He's a tough guy alright. Bush's pal Steve Harper. By God, if you could count on Stevie for anything, it was that he would restore the respect and influence of the Canadian Armed Forces in Canada and throughout the world. So long as he was leader of the Conservatives, our soldiers were going to take their rightful place and participate in the events of their time. If that meant blood, well, so be it. With our allies, especially the United States, and NATO, our young men and women would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with theirs, defending freedom and democracy and fighting terrorism at every turn. This was and remains the essence of the foreign and defence policy rhetoric of Steve Harper.
Consistent with this policy, in the spring of 2003 he led the Canadian Alliance (which was soon to become the present 'Conservative' Party), to be the only party to vote against a House of Commons resolution to stay out of the Iraq war. It came as a surprise when Harper, a reputed nerd, showed a weak grasp of modern history when he said of the Chretien government at the time, " . . . this government has for the first time in our history left us outside our British and American allies in their time of need."
Had he forgotten that, much to the satisfaction of the Canadian people, Canada did not support the United States in their time of need in the morass of Vietnam? How could that have happened - a smart guy like Stevie? Well, maybe he's not that smart. Or, like many of like-minded neocons, he has erased the debacle of Vietnam from his memory.*
(*It should be noted here that a former neo-con fellow traveller who is going through a conversion - gazillionaire movie star tough-guy Bruce Willis - has rationalized U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War by believing that the war led to a government in Vietnam that supported a market economy. If it hadn't been for the war, Willis believes, Vietnam would be like the old commie states of yore. See Playboy Interview, July 2007).
Similarly, Harper overlooked the fact that Canada had not supported Britain in her time of need when she, France, and Israel attacked Egypt in 1956 in the wake of Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal. Perhaps he had a mental block about the history of the Suez Crisis. To help quell the fireworks over Suez, it was Canada's Lester Pearson who would lead in the creation of a UN Peacekeeping force and for those efforts be rewarded with a Nobel Peace Prize - which led directly to Pearson becoming Leader of the Liberal Party and a few years later, Prime Minister of Canada. To a Conservative, this is clearly not a pleasant memory - little wonder why it could be conveniently forgotten or lost in a state of denial.
Harper continued to beat the Iraq war drums. To the Wall Street Journal, he wrote that his party " . . . supports the American and British position because we share their concerns, their worries about the future if Iraq is left unattended to, and their fundamental vision of civilization and human values." He soon introduced his own motion in the House asking Canada to support the war.
However, as the disaster in Iraq became more apparent, as Canadian anti-Iraq War sentiment grew and as Harper got closer to leading his Conservative Party in an election, he checked the polls and changed his stand. What he meant, he said, was that he morally supported Bush and Blair, and that he only wanted to frighten Sadam with his rhetoric and not engage in fire power. He, in effect, cut and ran on Iraq.
But Afghanistan was quite another matter. Becoming Prime Minister in February 2006, Harper wasted little time in making clear his government's hawkish position on the conflict. This was an easier sell to the Canadian people. Canadians widely accepted the arguement that the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan was a proper and moral step, given that it was being fought to rid the country of the people who actually encouraged terrorism, harbored terrorists, treated much of their citizenry miserably, and prevented little girls from attending school.
Harper also had the advantage that he could honestly claim that it was the Liberals who got us into Afghanistan, and all he was doing was living up to commitments made by the Liberals. Canada's involvement began in early 2002 with our activities directed at al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in a campaign against terror due to end in the fall of 2003. Our commitment was extended and in the spring 2005 our troop contingent were transferred from Kabul to the ever dangerous Kandahar region in the south of the country. In the meantime, Canadian troop levels increased from 600 to 1200.
By early 2006, Prime Minister Harper's new government was now in power, our troop levels stood at 2500 and our mandate had changed to include providing assistance for security and economic recovery. We soon committed our troops and resources for a further 2 year period. Since that time the war has become much more dangerous with armored tanks sent into the fray as well as house-to house combat and the ubiquitous roadside bombs. Our casualties mount alarmingly at the same time as persistent reports from the region indicate that the war is not going well.
