Funding the Afghan War

Several recent articles seem to allude to Afghanistan as being a bigger political problem than some of us may have realized.

To some, it is a just and noble war that continues the long Canadian tradition of peacemaking and making the world a better place. Others see it as "Hillier's War" and a departure from a tradition of pure peacekeeping. Some prefer to see it as Canada's Vietnam and a national disgrace. Regardless of the epithet (which should not be allowed to become the Canadian military's epitaph), the Afghanistan operation is one that two governments - one Liberal and one Tory - have fully endorsed.

The immediate problem, it seems, is that the Canadian Forces have been left to pay the full shot for the war out of their peacetime budget which is based on relatively low operational activity levels. This impacts not only on training for other contingencies but also on the much needed modernization of the military's equipment. And because the generals and the defence department bureaucrats have not pressed the Government, publicly at least, for dedicated additional funding to sustain the costly venture in Afghanistan, they are being forced to find the necessary funds from navy and air force budgets.

This is short-sighted and completely illogical!

Afghanistan is not the sole extent of Canada's military or security future, it is merely one commitment made as part of the continuing long-term national strategy of helping maintain international stability and uphold human decency. There will be other international security situations - in the Caribbean, in SE Asia, in Africa, and even in the Middle East again - to which the government may wish to commit forces and there is absolutely no guarantee that the military requirement will only be for land forces. Canadian naval and air forces have been used many times in international security operations in the past 15 or so years, and who is to say that they will not be needed again or, for that matter, be needed at home.

Nobody with any long-term vision of national security would attempt to sacrifice parts of Canada's national defence structure on an altar dedicated to a single operation; yet, this seems to be happening. If this is so, it is nothing short of a complete collapse of responsible military leadership in Canada. But where are the admirals and air force generals who should be standing up and speaking publicly about the erosion of national security?

Has the Government muzzled them? Has the Department of Defence told them to remain silent?

In fairness, though, it is not reasonable to lay all the blame on the admirals and generals alone; the politicians and bureaucrats should also be held accountable. And this is where it gets very political. According to the polls, if they are credible indicators of public opinion, the war is widely unpopular, and diverting extra funds to the defence budget to continue waging it could have political repercussions for a minority government. So, it would seem that we are indeed 'twixt the proverbial rock and a hard place. On the one hand, Canada has committed forces to the UN-sanctioned, NATO operation in Afghanistan, and its position as a world leader - a claim not made by all its NATO allies - requires that the commitment be honoured for as long as NATO and the UN deem necessary. Bailing out would be irresponsible and an internationally embarrassing abandonment of one of the traditional pillars of Canadian foreign policy. On the other hand, the Government and the Defence of Department are managing that commitment very poorly. In addition to being a public education failure already, the situation is becoming a fiscal disaster that threatens to undermine long-term national security.

As a self-proclaimed model of western liberal democracy, Canada rightly embraces the necessity of the military being subordinate to political control. But in this there can be no valid expectation that the politicians be "all-knowing" on military affairs - those issues are just too complex and technical today - and so the political leadership must rely on the admirals and generals to give them sound military advice. If that advice is offered and not heeded, a national security problem exists. Similarly, if poor advice is given and accepted another type of national security problem will exist. In either case, dangerous implications for longer-term national security are very likely. And there is no instant audit process or system of checks and balances to prevent this from happening. From all that is being said now, it seems that such a situation now exists over the Afghanistan commitment and this is troubling.

If one accepts all that the journalists and "insiders" claim, it would seem that future Canadian national security is indeed being blindly sacrificed to keep the army in Afghanistan. This surely cannot be in the nation's best strategic interests.

A sensible solution would be to make the necessary extra funds available and explain to the electorate that Canada has no responsible option but to stay in Afghanistan to finish the task, and doing this requires a full explanation of the implications of turning their backs on the commitment.