Afghanistan: Opinion leaders, with their opinions -

Afghanistan: Opinion leaders, with their opinions


So my trip to Afghanistan was a Government of Canada junket. Might as well just say it outright. They (Privy Council Office, Foreign Affairs, and National Defence; it was DND that extended the invite) run occasional “opinion leaders’ tours” so people with some chance of influencing the national debate over Afghanistan can actually see the place. Typically the guest list is a mix of academics, think tankers and journalists. The model is very similar to the one that led to me being invited by NATO to visit Afghanistan from Brussels in October 2007, except that, of course, that group was multinational and this one was Canadian.

Well, mostly. My travel companions were Roland Paris from the University of Ottawa; John Hay from Carleton University; and Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. We took pains to explain Tim Horton’s to Michael and soon enough he fit right in.

The advantages and limitations of these trips are obvious. The government decides who it wants to invite and determines the program. Total time in the Afghan theatre is limited, 8 days in our case. My colleagues who embed at Kandahar Air Field for other news organizations are there for a lot longer, and I’m very leery of seeming to think that my take (which will be published in the issue appearing tomorrow, and here online) is in any way definitive. But the offsetting advantage is the access to more than three dozen high-ranking military, government, NGO and civil-society personalities during our short time in Afghanistan. (I had no sense that their remarks were scripted. In almost every case that would have been impossible anyway. And several meetings I had specifically requested were arranged for us.) And I found it very helpful to return to Afghanistan 13 months after a first visit.

Anyway. John Hay, wisely, was usually the last to speak in our group, and he hasn’t produced an account of our trip yet that I’ve seen. O’Hanlon and Paris have. O’Hanlon’s op-ed, which canvasses the similarities and differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, is here; Paris’s, which considers possible ways the Canadian mission in Afghanistan could evolve, is here.


Afghanistan: Opinion leaders, with their opinions

  1. Another way the military mission might evolve–letter sent to the Globe and Mail:

    ‘Roland Paris (“Year of the Afghan mission”, Dec. 17), proposes four options for a possible continuing Canadian military role in Afghanistan after 2011. All centre on the Canadian Army. I’d like to propose a fifth option, focused on the Canadian Air Force.

    A Canadian Air Wing has just been established at Kandahar. It will have Chinook (transport) and Griffon (escort) helicopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance; it will also support supply flights by Hercules and C-17 transport aircraft. Why not keep the air wing at Kandahar after 2011? And, besides the air wing, keep a provincial reconstruction team from the army, some troops to mentor the Afghan army and police, and a small unit based at Kandahar airfield to provide force protection. The primary role of the air wing would be to support our allies and the Afghans in the field.

    I would imagine a maximum of some 1,500 Canadian Forces personnel would be required, down from some 2,750 now. Such a contingent would be a significant and useful contribution that the Canadian Forces should be able to implement. It would be welcomed by NATO and President Obama. I don’t see why, in principle, the Canadian public could not be convinced that such a mission was worthwhile, especially as we would no longer have a significant ground combat role.’


  2. Well, I suppose it’s alright if the feds want to help opinion-makers out with a direct junket. I’m a bit surprised, though, that they didn’t ask people like Janice Kennedy of the Citizen, or Rick Salutin of the Globe, or Peter Worthington of the Sun chain, or Mark Steyn, to go along.

    So is Maclean’s contributing anything at all to your expenses for this trip?

  3. PhantomObserver: Yes.

  4. Well thinking on about how much you can learn and how much information you can selectively deciminate based on one orchestrated visit, I think on exponentially to the activities of the Governor General. She had to knock down doors to go to Afghanistan. You should be thankful you had the opportunity to be a Canadian observer in a time of war but there is something of ingratitude in your tone that perhaps comes from a feeling of entitlement?

  5. Roland Paris seems completely oblivious to the fact that Parliament debated the military mission and decided it should end in 2011.

  6. You’re right, Karen. I’m all about the entitlement, or as I like to spell it, “deciminate.” I figure if I don’t get at least one free flight a year, the government’s just not pulling its weight. Also, I’m waiting for my call from the PM about that Senate thing.

  7. You’re lucky and you don’t know it. All my typos make sense and that’s the beauty of ME.

  8. Remember kids: it’s not a conflict of interest if you declare it. Kidding. I don’t envy reporters on the Afghanistan story, one is apt to tick many people off no matter what one writes. If the military and taxpayers are going to have to ransom or rescue reporters taken hostage then these sorts of junkets might be the best available option.

    In any case I sure am grateful that Steve Harper is putting an end to Chretien’s ill advised neocon adventure. The only remaining question is which Nobel prize Harper gets for his annus mirabilis: Economics? Or Peace?

  9. Gee, I got the impression that Harper would rather we stay in A’stan.

  10. I thought truemuse’s comment was bizarre. Who feels entitled to DND sponsored trips to a war zone? Lucky Wells. Maybe next year he can go to the Sudan.

    Anyways, look forward to reading your Afghan article. Whatever else you observed, Paul, I really hope you saw progress in the building of a civil society.

  11. Obviously the folks setting up your trip have an agenda, not only on the selection of the participants but on who and what you’ll see. That is not in any way disqualifying. They cannot expect (nor would they dare request, I bet) any say in what you’ll end up sharing with us, apart from some censoring of “operational security” details that you wouldn’t even need to be asked to protect anyways. You lay out that preamble, and your readers can then judge for themselves through that filter.

