Mr. Speaker, I rise today to discuss the government's new motion on the future of Canada's involvement in Afghanistan.
The decision to send the men and women of the Canadian Forces into harm's way is one of the most important decisions that the government can make. It is not something to be taken lightly. It must be approached with extreme vigilance. It can never be viewed as an opportunity to take partisan advantage. Our troops should never be used as props in our domestic political landscape.
There are those who would argue that engaging in a debate such as this is potentially harmful as it may increase the danger for our troops and civilians on the ground, but in a democracy like Canada the debate on the military mission is normal and in fact unavoidable. We cannot allow our political process to be held hostage by those forces we oppose in Afghanistan who would deny ordinary Afghans the rights we hold so dear, like the right of holding a free debate.
We cannot send our troops to the other side of the world to help bring democracy and good governance to a country that has sadly lacked both for too long and then abandon those principles at home. We have a solemn duty in this House to do what we believe is best for the nation. We owe it to the men and women who serve in our military and to all the citizens of this great country to debate this issue fully, to challenge each other's position and to ensure that the government is truly making the right choice. No one should ever confuse a debate over the future of the mission with a debate over whether or not we support our troops.
Regardless of the opposition on Afghanistan, every member of the House of Commons supports our troops. For that reason, I would urge all hon. members to avoid the kind of insulting language that has too often dominated the political discourse over this issue. Those who would seek to extend the mission are not warmongers. Those who would seek to end the mission are obviously not Taliban sympathizers. We are all members of Parliament seeking to do what is right and the opinions of all parties should be vigorously scrutinized in the climate of mutual respect.
It is the conviction of the Liberal caucus that what Canada has been doing and what we continue to do in Afghanistan reflects the best traditions of our country. Canada proudly figures among the rare groups of countries, too rare, that have only ever sent their troops abroad to defend the universal values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the dignity of all people. This is something in which we should all take immense pride.
It is clear that the broad majority of the Afghan population wants us there not as never-ending occupying power, obviously not, but to help them get to a point where they can govern themselves effectively and provide security and freedom to their own country.
In order to succeed in our endeavour, we must make sure that NATO will work in this first mission outside of its traditional European base. This is why a year ago when I delivered one of my first major speeches as leader of the Liberal Party in Montreal on the topic of Afghanistan, I said that for Liberals it was critical that Canada respect its international obligations, and that we could not back away from a commitment that the Government of Canada had made, but for the NATO mission to succeed, I said that Canada could not be called upon to carry such a heavy burden for an indefinite period of time.
That is why I said that the mission could not continue in the same form after our current commitment expired in February 2009. At that time, a full year ago, we urged the government to notify NATO of this fact, so that NATO could begin the process of identifying additional troops who could rotate into Kandahar to replace the current role of the Canadian troops.
As a party, we gave the House the opportunity to support this position last April in an opposition day motion. Unfortunately, the government and the NDP rejected this proposal at that time and our motion was defeated. The government assured us that it was far too early to discuss such matters. It assured us that we did not need to debate the issue until 2008.
As a result of its mistake, a year has passed since that time and the government has done nothing to seriously engage NATO to replace our troops. So, a year later, we find ourselves no further ahead. That was last year and we now see the difficult position this delay has put us in. We must now scramble to find new troops for Kandahar.
Earlier this month the government put forward its first motion on the future of the mission post-February 2009. As I indicated at that time, I found it to be inconsistent with the position of the Liberal Party which is supported by a majority of Canadians. So, we took it upon ourselves as a party to produce an alternative motion.
In drafting our proposed motion we were guided by three simple principles that were lacking from the government's original motion. One, the mission must change. We must change the mission to one that is a mission dedicated to training, security and reconstruction. Two, the mission must end. We must have a clear end date to the mission, not a further review date that will lead us down the path of a never ending mission. Three, the mission must be about more than the military. There is no exclusively military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan, so our efforts should be balanced between defence, diplomacy and reconstruction.
Working with these three principles and a belief in the fact that Canadians deserve greater transparency and accountability when it comes to Afghanistan, we produced our amended motion.
