October 2018

Re: “The truth of Canada's failure in Afghanistan,” by Chris Alexander

Re: “The truth of Canada’s failure in Afghanistan,” by Chris Alexander

Our book was partly driven by our frustration with the quality of the national debate over the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. Canadians were being short-changed by political leaders who spent twelve and a half years trying hard to avoid having a national conversation that addressed the strategic realities. One of our hopes was that the next time our governors devoted blood and treasure to an overseas operation, Canadians would learn from our experience in Afghanistan.

By the time Chris Alexander became a politician in 2011, the Canadian mission had already been transformed and was winding down. But Alexander had been deeply involved in Afghanistan before this, and is thus well placed to engage our argument. His critique, marked by clarity and a healthy contrarian impulse, validates our hope that the national conversation can be elevated.

We agree with Alexander’s broad argument that the mission in Afghanistan was predestined to fail because international actors, including Canada, failed to recognize or were unwilling to address the real issues sustaining the Taliban insurrection. Alexander seems to share our concern that politicians from all sides did not explain, argue, and debate the Afghanistan mission in proportion to the sacrifice Canadians were being asked to make.

How best to undertake such deliberation is where we part company with Alexander. As Alexander points out, we are skeptical that Parliament can be the forum where war and peace can be effectively decided.

First, the adversarial nature of the Westminster system means politicians are constrained by partisanship and party discipline. When the opposition’s main purpose is to embarrass the government, and ministers and MPs are spoon-fed talking points, parliamentary resolutions designed to legitimize executive decisions tend to generate more heat than light. In such circumstances, parliamentary “debate” is often little more than performative grandstanding.

Second, there is an important asymmetry of information between government and opposition MPs. Most MPs lack the experience or education in global affairs as well as the security clearances that would enable them to access crucial information needed to form considered judgements on these issues. And ministers in cabinet have little incentive to share that information with opposition MPs. Without that information, how can the opposition realistically hold the government to account? More importantly: How can opposition MPs reasonably be expected to support the government’s decisions on war and peace?

Canadians need a vigorous discussion of how to negotiate the tension between advancing our national interest and staying true to our values. That conversation is most appropriately held in Parliament. But MPs need to ensure these deliberations are as devoid of partisanship as possible; their primary purpose should not be to score political points, but to educate and inform Canadians about difficult missions like the one in Afghanistan.

Jean-Christophe Boucher and Kim Richard Nossal
Edmonton, Alberta, and Kingston, Ontario

Re: “The truth of Canada’s failure in Afghanistan,” by Chris Alexander

Blaming Pakistan for the coalition’s loss in the Afghanistan war, and blaming the U.S. for not stopping Pakistan, is a tired theme. All coalition members were equally responsible on this count. I would also expect a Canadian writer to take a balanced approach and reflect on Canada’s share of responsibility for not treating Pakistan “as a hostile regime.” There is no official evidence—none—that the Canadian government took any measures against Pakistan over the last seventeen years.

The concept of more war—blaming the U.S. under Barack Obama and George W. Bush (and also Canada in this instance) for lack of a permanent commitment to the war, to the complete eradication of the Taliban forces—has now been abandoned. It is acknowledged that the civil war—I repeat, the civil war—in Afghanistan has no military solution. Reconciliation and peace with the Taliban was essential in 2001. We have been left with no alternative but to acknowledge the total failure of the international community and NATO to secure Afghanistan, and belated attempts are now being made at reconciliation, which in the end might fail. In the event of failure, there will be a stalemate, no matter how long international forces decide to stay in Afghanistan.

Canada’s performance in the very beginning of the Afghanistan mission could have been described as acceptable—though not as glowingly as Alexander claims—but since the launch of its provincial reconstruction team in Kandahar, Canada does not deserve more than an F grade. This is not necessarily because of its decision to withdraw troops, but because of the millions invested in failed projects to win the hearts and minds of Afghans. Examples of Canadian projects include the construction of schools, most of which remain non-operational; investment in irrigation canals that have no access to a water reservoir; and a polio eradication project that nevertheless left Afghanistan as one of the only two countries on the globe where polio has not been eradicated.

Nipa Banerjee
School of International Development, University of Ottawa
Ottawa, Ontario

Re: “The foreign-baby baby problem,” by Andy Lamey

Andy Lamey is right not to trust politicians to adjudicate fairly a more discretionary ­citizenship policy than jus soli. Just see how Conservative and Liberal governments alike have treated Canadian citizens like Maher Arar, Abousfian Abdelrazik, and Omar Khadr (who was born in Toronto) when it suited their cynical purposes.

Still, were the policy passed at the Conservative convention in August implemented, Canada would join every comparable nation save the United States—a lodestar Canada normally sails away from rather than toward—in placing restrictions on birthright citizenship. Further restrictions, that is.

It seems to be entirely uncontroversial that the Canadian-born children of foreign diplomats have no claim to citizenship. If anything, a “birth tourist” might have a weaker claim: She is here for the briefest possible time for the sole purpose of bestowing upon her child Canadian citizenship for future use. It might take a harder heart to question the citizenship of a baby born in Canada to good-faith refugee claimants, but what sense does it make to grant that child citizenship if we determine his parents have no right to it?

Most interesting is that many recent defences of jus soli, including Lamey’s, choose to impugn jus sanguinis, as if the two are somehow incompatible. Not so long ago, during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, liberal-minded Canadians vigorously defended inherited citizenship: amidst objections to the costly rescue of second- and third-generation Lebanese-Canadians, we frequently heard the still-common refrain, “a Canadian is
a Canadian is a Canadian.”

In 2009, the government limited inherited citizenship to the first generation born abroad to Canadian citizens. That too seems to be entirely uncontroversial. But it’s a clumsy and counterintuitive policy. Progressives tend to idealize the citizen who lives and works abroad for many years as an expression of this country’s worldly, outward-­looking character. Many were appalled at the attacks on Michael Ignatieff when he returned to Canada with designs on the Prime Minister’s Office. Yet, as Ignatieff’s children were born in Britain, their children would have no claim to Canadian citizenship if they too were born outside the nation—despite being members of one of the country’s more ­notable families.

As Lamey says, no emergency compels the change the Conservatives supported at their convention. But the confused discussion it triggered suggests a broader conversation about the nature of Canadian citizenship might well be in order.

Chris Selley
Toronto, Ontario

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