Manley puts government on the spot

CanWest News Service
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The mission is a mess. In a devastatingly frank assessment reflecting the sad reality of military forces in Kandahar, an independent panel says Canada's losing battle against the Taliban demands a desperate measure for a desperate time.
It suggests a form of diplomatic blackmail against the 39-nation international security force guiding the ailing Afghanistan mission: bail us out with another 1,000 fighting soldiers or we're bailing out of the conflict.
That contentious bottom line is not what Prime Minister Stephen Harper had in mind when he summoned former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley out of political retirement to consider four options for Canada's future role in the conflict.
None of the above, declared the five-member Manley panel after digesting 200 submissions and taking a bear-witness tour of Afghanistan.
They found Canada's too-few-by-half combat troops are ill-equipped, poorly co-ordinated and losing ground to the enemy while failing to deliver adequate humanitarian aid or reconstruction help to average Afghans.
That ugly scenario has been poorly communicated to voters back home by governments that haven't shown prime ministerial leadership on the file, Manley argues.
Well, ouch. No wonder Harper stayed mum on the report recommendations Tuesday until he could figure out a decent public relations salvage strategy.
But the key push is that put-up-or-shut-up ultimatum. It will either work spectacularly well if Harper can miraculously lever additional soldiers from reluctant NATO partners or send Canada home in a sulk before the job is done.
Retreating under those dishonourable circumstances doesn't fit Harper's hawkish style and it would undoubtedly trigger an uproar in a military that would consider its 77-plus soldier lives sacrificed in vain to political gamesmanship.
For a panel that declares Afghanistan a political preoccupation requiring special cabinet and prime ministerial attention, it's a curious inconsistency to suggest Canada hold a white flag behind its back for diplomatic emergencies.
After all, Manley warns this is a holy grail mission of global security significance that can only be terminated in 2009 if Canada is willing to sacrifice its interests, compromise its humanitarian effort, encourage the Taliban to reinvade and forever black-eye Canada in the eyes of the United Nations and NATO.
But diplomatic arm-twisting has failed so miserably to date, there's probably no harm in attempting to bluff that coalition of the chickens in relatively safe northern Afghanistan to move some of their troops south into danger.
Win or lose under the raised-stakes plan, any motion derived from this panel's report is far from assured safe parliamentary passage.
The New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois have made their opposition to an extended mission very clear.
And it'll be a difficult swallow for Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, who wants Canada out of harm's way in 2009, to support a report that fails to define the winning conditions for any withdrawal at some unspecified future date.
If Dion stands against the mission extension in April and the prime minister declares it a confidence vote, an election disguised as an Afghanistan referendum would be foisted on Canadians this spring.
But the greater value of the report is to paint the government-suppressed Afghanistan picture that embedded reporters and non-government aid agencies have seen for themselves in recent years.
There is no doubt Canadian soldiers are fiercely loyal to the mission, but lacking essential equipment. There is a sense of helplessness for troops waiting for other nation's helicopters to pick up their injured and deliver supplies. Canada does not have any lift capacity of its own in the war, something the panel wants fixed.
Well-meaning soldiers in reconstruction units tend to be deployed haphazardly in heavily armed convoys. The panel says civilians would be more effective, friendly faced, good-deed-doers.
Canada's $100 million in annual aid is delivered ad hoc by workers kept inside military bases until allowed outside by timid Ottawa bureaucrats, the panel says. Building a "signature" major hospital or irrigation project makes more sense.
The panel concludes Kandahar is not yet a write-off for Canadian Forces, but warns it will be mission impossible if done in half measures.
The fact stands that Canada is losing its war in Afghanistan. It's high time other nations measured up as worthy allies against global terrorism - without being blackmailed by our bluff.

Don Martin writes for the CanWest News Service

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