the task of military service are our best citizens.
The simple title of soldier is worthy of respect and gratitude, and Canadians, in growing numbers, are expressing these sentiments in words, cards, letters and acts of thanks. At red rallies, speaking events, airports, halls, places of work and on the street, soldiers are feeling that gratitude.
Yes, the mantle the leadership can weigh heavily. It has costs that are deeply felt by Canadians. The sacrifices of Canadian soldiers are remarkable by any standard at any time in our nation's history. Their willingness to stand against terror and tyranny, against oppression and indignity, is a credit not only to our country but to all humanity.
All the same, there are times when we, as a country, must take a stand and assert ourselves. We have to assert ourselves by promoting our fundamental values and interests, and by being clear about what we are prepared to do to defend them. We cannot expect others to do the heavy lifting for us. If we truly believe in this mission, we must realize that actions speak louder than words.
The time for action is now. Afghanistan needs us. Stabilizing Afghanistan is a noble and critical cause. Let us consider the circumstances.
Here again, I ask all to consider the circumstances that led us to this point. The Afghans want us there. The people of Afghanistan were living in the grip of fear every day under the Taliban. They were deprived of the simplest things and denied hope for a better future. That hope, as basic as the air we breathe, was choked by the Taliban.
The United Nations wants us there. NATO needs us there. The Manley panel has recommended we persevere in the mission. If not this mission, then when? When would we be better justified to play a part?
Afghanistan is a Canadian mission. It is not a Conservative or Liberal mission. We had two positions. We now have one. Yet, we know there are those in this House who will oppose this mission and this motion.
On one side we have a position held by the government and the Liberal Party, we believe, to essentially support the continued presence of Canada in Afghanistan.
This reflects our international obligations as well as our commitment to the Afghan people, whom we have said we would protect and help to further their own development and capacity building to allow them to assume full responsibility for their own national sovereignty and security within their borders. That goal can be achieved, but it will not be achieved if we bring our soldiers home.
Liberals and Conservatives agree that the mission should wrap up in 2011. Liberals and Conservatives agree that we must focus on our efforts on training, development and reconstruction.
We agree that we are in Afghanistan on a military mission and that military decisions are to be made by those on the groun who are able to assess the situation and make important operational decisions in the theatre.
This position also reflects our obligations to our fellow Canadians serving in Afghanistan: our men and women in uniform, our diplomats and our development workers. We applaud them all. They believe deeply in the mission and they must know that they have clear, unambiguous support from home for their important work.
Clearly, it needs to be pointed out again that military means alone will not assure success. The enormous contributions of CIDA, DFAIT, Canadian Border Services, RCMP, municipal police and other government agencies, in addition to what the military is doing, I believe, will prevail.
I want to applaud those heroes for all they do, including our fine Ambassador Arif Lalani, Bob Chamberlain, Karen Foss and others at the PRT, and I welcome Elissa Golberg to her new role in Afghanistan.
At the same time, we have the position of the NDP and the Bloc which is to pull Canadian troops out of Afghanistan as early as next year. Simply put, reality seems to have escaped these two parties.
We believe we should stay and finish the job. We do not want to abandon the Afghan people or turn our back on the international community. Staying in Afghanistan is not the easy thing to do, but staying there is the right thing to do.
The world needs to understand why we are in Afghanistan. By helping the Afghan people, we are helping ourselves. We cannot ignore the conflicts going on around the world.
In a world that seems to be growing smaller by the day, no nation is immune to terrorism. We are not shielded from the horrors that touch other countries, and we ourselves have been touched. Canadians were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York.
Terrorists have also attacked other places, killing innocent people in Washington, London, Madrid and Bali.
Let us never forget that the worst terror attack prior to 9/11 to hit North America was the bombing of Air-India, the flight that left Vancouver and took 329 lives. As we sit in the House, the very symbol and essence of Canadian democracy, we should remember always that these attacks were an unprovoked assault on democracy and on all civilized nations on values that transcend religion and culture, an attack on reason itself.
