Sunday, March 18, 2007

GORDON O'CONNOR: IN OVER HIS HEAD

I had occasion to meet Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor just before the the calling of the last Federal Election. The circumstances were pleasant enough. We sat beside each other on a Toronto to Calgary Air Canada Business Class Flight and had a couple of drinks together during a congenial conversation.

Even though he wasted no time after introducing ourselves to take the Feds to task on a host of issues, he was certainly not an unpleasant man. Although he was and looked to be in his mid sixties, with his full head of neatly combed straight white hair, angular and alert face, and lean body, he obviously was a man who had taken care of himself, as might be expected from the retired General that he was.

Early in our conversation he disclosed to me that he was the Tory Defence critic, and made no bones about his view that the Canadian Government had for too long ignored its Armed Forces
and that if he was elected, which he quite confidently predicted, Canadians were going to see a far more aggressive Defence policy.

His partisanship and enthusiasm for his job and future plans struck me that he would be shaking things up should he be made Defence Minister. It also left me with the impression that he was so steeped in the view that our Armed Forces had for too long been ignored and that Canada had not done its fair share of international heavy lifting in military actions, that he lacked objectivity and would probably proceed with wild-assed determination quite recklessly.

His performance on the job has proved that my initial impressions were correct.

When it comes to soldiering O'Connor, like Chief of the Defence Staff General Rick Hillier, is one tough hombre. As Minister, he has pursued his objectives, fearlessly and showing absolutely no doubt as to their correctness. This can be a great quality for a General in a theatre of war, as well as a Government Minister pursuing his policy objectives. Provided that they are right. Because if one is not right, disaster looms over the next hill.

It is evident that O'Connor has demonstated both a lack of thoughtfulness as well as a lack of historical perspective, in respect to what will likely be the biggest military issue for Canada over a period of at least a decade: Canada's role in Afghanistan.

He and the Harper Government have allowed the Canadian contingent of 2200 or so men and women to fight it out in the toughest part of the country - the Kandahar Region - which has been known for centuries to contain the most warlike of tribes as well as the greatest number of religious extremists in the whole country.

The Government of Canada has so far spent something approaching 6 billion dollars on the operation. 44 Canadian personnel have died. The Taliban, who are supposed to be the forces of darkness that are out to oust President Karzai (who is supposed to be the good guy) are gaining strength, the poppy fields are rife with the raw materials to serve the heroin market the world over, and NATO forces number only about 36,000 to impact on the whole country.

Contrast this to the Russian experience, the last major effort to tame that wild Central Asian Republic. They were there for a little over 9 years, ending in February 1989. A total of 620,000 Russian military personnel served - between 80 and 120,000 at any one time. 14,500 died. In addition, the Russians lost 150 tanks, more than 300 helicopters and 118 jet planes before they hightailed out of the country. When they left, the civil war got rolling in earnest.

Add to that sorry history, the fact that Afghanistan has never been subdued by a foreign invader or occupier for very long, whether it be England, Russia, or Alexander the Great, and that there is a tradition of both ferocity and independence amongst its people.

The fact is that the NATO participants, and particularly the United States, are not interested in shedding too much blood in this battle. By all reports our allies, the forces of the existing Afghanistan Government under President Karzai, are fighting at best, a stalemate with the Taliban. Indeed, many observers report that the Taliban are winning.

Soon, the Canadian people are going to twig to this. At the moment, out of support for our troops, questions have been muted. But just as the Iraq experience in the United States little by little finally entered the consciousness of the American people, so to will Afghanistan amongst Canadians. At that point, questions will be raised respecting the futility of it all, and many will pay a political price. At the top of the list will be Gordon O'Connor - clearly a Rumsfeldian, who in his blood thirsty impulsive sabre rattling, did not think through our involvement in Afghanistan. Neither does it seem that he bothered to read much, if any, of its violent history.

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