    I very much look forward to reading about what you have learned, and I thank you in advance for what you are about to share.

  12. Oh calm down, Wells. Or do I need to send you my grandmother’s old copies of Maclean’s, complete with circled typos?

  13. Oh calm down, Wells. Or do I need to send you my grandmother’s old copies of Maclean’s, complete with circled typos?

  14. Micheal O’Hanlon? Yuck! Why couldn’t you just leave him there?

  15. Kaplan – truemuse is the one who puts herself out as a greater mind than the ones who formed her or the ones who have positions of academic ascendancy and who presumes to read into PW’s post an attribute no fair-minded reader would even contemplate. And “deciminate” isn’t a typo, it’s a feeble attempt at vocabulary. Which certainly is ‘HER’.

  16. Wow, Michael O’Hanlon! Is his wrongness about everything palpable when you’re around him? Or does he exercise discretion in hiding his infinite wrongness when he is in the company of others?

    I’ll make a cheerful comment before the week is over Paul, I promise.

  17. I agree mostly with what MYL wrote – disclosure of the circumstances of the trip provides needed context for the reader.

    An observation and question on the timing of the trip. I seem to recall you mentioning in one blog before the departure that the trip had been planned for some time, hence your inability to cover the coalition shenanigans. Was that a cover story? How far in advance were you invited?

    The other thing that struck me was from O’Hanlan’s piece where he reminded us that Canada’s 100th death coincidently occurred during your trip there. A significant milestone of sorts. Do you think the timing of this “opinion leaders’ tour” had anything to do with this? It seemed to me that some media were speculating that this inevitability might have unfortunately occurred during the election campaign, which, may have had some political significance then.

    I must have missed earlier references that the 2007 trip was a similar NATO tour.

  18. Thanks for the background. Good to know.

  19. Dot redux : “The other thing that struck me was from O’Hanlan’s piece where he reminded us that Canada’s 100th death coincidently occurred during your trip there. A significant milestone of sorts. Do you think the timing of this “opinion leaders’ tour” had anything to do with this?”

    Since, as of November 28, 2008 Canada had “…managed to go 82 days without a Canadian combat death in Afghanistan…” ,
    I somehow doubt the tour planners were counting on serving up death at any particular time.

    Do you think that, say, 20 days after the then most recent death the tour planners got together and said “Wow! We better get some big-wig journos over there pretty soon in time for the big 100.”?


  20. Mark from Ottawa,

    Nice choice of words – speaking of frothing.

    I have no opinion on the matter as I was not invited, nor am I a reporter.

    Hence why I asked when he was invited. He could have easily answered. His blog comment suggested it was quite some time ago.

    P.s. Usually, when you are quoting yourself, try using italics or quotation marks. Also, the G&M usually requires its letter writers to include last names for verification, though I doubt that’s why your letter remains unpublished – or is this intentional so you can do a cut and paste on sites such as Macleans, Spector’s etc.?

  21. Mark, perhaps I could throw the ball back in your court with a few questions (you determine if they are rhetorical).

    When Canada experienced its first deaths in Afghanistan through American friendly fire, I recall quite an elaborate memorial service in Edmonton, I believe, fed live on the networks, with in person speeches from people such as then PM Jean Chretien. At the time, I doubted whether these types of ceremonies would persist, and become the standard. Why, in your opinion, have they not?

    Also, early in his tenure, PM Stephen Harper and other politicians would welcome the coffins of deceased soldiers, killed in battle, at a solemn tarmac ceremony upon their return to Canada. Does he and other politicians continue to regularly do this? If so, why are these ceremonies no longer reported? It seems to me the media standard has now become showing respect for the families through visual displays at overpasses on the “highway of heroes”, a portion of the 401.

    Is there some conditioning of public opinion by the government through the media in the examples I cited?

  22. Dot, I was invited more than a month ago. Very little in Afghanistan gets thrown together at the last minute.

  23. Dot it seems to me that in-depth analysis is not so much in short supply, but that there is little public interest in anything but black versus white, good versus evil coverage of any events

    I didn’t realize the Turquoise Mountain Foundation is operated by Rory Stewart. I listened to a lecture he gave last year on his experiences there and I was impressed at his perspective.

    I think you can listen to it here / (I think it’s the right link, but it’s windows only and I’m on my mac at the moment)

    He talks about how rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan amidst differences in perspective between the relatively homogeneous values of Western “experts” and the various tribal groups. He paints a ridiculous picture of ineffective Western organizations directing efforts by PowerPoint that makes it seem quite likely that the US government’s new push is going to be fraught with unintended consequences.

    I have nothing but respect for the people who are trying to improve life for the people there, but I can’t help but wonder if there is some degree of missionary zeal to impose our own concepts of nationhood and social values that are in fundamental conflict with those of the people we are trying to help.

  24. Just as no war should be discussed without first referring to Mark Twain’s War Prayer, so to should every discussion on Afghanistan start with Kipling’s observations which so accurately depict centuries of past experience and presciently predict the future:

    When you’re wounded and left in Afghanistan’s plains
    And the women come out to cut up what remains
    Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
    And go to your gawd like a soldier