The attacks have continued. Last week two separate and deadly explosions set off near the Arghandab Valley took the lives of over 100 Afghans and injured four Canadians. The magnitude of the pain and suffering reverberated around the globe, and reminds us of the brutality and the lack of humanity that are the Taliban. We mourn the loss of all innocent lives in Afghanistan and express our sincere sympathies to their families.
We are reminded time and time again that Afghanistan is not someone else's problem. It is our problem too. If Afghanistan were to once again become a safe haven and an incubator for terrorism, Canadians and the people we are there to serve would be in increased danger, the world would be a more dangerous place. The Afghan people want and deserve the same things that Canadians want. They want to live free from oppression. They want dignity and human life respected and protected. They want a better life for their children. They want hope. They want opportunity.
With an incubator and an exporter of the threat of terrorism represented in Afghanistan, Canadians undoubtedly would face increased danger because freedom, democracy and human rights and the rule of law, all things we embody and embrace as a nation, would be under threat. All of this would be an abomination to those who preach hate and practise murder if we were to walk away.
Make no mistake about it, our security and that of our allies is at stake in Afghanistan, along with the people of that country and region. That is why we are there. We are there with our allies, our partners in both NATO and UN. Over 60 like-minded and determined nations in various roles are contributing to the peace, security and betterment of the country.
This is why we cannot abandon the vital leadership role that we have been assuming in Afghanistan until we reach that critical tipping point, until we are able to give it the ability to assume a larger role and govern itself completely free of the shadows of Taliban terror.
It pays to do a retrospect and from time to time to look back, not only ahead, to assess what has been accomplished. Addressing the root causes that have allowed Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorism is challenging. Long term stability in Afghanistan means helping the Afghans develop the tools they need to govern themselves justly, to realize their social and economic potential and to provide for their own security. These are the essential elements of the Afghanistan compact, signed in early 2006, which guides the international community and the Afghan government's efforts. Canada participated in the formation, the drafting and is a signatory of the compact.
Canada's engagement follows this international blueprint. Our mission is multifaceted, involving numerous government departments and agencies. It draws upon national strengths and combines these with those of our allies and our partners. Helping the Afghans rebuild their country after decades of conflict is a monumental task, a task made more difficult by the insurgency that ebbs and flows into Afghanistan across the Pakistan border.
We must never forget that in Kandahar province, in geographic terms, we are in the south with the largely open Pakistan border. We call upon Pakistan, even in the midst of its own internal problems, to elevate its efforts to stop recruitment from refugee camps, to provide better security at the border, known often as the Durand Line, and to crack down on insurgency within their own lands.
Let us not forget that by working with our allies and our partners, we are achieving real and substantive progress on the ground.
Consider the seeds of democracy that have been planted, which are now taking root within this once tumultuous country. It pays to calculate the difference today compared to a short five or six years ago in Afghanistan.
Over 10 million Afghans, including women who had previously been forbidden to participate in public life, now register and vote in national elections. Women do not just register to vote and cast ballots. They place their name on ballots and they are elected to public office. Over 25% of the Afghan parliament is made up of those brave women. The Afghan people selected their government through free and fair elections.
There is freedom of expression, freedom of expression that simply did not exist previously. Today there are seven television and forty radio stations broadcasting. Over 350 newspapers are published. There are extraordinary accomplishments and will undoubtedly lead to more.
This informal debate, this issue of national awareness both here and in Afghanistan is of critical importance as it develops its own national awareness and identity.
None of this environment for public discourse or exchange of ideas existed in Afghanistan a few years ago. There were no universal suffrage, no democratically elected government, no free press until Canada and others said yes to Afghanistan's call for help.
We did what we have done previously. We answered to call from a nation in need. The progress in other areas is equally striking. Consider Afghanistan's crippled infrastructure is being rebuilt, schools, hospitals, clinics, place of commerce. Irrigation canals are transforming the countryside. Land that once lay barren is fertile ground, allowing for alternative crops to grow instead of the scourge of poppy for heroin production and proliferation. Today in Afghanistan over 6,000 kilometres of new and refurbished roads allow farmers to bring their crops to market.
