Against the Extension of Canada's Combat Mission in Afghanistan

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP): - Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have this opportunity to rise in the House today to participate in what I think is a very important debate, probably one of the most important debates that we are ever going to have in our Parliament, about whether or not we should be extending the mission in Afghanistan and whether or not we should be committing Canadian troops to that mission. I certainly appreciate being part of this debate.

I think it is really important as part of this debate that we be respectful of other points of view, because there is a variety of points of view in the House, in the Canadian public and in the country. I get a variety of feedback from the constituents in my riding, but overwhelmingly the feedback that I have heard is that people are very concerned about the continuing mission in Afghanistan.

The motion that we are debating tonight from the government, in collaboration with the Liberals, will basically see this mission continue to 2011. Although it is a very long motion that we are debating, the very key and operative part of that motion is: “therefore, it is the opinion of the House, that Canada should continue a military presence in Kandahar beyond February 2009, to July 2011”.

What we also are debating tonight is an amendment from the New Democratic Party, which has offered a different path and a different vision. It is a path that is based on building toward a peaceful resolution in Afghanistan, recognizing that this mission has not done what it said it would do, that it has not worked, and that therefore we need to take a different path.

The NDP amendment that we also are debating in this House reads as follows:
That the House call upon the government to begin preparations for the safe withdrawal of Canadian soldiers from the combat mission in Afghanistan with no further mission extensions;
That, in the opinion of the House, the government should engage in a robust diplomatic process to prepare the groundwork for a political solution, under explicit UN direction and authority, engaging both regional and local stakeholders, and ensuring the full respect for international human rights and humanitarian law;....

The NDP amendment goes much further, but I will certainly leave it at that in terms of the general tone of what we think we should be dealing with.

In debating these two different visions tonight, these two different paths, I did want to make a comment about what has been publicly stated by the chief of staff for the armed forces, General Hillier. I think we all read his various comments in the media, wherein he questioned whether this debate should take place, how long it would be, saying that somehow we were playing into the hands of the enemy, and that we should curtail this and we should be careful. I felt pretty offended by that. I felt those remarks were very out of place.

When I got elected to this House, and I think many members of Parliament feel this way--in fact, I hope we all feel this way--it was on the basis that we came here to have democratic debate, that we came here to represent our constituents, and that we came here to look at our global community as well as our Canadian community. We came here to take on important issues, to examine those issues, to weigh them up and to see what perspectives there were.

This debate, to me, is the very essence and core of what parliamentary democracy should be about. There is no more serious question than sending troops into combat. There is no more serious question than spending billions of dollars on a military mission, than the lives that are involved and the lives that have been lost. I think it is something that must be debated here in terms of public policy and what direction Canada takes.

I felt that the comments by the chief of staff for the armed forces were actually out of line and unacceptable and that we should have this debate. We should do it honourably and respectfully. We should do it from the point of view that we represent a Canadian interest in the international community. We should do it with a sense of our history, of who we are, and of the democratic values for peace-building, diplomacy and negotiation that I think Canadians want to see us move on.

I want to go back to where this began. I have heard from Conservative members today and on other days that the reason we are in Afghanistan is because this is about children going to school and women’s equality. I find that a bit ironic given the stance that they take here at home in terms of women’s equality and the cutbacks that we have suffered.

In fact, the Liberal member who spoke before me said that it was the Liberal government which ensured that Canada did not participate in the war in Iraq. That is correct, but that decision was made because of overwhelming public sentiment. There were demonstrations across the country of tens of thousands of people who said that Canada should not be participating in George Bush’s war on terror and we should not be participating in the war on Iraq.

The prime minister of the day, Jean Chrétien, finally heard that message. I remember when we in the NDP were ridiculed for standing in the House and saying that we should not be participating in the war in Iraq, but finally the prime minister of the day made what I think was the proper decision and he was upheld by the Canadian people.

However, at the same time, another decision was made. That decision was to go into Afghanistan and support Operation Enduring Freedom, as it was known then, under the American military forces. It was clearly George Bush’s war on terror. There was his famous line: “You’re either with us or against us”. I remember when he made that statement to Congress and the American people. That goes back to 2001.