The Prime Minister nonetheless has continued with his war-time drumbeating about our heroic troops and the honorable cause for which they are fighting, calling on Canadians to continue to support the troops, applauding efforts at rebuilding the country and so forth. But the bad news keeps in lock step with his message. There was the detainee problem and evidence of a cover-up, Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs who couldn't get their stories straight, reports of a bumper poppy crop making Afghanistan the world's biggest supplier of heroin, the Prime Minister trying to play down the publicity of the funerals of fallen troops, the Defence Department chintzing on funeral expenses, obvious corruption within the Afghan government and law enforcement authorities, the return of the Taliban as a competitive fighting force, and the increasing financial cost of the mission to Canadian taxpayers: at least 6 billion dollars to date, and rising steadily.
Hovering over all of that is the refusal of NATO to increase their total troop commitment to the war in Afghanistan beyond 36,000 troops - about one quarter of the troops that Russia had in action during their debacle in the nineteen eighties. Worse yet, there appeared to be an unwillingness on the part of NATO partners to help in the heavy lifting in the most violent and war-torn part of the country: the Kandahar region.
In staunchly advancing his aggressive policy in Afghanistan, Harper was making a giant leap of faith, and asking the Canadian people to do the same. Had he been a better student of history, Harper may not have been so reckless. Western intervention in Afghanistan over a couple of hundred years or so had never gone well. The remoteness and harsh environment of the country, coupled with its history of fanaticism and lack of respect for life or limb, had historically led to harsh and tragic consequences for nations which, for reasons good or evil, engaged its population in hostilities on their own soil (for a good summary of the Afghan Wars, read 'Tournament of Shadows,' by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac).
The most recent example was Mother Russia's ill-fated experience. During her nightmarish 9 years as an occupying force in Afghanistan, she had as many as four times the numbers of the present NATO troop deployment. To no avail. When the debacle ended in 1989 and the Russians went home, they had lost 14,500 troops, not to mention 120 tanks, 300 helicopters and 118 planes (See Darryl Raymaker Blog 'GORDON O'CONNOR: IN OVER HIS HEAD,' March 18, 2007).
Events are now moving quickly.
Firstly, a few days ago we lost another 6 brave Canadian troops in a roadside bomb attack on a heavily armored vehicle, thus increasing the number of Canadian troops killed in the conflict to 66 - 19 in the last three months. These deaths on top of the rest of the quagmire clearly weakens the resolve of the Canadian people. And for good reason. Canadian people will sacrifice much for a cause, provided they believe it is a worthy one and that we are advancing forward and not backward.
Secondly, with the deployment of the famed Quebec Royal 22nd Regiment to Afghanistan in August, Harper has to be concerned about seeing his political strength erode further in La Belle Province given the traditional anti-war sentiment of its people, or as Stevie likes to put it, 'The Quebecois Nation.'
Thirdly, Harper himself has begun to hedge his bets. He has recently spoken of wanting a consensus in parliament among political leaders respecting any continuation of the mission past 2009. Being the stand-up guy that he is, he tried to weasel some political points out of it by stating, "I don't want to send people into a mission if the opposition is going to, at home, undercut the dangerous work that they are doing in the field." Of course, it will not be the opposition that derails the mission. What will derail the mission is that the Canadian people see the futility of the mission, which at the present time is becoming apparent to everyone, including Harper.
And finally, a couple of days ago the dyed-in-the-wool Conservative and member of the warrior class, General Lewis MacKenzie (ret.) gave Harper an honorable way out - the lack of cooperation by NATO. MacKenzie said that NATO was committing only 35,000 of one million troops at its disposal, and that the 35,000 was the lowest ratio of soldiers to the population in an insurgency in the history of warfare. He said that he was 'frustrated' that NATO had not divied up the troops it had promised to the operation. In his words, "For some reason we have a tiny, tiny force and an alliance that was supposed to preach one for all and all for one - well, it sure in hell hasn't turned out that way." He added that if NATO failed to deliver the troops that were necessary, "then I would agree that the time has come to part (leave Afghanistan)."
So, the conditions seem to be set for Harper's second 'cut and run.' Its unlikely he will have a third chance, given that his time in office is very limited. It is fair to say, that had he had a better fix on history, his bellicosity over war may have been more muted - to everyone's benefit, including his own.