Take your hosts for granted, leave only headaches - Macleans.ca

Take your hosts for granted, leave only headaches

The closing of Camp Mirage and Harper’s ongoing Afghan mission gongshow


Nothing better encapsulates the utter fecklessness of the Harper government’s handling of the Afghan mission than the fiasco over Camp Mirage.

Canada’s presence at Camp Mirage (officially the Al Minhad Air Base ) outside Dubai was never that big of a secret. It’s had its own Wikipedia page for years giving the exact location; high-end jewelry and carpet stores in downtown Dubai have long had prominent Canadian flag stickers on their doors. Yet all of the soldiers, civilians, and various visitors transiting through Mirage on their way to and from Afghanistan were always told to tell friends and family only that they were “Somewhere in Southwest Asia”. The official rationale was “operational security,” but the truth is that it was just to give the Dubai government a figleaf of political deniability. Plus the military just likes keeping secrets.

I’ve been through Mirage four times, and spent a total of about 7 days there. It’s ridiculously hot, the air is like cooking broth, and there’s nothing much to do. I loved it. There was a shuttle into Dubai where you could stroll around the souq and haggle like mad over two-dollar t-shirts; the road into town takes you past the Camelicious yogourt factory, and you could even see camels wandering in the desert. But mostly I enjoyed being around soldiers – hanging around military people is like visiting a foreign country, where the customs, language, and ideologies are all completely alien. Visiting the gym at Mirage was one of the most emasculating experiences of my life – I’ll never forget moseying about on the elliptical watching some ripped dude do four-count burpees with a 60 pound dumbbell in each hand.

The last time I was there was two days before Peter MacKay was denied the right to land at his own airbase. I actually asked a senior officer at Mirage what the quid pro quo was with the Emirate, whether we were paying rent or if some other arrangement was in place. When the officer told me that we were paying “nothing”, and that all Canada had to do was pay the full cost of the base’s footprint, I assumed that either a) I was being lied to, or b) Canada was being lied to. It struck me as completely improbable that the Dubai government was letting us stick a military base 20 km from its downtown out of the goodness of its heart.  It struck me as even more improbable that, even if it were true that so far we’d been given a free ride, the Dubai government would simply let us pack up and leave next summer, with maybe a few boxes of Timbits for the tip jar.

And so it was last month that Dubai named its inevitable price, and we balked. Now we hear that it will be $300 million in closing costs, though it would have cost a lot of money to pack up sooner or later. No, the real costs are more hidden: the longer flights, the new base in Cyprus (where the hosts will be asking for payment up front, no doubt), the unbelievable hassle of setting up a new logistics base four months before you’re about to start leaving the theatre of war.

And then there is the cost to our allies. It hasn’t been mentioned in any of the stories I’ve seen, but Canada wasn’t alone at Mirage. It’s also the logistics hub for the Aussies, Kiwis, and Dutch, and all four countries shared transport capacity (my last flight into KAF was on a Dutch Hercules). They also shared the mess hall in the Canadian sector at Mirage, as well as the gym. In fact, the mess hall was undergoing substantial renovation when I was there last month – what will happen to all of this is not clear, but what is certain is that our incompetence is giving our allies headaches.

And there’s really no other word for it but incompetence. Maybe the Dubai government was asking for too much in the way of extra landing slots (with more planes on order than all other world airlines combined, the two domestic carriers in Dubai are looking at a serious capacity glut). And preventing MacKay from landing was a pretty serious escalation.

But it is important to keep in mind that what they were doing was haggling.  And Canada, acting like a naïve tourist shopping for pashminas in the souq, declared that it was shocked – shocked! – at the outrageous sum, spun on its heels, and walked away. The Dubai government probably thought we were bluffing — after all, down in the sook, walking away is just another negotiating tactic.

But no, off we go, leaving yet another collection of pissed-off allies in our wake.  The closing of Camp Mirage is just another act in the ongoing gongshow that is Stephen Harper’s handling of the Afghan mission.

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