I do not have to tell politicians present the important of roads in any country. These roads make a daily difference in the lives of Afghans. This past Christmas, during a visit to the Arghandab district, we saw a bridge near Ma'sum Ghar, an impressive structure by any standard, connecting two villages across a flood plain that had previously divided them, presumably for centuries. It has transformed their way of life, their ability to do commerce with one another and their ability to exchange in normal life activities.
Make no mistake about it, the lives of ordinary Afghans have improved. Per capita incomes have doubled in the last three years. Afghans certainly feel today a hope for a better future that is reflected in polls and in the most important measure, and that is in the words, actions and deeds of the people of Afghanistan themselves.
That future, as with all countries, will depend on their youth. Great work is underway to ensure the children of Afghanistan are empowered to create the peaceful and stable future for themselves. Schools are being built. Places of learning are out of the shadows and now prominent everywhere. Thousands of teachers are being trained. Today six million children are being educated in Afghanistan, a truly transformative development. This is a spectacular rise in student employment, up from only 700,000 during the Taliban's brutal rule. Most notable, two million of the Afghan students today are girls, girls who would never have been permitted inside a classroom just a few short years ago. This is empowering and a powerful change for a generation of young Afghan females.
More than 80% of Afghans now have access to basic health care, something that was as low as 7% a few years ago. That is progress undeniably. Infant and child mortality rates have plunged, a remarkable success. Because of massive efforts of vaccinations and inoculations, diseases like polio and tuberculosis are in retreat. This is something all Canadians should rightly be proud of.
In a very real and positive way, international assistance is having a profound impact upon the lives of Afghan people. Millions have returned as a result of a change in conditions inside their country, and perhaps this is the clearest sign of hope revisited on those who have left their war-torn country, returning home for a future in a place they call home.
This progress has been made despite the violent efforts of the opposition, the Taliban and the insurgents, insurgents who have no use for the ballot box. Why? Because they know the only way they will return to power is through violence. Their plan is simple. What the Taliban insurgents seek to do is sow chaos, feed fear, drive the allied military forces out and reverse the progress being made on democratic and human rights inside the country.
We cannot and will not let the insurgents succeed. To this end, maintaining and improving security on the ground is essential because security enables governance, reconstruction and the development initiatives to flourish.
There cannot be democracy without security. There will be no development, no reconstruction, no prosperity and no hope for the Afghan people without security. There is an inextricable link. Afghanistan could, once again, become a breeding ground and safe haven for terrorism without security.
The way forward is clear. The way to success is clear. We must keep our resolve. All I have said thus far should not be interpreted as blind to the challenges and obstacles that still exist. Clearly we can all agree there is much left to do in Afghanistan. Yet it is essential that we continue to help the Afghan government to extend its authority throughout Kandahar province and the entire country. It must have an increased presence and visibility, particularly in the south.
I know the Prime Minister, other members of the present government and the previous government have made this point repeatedly to President Karzai and members of his administration.
The Canadian Forces will accelerate their efforts to mentor and train the Afghan security forces so they can eventually fully defend their own borders and sovereignty.
Members here should know that there have been notable improvements in the capabilities of the Afghanistan National Security Forces. I have met and spoke with President Karzai and my counterpart, General Wardak, on numerous occasions on this subject, as have others. They and the government of Afghanistan understand the urgency to accept and accelerate the pace at which they must grow their security forces.
With Canada's help, I note that 35,000 Afghans have graduated from the national army training centre in Kabul, a remarkable graduation rate. In Kandahar, our forces are mentoring six army battalions, or kandaks. The Canadian police are also monitoring and mentoring the improvements within the Afghan National Police force, another important contribution to its national security.
We are helping the Afghan National Army and police develop their own ability to plan and conduct operations. We are providing them, as well, with equipment and uniforms. Professionalizing their forces is clearly a priority.