While on the one hand I think the right decision was made on the war on Iraq, on the other hand, Canada, with very little public debate, moved into its role of supporting in an indirect way the war on Iraq by moving its forces into Afghanistan when the bombing began. That was seven years and $7 billion ago. Many lives have been lost since then.

Later we were told that the mission would end in 2003 , but the Liberals extended it to 2006. Then we had a very key vote in Parliament, when the government, which was the right thing to do, at least put a motion forward in the House saying that it wanted to extend the mission until 2009. We could have ended the mission at that point if the Liberals had stuck together and voted the right way, but as we know, a number of Liberals voted with the government and so the extension happened.

Here we are today, now debating the fourth extension of this mission in Afghanistan, until 2011. As many people have said in the House on a number of occasions in the debates we have had, there is no certainty whatsoever, no guarantee or understanding from the government or anybody else, that it will be the last extension. The questions that we in the NDP had at the very beginning of this mission are still the questions we have today.

In fact, in terms of those questions and the analysis that has gone on, I particularly want to thank our NDP defence critic, the member for New Westminster—Coquitlam, who has done an incredible job in seeking information and accessing information under freedom of information legislation to find out exactly what the nature of this mission is and to try to get answers to some of those questions.

I thank the member for Halifax, who has been an incredible advocate for peace, development and women’s rights globally and here at home, and has stood in the House and endured insults for daring to speak the truth about what is going on in this mission. I also thank the NDP foreign affairs critic, the member for Ottawa Centre.

I feel very proud to be a New Democrat. We have analyzed what we believe is going on. We have listened to our constituents and the discourse that is taking place both here in Canada and internationally, and we came to the conclusion, not on a partisan political basis but on the basis of public policy and the history of Canada’s role in the international community, that this was indeed the wrong mission for Canada. As a result, we have our amendment tonight to seek the withdrawal in a safe manner of the combat mission.

There is much information that is now available about the mission, although I think more needs to come forward. In fact, I think even the government has acknowledged that the level of information has been very inadequate. This certainly was addressed by the Manley commission.

But we do know that the situation in Afghanistan is not getting better. It is getting worse. We do know that in December 2007 the UN calculated that in the previous nine months violent incidents in the south had risen by 30%, including over 5,000 local deaths.

I feel that is a great tragedy. It is a tragedy when Canadian soldiers die. It is a tragedy when civilians die and there is collateral damage, as it is called. In fact, I am sure we do not even know the full extent of the civilian loss of life and the maiming that has taken place, the villages that have been bombed, and the insecurity that has come about as a result of this combat mission that is being put forward in the name of promoting democracy.

We know that in February 2008 Canadian Major-General Marc Lessard, NATO commander in the south, stated that violent incidents in the six southern provinces increased by 50% in 2007. We know again that in February 2008--and these are very recent pieces of information--NATO statistics revealed that insurgent attacks had climbed by 64% in the past year, from about 4,500 incidents in 2006 to approximately 7,400 incidents in 2007.

We also know that the same NATO statistics show that attacks on western and Afghan troops were up by almost a third in 2007, to more than 9,000 significant incidents, as they are called. That is a very dramatic increase.

Again, in January 2008, there were two independent reports from former NATO commanders in Afghanistan warning that the country risks becoming “a failed state”.

I have found it interesting that a lot of the analysis comes forward from military personnel who have been there. Upon leaving the scene and the environment, when they come back or retire or move on to another position, they actually begin to come forward with an analysis which shows that this mission is failing. I think we have seen that, whether it is from the British senior diplomat who is in Afghanistan, or whether it is from these former NATO commanders. There is now quite a list developing and the opinions are really beginning to stack up.

In the NDP, we are used to hearing the attacks on us from the Conservatives, who say that we do not know what we are talking about, but in actual fact, the conclusions we have come to have been arrived at by looking at what is actually taking place, and by looking at the analysis being provided by some of these military experts, by NGOs and by United Nations organizations.

