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Op Ed on Afghanistan, published in the Ottawa Citizen and the Calgary Herald


We must hold fast in Afghanistan

Last week, in these pages Senator Colin Kenny commented once again on Canada's role in Afghanistan ("Mission Impossible," Sept. 11). His latest foray was curious for a number of reasons, not least of which is this: He drew conclusions that were at odds with those he had voiced following his committee's (which is also mine) last visit to Afghanistan.

Senator Kenny usually indulges in the decidedly expensive practice of collecting evidence first-hand by visiting the region before drawing any conclusions. His motto seems to be: We need to see what is going on there, not just accept the government's word that progress is being made. But not this time. This time it seems he radically revised his views without stepping foot anywhere near the country, choosing instead to consult a map.

This would be unremarkable were it not for the fact that these latest conclusions of his fly in the face of what the committee wrote in its report following its visit to Afghanistan in 2008: "The committee continues to believe that the Canadian mission to Afghanistan is worthwhile." The committee added: "Whether it will continue to be worthwhile will depend on how much we continue to improve the security and the general well-being of Afghans."

The chair, without seeing first-hand how things have changed, and without consulting any of his colleagues on the committee, has now decided that improvement has not been made. He cites as evidence corruption in the Karzai government, maps showing expanding areas of Taliban control, and the fact that only five schools of 50 have been built or rehabilitated (he fails to mention that another 28 schools are under construction).

Senator Kenny's advice: run away (as the cast of Monty Python once put it). Retreat before this turns into another Vietnam. Never mind that this early retreat would conflict with the all-party agreement to pull out Canada's troops in 2011. Never mind that it would embolden the forces of terrorism in every corner of the globe. Never mind that it would betray our allies. And never mind that the reference to Vietnam is nothing more than an inflammatory rhetorical device (and the reference is all the more repellent for being so) because the two situations -- Vietnam and Afghanistan -- as any student of history could tell you, are not even close to being comparable.

First, the United States went into Vietnam alone. Canada is in Afghanistan with its NATO allies.

Second, the effort in Afghanistan was prompted by a direct attack on one of those allies -- our neighbour and largest trading partner -- the United States, with the loss of thousands of innocent lives, 24 of them Canadian. Afghanistan under the Taliban was a sanctuary for those who planned and directed the attack. Vietnam, rightly or wrongly, was in many respects a war by proxy against the spread of Soviet communism. It never involved an unprovoked attack on American soil that targeted innocent American civilians.

Third, the Vietnam war divided American society like no other before it, prompting violent protests in the streets. It was the downfall of one president (Lyndon Johnson) and threatened the downfall of another (Richard Nixon). Afghanistan has not caused nearly the same amount of upheaval -- nor does it threaten to -- in the United States, Canada or any other allied country.

Finally, Canada has set a date for military withdrawal from Afghanistan that all political parties have agreed to. The United States during Vietnam was bedevilled by its inability to negotiate a satisfactory timetable for withdrawal with honour. Those are just some of the differences between the experience of Canada in Afghanistan and the United States in Vietnam.

Senator Kenny notes that the strategy of the Taliban is to persist for as long as it takes for Canada and its allies to lose heart. For him that time has come. If the Taliban have become the new Viet Cong, Senator Kenny is their Jane Fonda. The Taliban can take solace. The women of Afghanistan, despair.

The security situation in Afghanistan has no doubt deteriorated. The government has admitted as much in its latest report. But this is the time when we need to hold fast, not cut and run. Remember there have been promising developments, too. The recent election, as flawed as it was, is just one of them. Nobody should expect perfection coming out of the box. Progress will be halting and the tide of battle will ebb and flow. We need to give it time.

That is why I myself adhere to the following view: I totally disagree with Colin Kenny that Afghanistan is a quagmire; Canada is united with NATO in this battle and will continue there militarily until the 2011 withdrawal date; and any talk about Afghanistan as the next Vietnam is not helpful. Those are not my words, but they paraphrase what MP Denis Coderre, the Liberal defence critic, said on Newsworld this week.

Senator David Tkachuk of Saskatchewan is a member and former deputy-chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence.