The Commons: Let’s be frank

‘There is no way to eliminate all risk, given the reality of Afghanistan’


The Scene. The NDP’s David Christopherson stood and, sounding serious, informed the House that the official opposition’s joined all Canadians in mourning the loss of Master Corporal Byron Greff, who died this weekend after a suicide bomber struck the convoy in which he was travelling near Kabul. The House was quiet.

The Prime Minister was absent this day, but Mr. Christopherson proceeded to direct his question to him nonetheless. “Will the Prime Minister,” he asked, “update this House on his current view of the security situation our troops are now facing in Afghanistan?”

Defence Minister Peter MacKay duly stood and added his condolences. “It is a reminder,” Mr. MacKay then said, “of the unlimited liability assumed by members of the Canadian Forces and our allies in that mission.”

Indeed, the Defence Minister seemed to sense where Mr. Christopherson was going with this. “No one would suggest,” he said with his next breath, “that the risks will ever be zero in that country, given the current security climate.”

That Mr. MacKay feels the need to say this much now likely has something to do with what the Prime Minister said nearly a year ago. In abandoning his previous idea of what Canada’s mission in Afghanistan would involve going forward, Mr. Harper set out a vision that, so far as he was concerned, presented “minimal risks to Canada.” A few days later he was confronted about this in the House of Commons.

“Can the Prime Minister guarantee that this is not going to involve combat, that it is going to be out of Kandahar and that the training will occur in safe conditions in Kabul?” a former leader of the opposition asked.

“The answer is yes to all of those questions,” the Prime Minister responded. “As the Minister of National Defence, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and others have said, we are looking at a non-combat mission that will occur. It will be a training mission that will occur in classrooms behind the wire in bases.”

And because the mission was “technical or training” in nature—as opposed to one that “put troops  into combat, into a war situation”—no vote of the House of Commons was required to move forward. (Eventually, a debate was compelled upon the House by the Bloc Québécois.)

But now a soldier is dead and last week there was a firefight. And whether or not the country now finds itself with something different than what it was promised depends mightily on how you understood the phrases “minimal risks” and “safe conditions” vis-à-vis the warzone in which this country has operated for the past decade.

Count Mr. Christopherson among those with some quibble. “Mr. Speaker, last November the Prime Minister assured Canadians that this new training and aid mission in Afghanistan involves ‘minimal risks to Canada.’ Now, tragically, we see that just is not the case,” he offered with his supplementary. “We still have 950 troops stationed in Afghanistan. Their families need an honest assessment about the true risks of this new mission. Why has the Prime Minister not been more clear and straightforward about the real risks our soldiers are facing in Kabul?”

Once more to Mr. MacKay. “Let us be frank,” he graciously offered. “The reality is that this training mission is in a different configuration. It does not involve combat. It does not involve searching and engaging the enemy. It involves training in a static base form in and around Kabul.”

And yet. “There is no way to eliminate all risk, given the reality of that country,” the minister explained. “Given the security climate that is there, we can never mitigate that risk to zero, as I just said.”

So there you now have it. And there 950 troops will remain for another three years or so.

The Stats. Military procurement, seven questions. The economy and asbestos, four questions each. Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, three questions each. The long-gun registry, gay rights, government accounting, the G8 Legacy Fund and the auditor general, two questions. Shipbuilding, veterans, tourism, fisheries, the Canadian Wheat Board, the Arctic, lawful access and the Champlain Bridge, one question each.

Christian Paradis, six answers. James Moore and Julian Fantino, five answers each. John Baird, four answers. Peter MacKay, Vic Toews and Diane Ablonczy, three answers each. Gary Goodyear and Tony Clement, two answers each. Rona Ambrose, Eve Adams, Randy Kamp, David Anderson, John Duncan and Pierre Poilievre, one answer each.


The Commons: Let’s be frank

  1. Nice work NDP.

  2. Whether they’re there for 3 years or not is an open question.  Kabul is currently a very high-risk place.

  3. Wow.  Those were good questions and a good answer.  Is this Hallowe’en or April Fool’s Day?

  4. Leaving aside the fact that it’s the opposition’s job to oppose, I’m puzzled by those who seem to be under the misapprehension that “minimal risk”, in the context of a noncombat training mission, implies no risk at all.  

    • How is ‘minimal risk’ defined? 

      • First, since you asked, how would you define it? (Just to avoid a tedious semantic argument)

        • In Afghanistan I don’t think you can.  Harper should never have claimed any risk reduction when he was selling us on staying. 

        • Presumably everyone would define “minimal risk”, in broad terms at the very least to mean “very little risk”.

          I do think Jan has a point that the PM’s characterization of the risk as “minimal” was likely inappropriate.  I’d say just being in Afghanistan poses more than a “minimal risk” to a person, let a lone a person known to be tasked with training Afghan forces.

  5. Much of the politics and reporting around “risk” in Afghanistan is based on the mistaken view that most Canadians have opposed this mission because of the danger it presents to troops.

    In fact, most polls in recent years have generally show that a majority of Canadians have opposed this mission for a long time for a quite different and much more valid reason, namely: they understand that the rationale for this mission is all about venal Canada-US politics (and the glorification of military “ideals” in the post-9-11 world) and that the mission itself will not accomplish anything consequential.

    I think this is the “elephant in the room” that the Libs and the CPC and most media don’t want to acknowledge when they spout off on the topic. They like to focus on and debate acceptable “risk” because it makes it appear as though those who support this endless war are”braver” than those timid (majority of) souls who oppose it.

  6. The Tories played down the risk and cost of the training mission because they and the military wanted to stay on in Afghanistan. Admitting that we should expect a couple of soldiers killed each year and several billions of dollars more down the drain wasn’t going to sell the mission. So as has become it’s habit the government sent out Laurie “Red Dawn” Hawn on CBC’s Power & Politics to explain there was no threat and to disparage anyone with a different notion.

    The training mission should indeed be safer than combat in Kandahar but the chances of infiltration of ANSF by insurgents are going up- witness the 10 Australians and an interpreter shot by an Afghan soldier the day as the bus bombing and there’s no accounting for how stupid ISAF is. BTW driving people around in a bus on crowded Kabul streets was begging for a big IED.

    More CF casualties are just about guaranteed but that’s not the main reason the training mission is foolish- the cost and likelihood of failure are more compelling reasons not to have signed up for it.

  7. In a war torn country the risk, simply, will never be zero!  The soldiers that are there, or training to go there, are not delusional and think that it is!  Why are you?  This mission is minimal risk!  Compared to the missions out of Kandahar, Kabul ‘IS’ minimal risk.  The soldiers know this, how can Mr. Christopherson not?  Mr. Christopherson does not speak for the soldiers, talk to any of them and most will agree with the missions in Afghanistan.  Mr. Christopherson plays to the media and the public, which quite frankly, the media only report the bad, therefore the public only sees the bad.  They don’t report about the good that is happening there.  No wonder so many people ‘think’ they disagree with the missions, they are kept in the dark!!
    In my opinion, parliament should find something else to discuss, all soldiers know the risks involved all soldiers volunteer to go, all soldiers are peacekeepers and take pride in that, NO soldiers will stop doing these things.
    How do I know?  you ask, my husband is in Kabul now!  He and I have always been disgusted with the portrait the media paints of these missions!

Sign in to comment.