I was pleased last week to see that the government has abandoned its flawed and lacking motion and largely adopted the language that the Liberal Party put forward. There are obviously some slight differences in the two motions. I will go through these differences over the course of my remarks today.
I agree with the Prime Minister and the defence minister that what we have now is neither a Conservative motion nor a Liberal motion. It is a Canadian motion. But for now, at least, we have a Conservative government that will implement this mission on the ground in Afghanistan.
The government must be accountable to the spirit and the letter of the motion. No matter what happens in this House, the decision to deploy troops and conduct the mission is the responsibility of the executive branch in our political system. It is the government that will ultimately be responsible to implement what is articulated in the motion.
That is why we have placed certain emphasis on the transparency and accountability in the motion we have before us. It will be incumbent upon the government to show the House and all Canadians that it is respecting both the spirit and the letter of the motion. Allow me now to review the motion that is before us today.
The mission must change. This motion is consistent with that position. The mission must change in February 2009 for two reasons.
First, we have to start focusing Canada's mission on actions that will enable the Afghan people and their government to ensure security and governance themselves in their country. If we simply continue to do the work for them, the situation will never change. That is why the Liberal Party is placing such great emphasis on the need for a shift toward the training of the Afghan national security forces.
Second, the mission must change because we cannot continue to ask of our troops that they carry such a heavy responsibility indefinitely. Come February 2009, our troops will have been involved for three years in one of the most demanding, and probably also the most dangerous, missions they have participated in since the Korean war. We cannot ask them, and NATO cannot expect us, to sustain much longer operations of this scope and magnitude.
This motion clearly stipulates that, after February 2009, Canada's mission in Kandahar should consist of training Afghan national security forces, providing security for reconstruction and development projects in Kandahar, and continuing Canada's responsibility for the Kandahar provincial reconstruction team. That is a shift from what our troops in Kandahar have been doing since the beginning of 2006.
We are no longer talking about a proactive counter-insurgency mission to seek out and destroy insurgents. We will not, however, tie the hands of our troops by telling them that they cannot take military action to defend themselves or those they are there to protect.
As I said, it is up to politicians to set the focus of military missions. That is a responsibility incumbent upon elected representatives of the people. While generals must refrain from imposing policies on elected representatives, we must refrain from micromanaging our generals.
Like the Liberal motion on which it was based, the motion brought before Parliament by the government makes the continuation of a Canadian military presence in Kandahar contingent on three broad conditions: a clear end date, additional troops, and new equipment. Allow me to expand on each of these conditions.
Why is it so important to have a clear end date for the mission? If we have a clear end date, we can develop a clear plan with realistic objectives and benchmarks. It is up to the government to determine these benchmarks and objectives and to clearly communicate them to our soldiers and to all Canadians. We are expecting the government to indicate, during this debate, what the benchmarks and objectives for training and development will be.
Furthermore, a clear end date will encourage our NATO allies and the Afghan government to prepare for our departure. If we are not clear about the end date of our mission, they will never prepare for our departure.
We are happy to learn that the government's new motion respects our request to establish a clear end date for Canada's mission in Kandahar. Although we called for the mission to end in February 2011 and for all of our soldiers to be out of Kandahar by July 2011, the government chose to have the mission end in July 2011 and to have all of our troops out of Kandahar by December 2011.
I think the government should explain during this debate why it chose later dates. We chose the start of 2011 as the end date for the mission because the benchmarks and timelines established by the Afghanistan Compact must be respected by the end of 2010.
We want to know why the government bothered to change the date we proposed and put it back to the middle of 2011. If the government has a reasonable and logical explanation, our party will not oppose this change.
Moreover, we hope that if the House adopts this motion, the government will inform NATO immediately and formally of the firm end date of our mission in Kandahar. We do not want to find ourselves in a situation in 2011 where NATO is surprised to learn that our mission is ending. We must not make the same mistake twice.
We are concerned that the government omitted the word “immediately” from the part of the motion that asks the government to notify NATO of the date when our mission will end. Our NATO allies and the Afghan government will need this clarity and transparency when the NATO heads of state meet shortly in Bucharest. We do not have the right to conceal things from our allies. At that meeting, Canada will ask NATO for additional assistance. We must therefore be very clear about the length of our commitment.
