Thursday, June 25, 2009

What are you running there MacKay?

Fort Fumble on the Rideau has done it again. The initial decision to withhold the projected future costs of the Afghanistan military expedition on an information request using a "national security" blanket has simply served to further erode public confidence.
The Defence Department admitted Wednesday that it was wrong to withhold the future cost of the war in Afghanistan on the basis that releasing it would violate national security.
Of course it was wrong. And whoever made the decision in the first place knew it was wrong. And knowing it was wrong suggests that the final decision came from a creature well up on the totem pole.

Yet the defence minister claims it wasn't his decision. How odd.

The response to requests for information from the Canadian Forces is governed by policy. There are, or were, explicit instructions as to what type of information could or could not be released in the response to an information request. I've handled more than a few of them in the past and, as much of a pain in the ass as they were, determining the contents of a response was reasonably straight forward. The easiest ones to get off the desk were the ones asking about "the cost of ...". Not my bailiwick, send this to a higher authority toute de suite.

The infuriating part was the fact that such requests normally came forwarded from the Puzzle Palace in Ottawa in the first place. Sending them back meant explaining to the idiot well up the chain of command that operational commanders do not respond to requests for budgetary information which already exists as knowledge at a higher level.

Defence policy information requests were always answered by the boffins (Often referred to as "reeky, pencil-necked, civvy, pukes". Hey! It was a part of the lexicon.) At best, we could only contribute to a response by detailing unit preparedness or the like but for the most part we never saw such requests.

Further, there was and still is, a restriction on what one could say publicly for any record. Defence policy, and in particular operations beyond the current year, were absolutely verbotten. Those always went to the minister's cadre and with good reason: The uniformed members of the Canadian Armed Forces do not formulate defence policy.

That makes this part of the Mike Blanchfield's article particularly rankling. (Emphasis mine)

For the first time Wednesday, the military also offered up costs for "future years" — a column also censored in this most recent NDP request — pegging those at $540 million.

Asked about those numbers, given that the mission is to formally have ended by 2011, the defence official explained that was because of costs associated with closing out the mission, such as bringing equipment back to Canada and restoring it to its pre-war state.

But Harris rejected that explanation, saying the military "obviously has significant plans for the military in Afghanistan beyond the mission end date of July 2011" because the post-2011 costs are $1.2 billion.

"That's not keeping the engines turning while you're bringing the equipment back home," Harris said.

"They obviously have some plans, so lay it on the table and let the Canadian people decide whether we want to be involved in this or not."

There is some unfortunate conflation occuring here. Harris and those repeating his comments in the media have consistently referred to "the military" as having undisclosed plans for Afghanistan beyond 2011.

They have the order of battle wrong.

The "military" doesn't decide what form the mission in Afghanistan will take; that is a political decision made at the ministerial and cabinet level. In this particular government, that means the over-dressed kids in the prime minister's office.

I agree with Harris that the figures for 2011-2012 suggest a rather significant level of military activity on the ground in Afghanistan, but the Canadian Forces did not make that projection based on its own ideas for what it's expeditionary role should be. The government has told the CF what form the Afghanistan mission will take after 2011 and to provide estimates for the mission the government wants.

The initial decision to withhold the information requested has the PMO's fingerprints all over it. Since defence policy seems to come from the war-gamers in the Langevin Block, the disclosure of projected costs would shine a nasty bright light on something they really don't want you to know - same mission; different description. (All the signposts are there to suggest little is going to change after 2011. Future post.)

In any case, now that the costs are out there, the embarrassment should be dumped on the appropriate doorstep. Harper and MacKay should be wearing this - not the Canadian Forces. The fact that those costs have risen so significantly and given that Harper instructed the CF to run this contingency operation from within the defence budget explains why other components of the CF are suffering.

I expect we'll never know which individual, very close to the ground on the totem pole, gets gutted for this little fiasco.

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