We have seen improvement in other areas, and let me give an example of a concrete change that has occurred. During the battle of the Panjwai, the largest ground operation in NATO's history, Canadian Forces were in the vanguard. The Afghan National Army at that time did not play a decisive role in this engagement.
Now, 18 months later, the Afghan National Army is a significant force that can make its presence felt in Kandahar province. It demonstrated that very recently in an operation where it was shoulder to shoulder with Canadian Forces in liberating a village. It was celebrated with notable enthusiasm by the local people, with gratitude for the freedom that was bestowed by this exercise.
As the capabilities of the Afghan security forces in Kandahar increase, Canada will be able to hand over more responsibility to them. Until that time, Canadian Forces must continue their operations and mentoring in the field through OMLTs and POMLTs, which are operational mentoring liaison teams and a similar type of training with police.
As I draw my comments to a close, I note that over the past two years I have had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan a number of times, most recently at Christmas with my colleague, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence, the member from Edmonton. While I was there, one of my most memorable experiences occurred, a very personal experience that I want to share with this House.
As we visited the provincial reconstruction team outside Kandahar, we met with some students to bring them school supplies that had been donated by a local Ottawa school board to the children. Some were as young as seven or eight years old. I remember how proud and overjoyed those kids were to receive these simple items: pencils, books, scribblers, pens, a special toy or two, and candy, all enclosed in colourful backpacks and prepared with love here in Canada.
One little girl I noticed was hugging her backpack so tightly and so closely that it was as if she thought it would somehow disappear if she let it out of her presence. I will not forget the look on her face and her stunning green eyes. In that face and those eyes, I could see hope for a better future for Afghan children. I could see in convincing personal terms that the work we were doing was having an impact and that our continued presence was necessary. We are having a profound effect on the lives of the children in Afghanistan.
I relate that experience to a similar one that I had just a month before on Remembrance Day, similarly at a school, in my own riding in Central Nova, and it reinforced my belief. A child almost the same age as those children, a young girl, asked me what would happen to the children of Afghanistan if the Canadian soldiers left and came home. In a moment of clarity, that little girl's question tying those two events together made perfect sense.
I have already touched upon the numerous statistics demonstrating the progress that is occurring in Afghanistan. A comprehensive and coordinated approach is undoubtedly needed, but we should never overlook or forget the human impact that we are having on the lives of children, of family members, of men and women who want nothing more than a better future.
For me, however, nothing bears more powerful testimony to the value of our efforts, above and beyond the statistics, the NATO discussions, the reports and the commentary, than the hope and caring reflected in the eyes and faces of those two little girls. It speaks to the depth of caring of children anywhere in the world. I challenge anyone to look in the faces of these children and not say that we have more to do or to say that we would walk away.
Yes, the road ahead may be difficult, but stability in Afghanistan is achievable. We must persevere, for the consequences of abandoning Afghanistan are grave.
As members consider the future of the Afghan mission, they should bear in mind that the world is watching, friends and allies alike, and that the decision of this House will reverberate around the globe and will be far reaching in Canadian history. This debate will be recorded in the annals of this place and perhaps reviewed in other conflicts in times hence.
I hope that this debate and its final vote will be positive and instructive. The consequences of pulling Canada's military out of Afghanistan could have a far-reaching effect or a domino effect on others. Simply put, our friends would be weaker and our enemies stronger.
I would like to quote Nelofer Pazira, the author of the book A Bed of Red Flowers, who reflects upon some of her personal experiences in Afghanistan:
...Imagine one morning you wake up and get ready to go to work. But when you open the door, a group of young men, dressed in dusty and filthy clothes, push you inside the house with their rifles and say you're not allowed to leave. Imagine your younger sister wants to go to school and your mother has to go grocery shopping. Your sister is told she doesn't need any education, and your mother, though fully covered, is beaten or sent back home if she's not accompanied by a man. Imagine that your income is essential for the survival of your family, but you're told with indifference that you are not allowed to go to work. Imagine all of this happens to you only because you're a woman. What would you do if all you could do was stare at the walls inside your house as a substitute for living a normal life?