I also want to briefly talk about another issue that I think has been put forward in this debate, which is that the reason we are in Afghanistan is to protect women and to bring to the country women’s equality. I think that again we have to search very deeply and to be truthful as to whether or not that is actually taking place.

I would point out to the House that in October 2006 a report by Womankind Worldwide, entitled “Taking Stock Update: Afghan Women and Girls Five Years On”, concluded that the lives of Afghan women have not changed very much. In fact, violence against women is still endemic. The number of women attempting to commit suicide by self-immolation has risen dramatically. The majority of marriages are still forced. In the middle eastern portion of the country, where the Taliban never had control, a woman dies in childbirth every 20 minutes.

In August 2007 an internal government analysis that was leaked to La Presse contradicted the picture that was painted by the Conservative government. Attacks on schools, for example, were actually increasing across the country. There were more attacks in the first half of 2006 than there were in the whole of 2005.

The justice system there is very fragile. A very clear benchmark of democratic practice and democratic principles is the stability of a justice system. That is struggling in that country.

We know from the debates and the questions we have had in the House that opinions on the whole issue of the transfer of detainees is, at the least, divided. At the worst, court challenges are going on even now to try and stop Canada from continuing the transfer of detainees because of significant concern about the violation of basic human rights.

In January 2007 Rina Amiri from the UN painted a very bleak picture of women’s lives that impacted our own parliamentary defence committee. She said that forced marriages, honour killings, extreme poverty, and virtual slavery were commonplace.

I want to quote from a very brave parliamentarian who was at our convention in Quebec City. Malalai Joya has travelled across Canada. She is a courageous young woman. She was elected to the Afghani parliament. She was removed from the parliament for daring to speak out about the fact that warlords and criminals were still in charge. She has now been expelled from the Afghanistan parliament.

Malalai Joya said in 2006, “When the entire nation is living under the shadow of gun and warlordism, how can its women enjoy very basic freedoms?” Contrary to “the propaganda raised by certain western media, Afghan women and men are not ‘liberated’ at all”.

We hosted her in our community when she came to Vancouver just a few months ago. She spoke at our anti-war rallies and our peace rallies. It was remarkable to hear this young woman who has endured death threats for daring to speak out.

As members of Parliament, we sometimes say things that are not very popular. Sometimes we rise in this House and we express minority opinions. We do so because we believe it is the right thing to do. I do not think any of us has endured a death threat and we have not been expelled for daring to express our opinions, even if they are unpopular and even if they are in the minority.

Unfortunately, Malalai Joya has been expelled and she has had to deal with those kinds of death threats to herself and her family because she spoke out with a different point of view. For me, that really speaks to the conflict and the crisis that is taking place in that country.

The mission in Afghanistan is now costing the Canadian public more than $100 million per month. We have to ask two serious questions: What is the rationale for the cost of this mission? What is the produced outcome in terms of either a stable government or a stable country?

I take exception to the line from the Conservatives. I guess some people believe that we are in Afghanistan because we are somehow defending democracy there. I believe the reason we are there is that we were led into this on a political basis to support the war on terror. It had nothing to do with women’s rights or democracy. It had to do with political, strategic reasons in that region and for the Canadian government at the time. We have seen an escalation of that course now.

It is very disturbing that we lost the opportunity we had in this House to say that we wanted to see this combat mission end. It was lost because the Liberals have now moved over and supported the Conservative position. That is very regrettable. I think it was done for political reasons. I believe that months and even years from now people will look back and ask: Why did this mission go on for so long? Why did Canada play that role? Why did Canada not choose the path to peace?

I want to end by quoting what our leader said when he spoke at the University of Ottawa: "I believe that Canada can and should be a voice of moderation, realism and peace on the world stage. And to become that voice, we must embrace a new approach for Canada as well for the international community."

That is why we put forward our amendment. That is why we will not be supporting the government-Liberal motion. That is why we will continue to be very firm in our position that this is the wrong mission and we should be withdrawing our troops in a safe way. We should be taking that other path, a path that leads to peace and stability for the people of Afghanistan.

This Speech in Parliament was posted on March 10, 2008