Issues

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: “Indefensible,” by Chris Alexander

Anyone who travelled across Afghanistan in the early ’70s, as I did, would have witnessed schools full of girls, uncovered hair, even Western music and dress, albeit in Kabul and not the countryside. The U.S.S.R. was providing much aid at the time, and its secular influence was evident.

When religious zealots opposed to this influence threatened to topple the weak Kabul government, it asked Moscow for help. Along with Saudi Arabia, Washington, eager to humiliate its Cold War rival after its own embarrassing defeats in Vietnam, began arming Afghan mujahedeen (“freedom fighters,” according to Reagan) and indirectly funding Pakistan madrassas (religious schools) whose students remain a scourge.

The rest is history, and is being repeated in Syria today by the very same actors, except for the added participation of Israel, who treats wounded jihadis (pure humanitarianism, we are told).

John Derlin
Point Claire, Quebec


Re: “Indefensible,” by Chris Alexander

I

n their November 2018 letter, Kim Richard Nossal and Jean-Christophe Boucher declare that “the adversarial nature of the Westminster system means politicians are constrained by partisanship and party discipline…the opposition’s main purpose is to embarrass the government, and ministers and MPs are spoon-fed talking points.” These are certainly familiar scenes in the existing Canadian variant of the Westminster system.

But the day I read their letter, the government of the United Kingdom was being formally held in contempt of Parliament at Westminster itself, with large numbers of Conservative MPs and their DUP allies voting with the Labour opposition to rebuke their own government.

This situation—backbench MPs of the governing party criticizing, disciplining, and not infrequently removing from office their own unsatisfactory leaders—is perfectly normal in Westminster parliaments not only at Westminster, but also in Australia, Japan, Ireland, and other parliamentary democracies the world over. It is Canadian political custom, not the Westminster system, which produces the spoon-fed Parliaments that Nossal and Boucher describe so vividly.

One reason Canadian legislatures never hold governments to account is that our political scientists and pundits constantly tell parliamentarians that their powerlessness is the fault of the Westminster system itself, and not of their own ill-informed deference to pernicious Canadian habits.

Christopher Moore
Toronto, Ontario


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

I

n response to my review of their book, Jean-Christophe Boucher and Kim Richard Nossal argue that Parliament is too adversarial, blind (because deprived of classified assessments), and partisan to be “the forum where war and peace can be effectively decided.” Although Parliament has no legal obligation to authorize military deployments, there are three reasons to seek parliamentary approval. First, on the only occasions when Canada has declared war on other states (in 1939, 1940, and 1941), our Parliament approved the first two proclamations. Second, in an era of all-encompassing, continuous multi-platform public debate, it is impossible for Parliament to remain silent and aloof when Canadian lives are at stake; if the government refused a debate, the opposition would quickly oblige. Finally, in the history of armed conflict involving democracies there is no example of successful military outcomes being achieved without public support for the mission, which Parliament must have a hand in generating. As for classified information, arguments informed by secret intelligence or views shared in confidence by allies can always be made in ways that protect both.

In her letter in the November 2018 LRC, Nipa Banerjee states correctly that the Canadian government failed to treat Pakistan “as a hostile regime”; my main point is that the Taliban remain a threat precisely because all NATO members and partners have failed in this regard. But Canada took one unprecedented step: unlike the U.S., U.K., and others, we listed the Taliban as a terrorist entity—a move that went unappreciated by military authorities in Islamabad. In claiming Afghanistan is experiencing a “civil war” and that “blaming Pakistan…is a tired theme,” Banerjee seems to have anticipated Prime Minister Imran Khan’s tweet (issued after Banerjee’s letter was sent) calling on the U.S. to stop “making Pakistan a scapegoat for their failures.” This is a view Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Inter-Services Public Relations (the media arm of the Pakistan Armed Forces) work very hard to disseminate. In fact, to John Dirlik’s point, the ISI and others in Pakistan’s “miltablishment” routinely claim the U.S. policy of support for “Afghan mujahedeen” was never formally discontinued (although Pakistan has been funding it without U.S. assistance since 1990). However, no propaganda can disguise the Taliban’s utter and abject dependence on the ISI and Pakistan’s military. At a time when Russia, Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia face tightening sanctions for their many targeted assassinations, atrocities, and proxy wars, it is increasingly incongruous for Pakistan to be given a pass for larger sins.

Chris Alexander
Ajax, 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


W

hen Conservative party delegates voted for a resolution to end Canada’s practice of jus soli citizenship, they sat about a kilometre, as the crow flies, from Pier 21, Canada’s answer to the symbolic Ellis Island. It was a foul location for such a scene.

The resolution to “fully eliminate birthright citizenship” was poorly explained, and buttressed by the idea that birth tourism was an established phenomenon in Canada that has proven negative consequences. (Neither are particularly true.) As Andy Lamey writes, it would be absurd to undergo such a fundamental change, one which would impact foreign-born and racialized peoples almost exclusively, when there is scant evidence that a problem truly exists.

We are talking about erasing the basis of Canadian citizenship, which is a starting point for our society. A cavalier attitude toward it quickly descends into the absurd—indeed, why not bring back exile as punishment for tax evasion?

Canada was practically founded on the idea that, should you make it across the ocean and contribute to this national project of colonization, your children get to reap the benefits. There were “Canadian citizens,” by birth, before there was an independent Canada. There are many reasons for jus soli, preventing statelessness chief among them.

I suspect most Conservative delegates, even those who voted for the resolution, would agree with Lamey. The party is no hotbed of xenophobia. They, like most Canadians, operate on the Olive Garden model: When you’re here, you’re family.

Let’s be blunt: The organizers behind this resolution, the ones who set up this debate, do not care about birth tourism. This is nativism in a fancy hat. In recent years, nativists and the alt-right have used issues like this as Trojan horses into debates around citizenship and nationality.

Their hope is that, by situating opposition to foreign migration or birthright citizenship within some kind of altruistic policy goal, they can bring over reasonable-minded people to their xenophobic ends. We should be awake to that tactic.

Justin Ling
Toronto, Ontario


The LRC welcomes letters. We reserve the right to publish such letters and edit them for length, clarity and accuracy. E-mail editor@lrcreview.com.