Those reflections and all that we know of Afghanistan demonstrate again that the stakes are simply too high for us to abandon Afghanistan and desert our allies at this critical juncture.
The UN Secretary-General recently said that withdrawing international forces would be “a mistake of historic proportions”. The Secretary General of NATO has warned that failure in Afghanistan would increase the security threat facing the alliance.
The independent panel, from which I am sure much of this debate will be drawn, has advised that events in Afghanistan “will directly affect Canada's security, our reputation in the world, and our future ability to engage the international community in achieving objectives of peace, security and shared prosperity”.
I ask all members of the House to carefully consider the consequences of rejecting the motion before us, which could lead to an abandonment of not only the Afghans and our allies but also our principles.
We do not want the Afghan campaign and the allied efforts to unravel. Other nations followed us into southern Afghanistan, and soon more will arrive, we hope, to fortify our efforts there.
What would stop them from withdrawing if we do?
Canada is respected for having pioneered the concept of the responsibility to protect. We do not want to become known for bowing out when we are most needed.
Do we want the Afghan people to take a step backward, to return to anarchy, to a time when public executions were common and human rights ignored, when it was not uncommon for women and children to be hung from posts on soccer fields? Today, children play on those very fields, some with soccer balls donated by generous Canadians like Joshua Zuidema from South Mountain, Ontario.
Do we want this fragile region to deteriorate further?
Do we want to tarnish Canada's reputation?
Could we ever regain the confidence of allies after deserting them at a critical moment? This is not the history of Canadian commitment to noble causes. How would history judge us if Canada walked away from Afghanistan?
In Canada today, we are a country that pays tribute to those who embarked on unbelievable acts of heroism and courage, who seized the heights of Vimy Ridge, who waded ashore at Juno Beach, and who gave their lives in the service of peace around the world in places such as Korea, Bosnia and Africa.
We honour the generations that looked tyranny in the face, did not blink and did not retreat. But what of us? I believe we are a generation that will not falter, nor we will abandon our nation's noblest traditions.
We have everyday heroes in Afghanistan today. They may not wear the uniform of an athlete, nor draw the salary of one or hear the applause, but they wear the proud clothing of a generation of Canadian soldiers just as proudly and with as much heart and guts as any who went before them.
If we do abandon these traditions, what kind of world are we leaving behind for our children?
There can be no graver decision of any government of any political stripe than sending into harm's way a generation of young men and women who so proudly wear the flag of their country on their shoulders, and the civilian members of our government committed to Canadian values and their promotion outside our borders.
As Minister of National Defence, nothing has touched me more deeply or more profoundly than the loss of Canadians in Afghanistan. Those 79 who gave their all shall be remembered, as will their families, for their enormous contributions and courage.
Some admire oratory and eloquence, others policy. I admire and prefer action, deeds not words, a motto which encapsulates our Canadian Forces. The members of the Canadian Forces enact policy and direction from Parliament. They are an instrument of our free and democratic institution and give purpose to policy.
They are delivering what we talk of and wish for others: freedom, security and a place to feel safe, to go to school, to eat well and to drink clean water. They are a credit to this nation. The uniform they wear is a source of pride for them and an inspiration to all for their selfless actions and efforts.
My colleagues and I are convinced, I believe, that Canada must continue this mission. As the independent panel led by the Hon. John Manley noted:
After 30 years of strife—in Soviet occupation, civil war and the coercive repression of Taliban rule—Afghan men and women are building a government committed to the democratic rule of law and the full exercise of human rights.
In conclusion, helping the Afghans at this critical time is consistent with Canadian values and interests. The mission is achievable. We must stay the course.
I urge all members to support the motion and in so doing commemorate those fallen and those who forged ahead. Supporting the motion before the House is the best memorial we can build for our country and that of the people of Afghanistan.