The Liberals blew it on the Afghanistan file: Yaffe

Barbara Yaffe, columnist for the Vancouver Sun, hits the nail on the head in today’s column. Steve

The Liberals blew it on the Afghanistan file

Barbara Yaffe
Vancouver Sun
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Liberals last spring squandered a potent issue that could have boosted their sagging fortunes in the current election campaign.

Because leader Stephane Dion was so keen to avoid an election call last February, the party cobbled a compromise on Afghanistan, agreeing with Conservatives that Canadian troops would stay in Kandahar until 2011.

The Liberals, in week two of the campaign and failing to find a groundswell of support for their Green Shift program, are badly in need of a popular wedge issue to differentiate themselves from Conservatives and New Democrats.

Polls show voters deeply unimpressed with Dion. Canadians don’t think Liberals have performed well in opposition or that they’re ready to govern again.

The partisan team that used to be called Canada’s Natural Governing Party has lost its longstanding edge over Conservatives in Quebec and nationally is fighting to maintain a lead over the New Democrats.

The Liberals’ valiant bid in June to gain traction by way of their bold environmental plan has been neither well understood nor broadly embraced by an electorate spooked by an economic downturn. They find themselves on the defensive in relation to the program.

Meanwhile, Dion has been forced during the first week of the campaign to awkwardly endorse both the Conservative party’s GST cut and its child-care benefit program.

Afghanistan could have been a defining issue for Liberals. They had a winning position on it that was in keeping with the views of a majority of Canadians.

Dion reasoned that Canada had done its share in the dangerous Kandahar region since July 2005, that it was time to move troops to a more stable region where they could focus on reconstruction and development work. Some 2,500 soldiers now are in Kandahar.

Dion’s position reflected the fact that Canada had suffered a disproportionate number of casualties and deaths in relation to other NATO countries. Several European countries have given their troops mandates preventing combat engagement, resulting in light casualties.

Harper has never explained to Canadians why Canada should be making such an outsized contribution to the war effort.

A Harris/Decima poll in August showed 61 per cent of respondents believe the cost to Canada “in lives and money has been unacceptable.” An Angus Reid poll last week revealed 75 per cent of Canadians believe Canada is bearing too much of the burden of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. Nearly 60 per cent oppose it.

Conservatives are aware of their political vulnerability on the issue.

To mitigate damage, Harper has announced his government wouldn’t renew the mission beyond 2011. Never mind that previously Harper said it would be irresponsible to advertise an end date to the enemy.

In response to Harper’s statement, Steven Staples, president of the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute, pointed out that “continuing until December 2011 will mean another 40 months of combat in Kandahar.

“A lot can happen in that time, including, ironically, a potential escalation of our commitment there in the next year following the U.S. elections.”

With the Kandahar death toll approaching 100, the military assignment has become a visceral issue for many voters.

Further, the Taliban has warned it plans to escalate attacks during Canada’s election campaign; more casualties could weigh heavily on the dynamics of the current political contest.

Last February, the Liberals relinquished their political edge on Afghanistan, agreeing to a plan to keep Canadian soldiers in Kandahar until the date set by the Harper government, 2011.

The philosophical flip-flop was prompted by a pending vote on a Commons resolution on the mission. Dion feared triggering an election if the party opposed it.

The compromise the party reached was a phony one based on political expediency.

Liberals agreed to support the resolution because Canadians would remain in Kandahar to train the Afghan army and provide security for reconstruction and development.

But the party had to know that keeping troops in Kandahar meant a continuation of the dynamic whereby Canadians were doing a disproportionate share of NATO’s heavy lifting.

Thus Liberals lost a chance to stand up for fairness and oppose the Conservatives on an issue where opposition was and continues to be warranted. Their unfortunate capitulation has come back to haunt them in the current campaign.

© The Vancouver Sun 2008

Tags: Afghanistan, Elections