Read the fine print in Harper's Afghan announcement, says defence lobby

Oddly now, the revolt over the war is coming from the Right wing, not the Left.

Stephen Harper’s pledge that Canadian troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2011 has been received with a lot of scepticism. And for good reason – Canadians have been fooled before.

Even I was caught wearing rose coloured-glasses when I wrote an oped for the Ottawa Citizen in the summer of 2007 that argued that Harper had finally seen the light and that the mission would end in 2009.

In June of that year, just after Parliament started its summer break, Mr. Harper said that “this mission will end in February 2009.” He added that the only way the mission would continue would be with the agreement of the Liberals.

But…start with one report by John Manley, add a flip-flopping Stephane Dion, then bake with the threat of an election and…presto! By March 2008 Harper had managed to extend the war to 2011 when the Liberals voted with the Conservatives in a Parliamentary vote.

My mistake at the time? Underestimating the power and influence of the defence lobby.

While everyone this week was pointing out “what a change” these new comments from Harper had been, the DND-funded Conference of Defence Associations was telling people to check the fine print.

Discussing the Harper pledge with me on CPAC, CDA director Col Alain Pellerin (ret.) said,

“If you look back to the agreement in the House it does say ‘summer 2011, out by the end of the year.’ Also I think you have to read the fine print of his comments today because he talks about the bulk being out but we might leave some technical capabilities and advisors. So what I foresee is yes the combat mission will end in 2011, summer 2011, to be replaced as we see today.” CPAC Interview – September 10, 2008 (Season 7, Episode 3)

To be sure, defence lobby groups like the Conference of Defence Associations don’t like these end dates. Are they planning their own campaign to help Harper avoid this pledge?

Now, facing criticism from parent of a soldier killed in Afghanistanand having to fire a communications staff member for accusing the father of being a Liberal supporter, Harper may be wondering if his bid to win votes in Quebec and remove the contentious Afghan war issue from the table risks angering his political base.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay rushed out to further clarify Mr. Harper’s comments:

“I was surprised by the reaction,” Mr. MacKay said. “A vote has been taken twice under our government to allow the members of Parliament elected in every riding in Canada to have their say on this issue and what the Prime Minister said [Wednesday] is completely consistent with what he said all along: We respect the parliamentary mandate.”

Is Harper risking his political base? This was debated last night on the CBC’s right-leaning At Issue panel. Chantal Hebert asked, “Where would those angry Conservatives go?” since there was no more right wing party that the Conservatives for war supporters to vote for. Andrew Coyne thought they might just stay home in protest (not very likely, tho).

Oddly now, the revolt over the war is coming from the Right wing, not the Left. Will pro-war Canadians be the ones to keep the issue in the spotlight?

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