KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – The Liberal vision for Canada’s future role in Afghanistan has changed little despite a whirlwind tour of the war-torn country by the party’s leaders.
While deputy leader and former journalist Michael Ignatieff was in Kabul just two days after the Taliban invasion a decade ago – his first of three visits to the country – this was Stephane Dion’s first time in Afghanistan.
But despite a jam-packed weekend that included visits with President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan officials, a trip to Camp Nathan Smith to meet with development workers, a stop at Kandahar Airfield to chat with military brass and a chance to meet front line soldiers in the volatile Zhari district, the Grits stood by their recommendation to end Canada’s combat mission by February 2009.
“We think that the military forces of Canada have a role to play after February 2009,” Dion insisted in an interview with reporters at Kandahar Airfield.
“Even though it’s not combat, it will be for security. The difference is that you don’t proactively be in a situation to engage the enemy, you are there to help civilians to do their job to improve the development of the country of Afghanistan. You are there to train the police, train the military.”
Echoing the recommendations his party submitted a week ago to a panel reviewing Canada’s Afghan mission, Dion said Canada’s future role should focus more on things like women’s rights, education and water management.
Noting the biggest successes appear to be those that enable Afghans to stand on their own, both Dion and Ignatieff suggested efforts to train Afghan security forces while emphasizing development makes the most sense.
“The initiatives that are working best are the ones that are from the bottom up,” Dion said. “We are successful, Canadians, because we involve (the Afghans)… At the end of the day the goal is they will take care of their country on their own.”
Speaking below the glow of the boardwalk lights outside Tim Hortons’ following a quick photo op with a group of Canadian soldiers on a nearby hockey rink, what the leader’s weren’t clear on is just what the future mission would look like on the ground if they had their way.
For the last two years Canadians have been stationed in Kandahar province where some of the fiercest fighting has been taking place. The Liberals are advocating a rotation of troops that would see some of the other coalition forces moved in to replace Canadians in the dangerous region.
The duo, however, appeared committed to the continued support of Canadian troops involved in 24-7 mentoring of both the Afghan National Army and more recently the Afghan National Police.
In fact, Ignatieff said what stood out most for him during his visit was the progress made by the ANA as a result of the support soldiers have received from the Canadian Operational Mentoring Liaison Team.
“The Afghan army is presently working side by side with the Canadians in ways I did not realize,” he said.
“They’re taking a much more active role in the development of their own country and what we’re saying is as a party, we want to work with the Afghans on the development field, on the diplomacy field… but also in the security field to assist the Afghan army to take over the job which is to defend their own country.”
Ignatieff, who during his 2006 bid for leadership of the Liberal party supported the Conservatives when they sought to extend the Afghan mission the first time, insisted that while his party wants to “change” or “alter” the mission, it still plans to “see it through.”
“We will evolve the mission. We will change the mission as circumstances require, but one thing is clear, Canada made a serious commitment to this country and we’re not going to give up under a Liberal government,” he said.
“It’ll change but it’ll sustain. I’m absolutely convinced the Taliban are not going to win here.”
Dion and Ignatieff’s visit to Afghanistan comes just a week after the Liberal party submitted its recommendations on the future of the Afghan mission. A panel studying Canada’s role in Afghanistan is expected to report back to the government by the end of the month.
While the Conservatives favour extending the current mission, the Liberals are promoting a revised role that will see Canadian soldiers removed from the volatile Kandahar province.