Now, the issue of additional troops. The Liberal motion called for additional NATO troops to be sent to Kandahar. We did this because we believe it is important for another NATO nation to rotate into Kandahar to take over some of Canada's current responsibilities.
It is not reasonable to say that the focus of the mission will change to one of training and reconstruction if there is no one else to take over our previous offensive military responsibilities. Calling for a NATO rotation, which allows for a sharing of the burden, is appropriate and responsible.
As a matter of fact, rotation is a concept upon which the entire ISAF mission in Afghanistan has been based since NATO assumed responsibility of the mission in 2003. NATO's overall mission in Afghanistan will only be successful if all members respect the principle of rotation and take on a relatively equal share of the burden.
The government's motion calls for a battle group of 1,000 NATO troops to rotate into Kandahar by February 2009. We call on the government to ensure that this is a true rotation, one where Canada is able to shed some of its current responsibilities so it can engage in new ones.
Obviously, the government's wording in this section is different from what we called for in our motion, and we have two very specific questions that will need answers over the course of this debate.
First, why 1,000 troops? We have all read the report of the Prime Minister's Afghanistan plan, and we know that it recommends 1,000 troops, but we on this side of the House have never understood where this number comes from. Is there a justification for this number, or is it simply a number chosen because that is all that we think we can get?
The Liberal motion called for sufficient troops. We need to understand why the government thinks 1,000 is sufficient. Even one of Canada's own senior military commanders in the region has suggested that at least 5,000 troops are needed.
The second question about the rotation process is, how long is the government prepared to wait before it determines whether or not this condition has been met? The government needs to be clear on this point.
We cannot wait until January 31, 2009 to say whether or not NATO has come through with the requisite troops. The government needs to set a date and say that if these troops are not committed by this date, Canada will not commit to a military presence in Kandahar beyond February 2009.
Let me speak about additional equipment. We obviously agree with the current motion's insistence on new helicopters and UAVs. The government must be forthright with the Canadian people and explain exactly how much this will cost.
In addition, the government must explain how it intends to have this equipment available before February 2009 as it called for in the motion. Again, we cannot wait until the last possible minute to confirm that we have this necessary equipment.
The mission must be about more than the military. We must all understand that there is no exclusive military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. I am reminded of what President Karzai said when he addressed Parliament in September 2006:
We will not succeed in eliminating terrorism unless we seek and fight the source of terrorism wherever it might be and dry its roots. Our strategy of fighting terrorism in Afghanistan has so far been mainly focused on addressing the symptoms of terrorism, that is, on killing terrorists who come from across our borders.
This strategy is bound to fail unless we move beyond the military operations in Afghanistan and to address terrorism's political ideological and financial basis.
That is why our motion placed a greater emphasis on stronger and more disciplined diplomatic efforts and a better balance with respect to reconstruction and development efforts, issues that the government's original motion virtually ignored.
I am very pleased to see that almost all of the Liberal proposals on this matter have been accepted in the government's motion.
Like the Liberal motion, upon which it is based, the new motion states:
--that Canada's contribution to the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan should:
(a) be revamped and increased to strike a better balance between our military efforts and our development efforts in Afghanistan;
(b) focus on our traditional strengths as a nation, particularly through the development of sound judicial and correctional systems and strong political institutions on the ground in Afghanistan and the pursuit of a greater role for Canada in addressing the chronic fresh water shortages in the country;
(c) address the crippling issue of the narco-economy that consistently undermines progress in Afghanistan, through the pursuit of solutions that do not further alienate the goodwill of the local population;
(d) be held to a greater level of accountability and scrutiny so that the Canadian people can be sure that our development contributions are being spent effectively in Afghanistan;--
The amendments also call for a stronger, more disciplined diplomatic position on Afghanistan and the other players in the region.
The government did not consider our idea of appointing a Canadian special envoy whose dual role would be to ensure greater coherence in Canadian diplomatic initiatives in the region and press for greater coordination amongst our partners in the UN in the pursuit of common diplomatic goals in the region.
