Why is Rick Hillier commenting publicly on the parliamentary agenda?
Canada's top soldier urged Parliament to come to a quick decision on the country's role in Afghanistan, warning that lengthy debate may put soldiers increasingly at risk as the Taliban take advantage of the uncertainty. "We are, in the eyes of the Taliban, in a window of extreme vulnerability, and the longer we go without that clarity, with the issue in doubt, the more the Taliban will target us as a perceived weak link," Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier said Friday.It's all very well and good to advise the political leaders of this country of that fact, in the confines of an office; it is another thing to be making public statements suggesting Parliament do anything at all. One is his job; the other is a step over the line.
Rick Hillier, Canadian citizen, has the right to an opinion like everyone else, however, he is a sworn servant of the Crown and when he speaks he does so from a privileged platform. As principle military advisor to the government, he is fully aware that when he stands and speaks, in full uniform, he attracts attention. For the Chief of Defence Staff to stand in public and make demands on Parliament is to suggest that the democracy he serves does not measure up to his personal standard.
Not everyone shares Hillier's opinion.
Some Canadians are not happy at all with the motion before Parliament and wish to see Canada's role in Afghanistan ended as soon as possible. They view, with some substantial support, the Afghanistan mission as a fiasco brought about by an inattentive and incompetent US presidential administration which has done more to exacerbate the problem in Afghanistan than they have to solve it. In short, they think it's a Bush administration problem in which our presence is aiding and abetting the ability of that administration to pursue other misguided and illegal adventures.
Others believe there should be no debate at all; that the government has the legal right to proceed without consulting Parliament and commit forces as they see fit. They might even have a valid conventional argument, even if it does demonstrate a turpitude which most would find unacceptable.
Still others believe that the question should be exhaustively debated. That Parliament examine this mission as closely as possible and consider the consequences of any decision taken. They do not want a quick decision; they want a considered decision.
Hillier's statement belies the fact that, until he has a new set of orders from the Canadian government, his subordinate general at Canadian Expeditionary Forces Command has a mission in Afghanistan that will expire in 2009. It is the government, not Parliament which has the authority to continue the mission. It is the government which has caused the delay in coming to a decision. It was an extended parliamentary break, ordered by the government and done purely for political reasons, which delayed addressing the question. It was the government which chose to engage in a political charade which produced a pre-ordained report.
Hillier, in choosing to suggest that Parliament is culpable in placing a haze over the Afghanistan mission, neatly avoided one particular issue. Even if Parliament carries the current government motion placed before it and the debate ends, there is still no decision.
Harper has stated that Canada will withdraw unless it receives a 1000 troop reinforcement from NATO and additional equipment is forthcoming. If the debate was settled tomorrow those caveats remain. Further, and Hillier knows this, those reinforcements need to come from a single country and have the same length of commitment as Canada in order to be effective. A cobbled together force from several countries will cause a gathering of national command elements which would reduce the actual number of available combat troops. The "1000" identified in the Manley report comes with no qualification: 1000 rifles is, as Hillier is aware, completely different from 1000 troops.
If any country does commit, the duration of that commitment is critical. Anything short of December 2011 means that Canada will be faced with the same problem sometime in the future.
Aside from the plethora of other reasons to question whether success in Afghanistan is even possible, Hillier, in pointing at Parliament, also failed to point out another weakness: NATO itself. ISAF is comprised of a fragmented array of forces with a range of instructions issued by their national governments. The nature of regional assignments by nation inside Afghanistan is the greatest military weakness, but it also reflects how much emphasis those nations put on the Afghanistan situation. Since their commitment seems to suggest they will maintain a presence down to the last Canadian soldier means it is up to us to critically examine the mission.
While Hillier makes noises about Parliament he conveniently did not mention that there are indications that the Canadian Forces are making new plans. Several separate intimations suggest that the CF is planning for an increase in Operational Mentor Liaison Teams (OMLT). About 150 Canadian Forces members are currently training the Afghan 1st Brigade, 205 Corps consisting of three small infantry battalions (kandaks). There are strong indications that Ottawa intends to increase this to two or possibly three OMLTs. So far, no one has said whether this is a change in focus or an increase in the number of people who will deploy in the future.
So, General Hillier can blame Parliament all he wants. Whether he likes it or not, that body answers to the Canadian public and we have the right to expect that questions before it will be debated properly and completely. As for the delays he seems to feel he has to whine about, he should more clearly define his target. The delays exist because the Harper government has been fumbling about trying to find itself. The delays exist because the Canadian public sees little more than a cloak of darkness cast over a costly mission and demands to know what the hell is going on.
That means the nature of the mission will be debated and defined by the elected representatives of the population and they should take whatever amount of time necessary to arrive at a reasonable compromise. General Hillier needs to be reminded that he serves the democracy; not the other way around.
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