Instead, the government said it would be generally in favour of appointing a special envoy. We assume that the government is referring to the much-debated plan to appoint a UN special envoy to the region. We have nothing against this, but we would like to know why the government rejected the idea of a Canadian special envoy to the region.
Regardless of the final decision on Afghanistan, one thing is certain: the government must be much more transparent and honest about the situation and progress in the field. Canadians have the right to know this vital information. To be successful, the mission must be based on the principle of democracy, and transparency and accountability are crucial to any democratic action.
The motion we introduced called on the government to be more transparent and to report better on the conduct and status of the mission. It contained specific proposals to that end.
More specifically, the Liberal amendment recommended that quarterly reports on the mission's progress be tabled in Parliament and suggested that the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of International Cooperation and the Minister of National Defence be asked to meet regularly with a special parliamentary committee on Afghanistan. The Liberal government adopted a similar approach in the context of the NATO mission in Kosovo and I think most parliamentarians found this to be a very positive move.
We are thrilled to see that the government included these ideas in the motion, along with our proposal that challenges the abusive practice of claiming national security reasons to deprive Canadians of legitimate information.
Lastly, the motion we presented addressed the issue of transferring Afghan detainees.
The opposition parties are quite right to be concerned about this serious matter because, in our opinion, this is a fundamental issue of human rights and dignity, the very values for which Canada is fighting in Afghanistan.
In our motion, we asked that the current suspension of the transfer of Afghan detainees be maintained. In order to solve the problem, we called on the government to pursue a NATO-wide solution instead of trying to fight on its own. Moreover—and perhaps most importantly—we asked for greater openness and transparency in general on this matter.
The government articulated the last two points in wording very similar to ours, but it changed our wording on the first point. Unlike our proposal, it does not mention maintaining the suspension of the transfer of detainees. The government prefers to say that it will allow the transfer of detainees only when it is believed that such transfers will be done in accordance with Canada's international obligations.
For us, that means maintaining the suspension of transfers. At this time, there is too much evidence that Canada cannot transfer detainees without neglecting its international obligation to defend and promote human rights.
The government now has an opportunity to demonstrate that it is committed to transparency on this matter from now on. All it has to do is confirm today in the House that the suspension of transfers is being maintained and that the government will notify the House immediately of any changes to this policy.
To conclude, I applaud the government on the reasonable steps it has taken to find the common ground between our two positions. We are pleased to see that the government has accepted the fundamental principles the Liberal Party has been guided by: a change of the mission; an end to the mission; a greater commitment to development and diplomacy; and greater transparency and accountability by the government.
Today I have laid out the principles behind the motion. As we move forward, we call on the government to adhere to the new standards of transparency and accountability laid out in the motion to demonstrate that the government has respected these principles.
We will be listening attentively over the course of the debate to how the government responds to the questions that I have raised over the course of this speech. If the government provides us with reasonable responses to our questions and indicates that it is committed to the letter and spirit of the motion, then the official opposition will support the motion.
The Liberal Party has been at the forefront of this debate for the past year. We have been the party that has been putting forward detailed proposals about the future of the mission, first in my speech last February, then in our opposition day motion in the House last April, then in our submission to the independent panel last December, and most recently in our proposed motion earlier this month.
We have been engaged in a constructive dialogue with Canadians on this issue. This has led us to a position that we believe is supported by a majority of Canadians. We welcome the shift that the government has made to join us in this position, and we welcome all of the parties to this national debate of which we have been part for over a year.
The Liberal Party believes that the successful future for Afghanistan is in our national best interest. We believe that our efforts there have reflected the values and principles in which Canadians believe: freedom, democracy, equality, security, and the respect of fundamental human rights. The Liberal Party believes that these values are worth pursuing. We believe that our efforts in Afghanistan, supported with a clear UN mandate, can be successful.
Canadian efforts to date have come at a great cost. As a nation, we have mourned every casualty that we have suffered. We must honour those sacrifices by ensuring that we are defining the right mission going forward. Let us all pledge to be guided over the course of this debate to do what is best for Canada and what is best for Afghanistan. Let us always keep in mind the efforts and sacrifices of the men and women in the Canadian Forces, our diplomatic and development officers, and all Canadians who have been active in Afghanistan.