John Baird looks at Mali and sees Afghanistan

If the Foreign Minister doesn't want to get involved in another Afghanistan, what are we still doing in the original one?

The House of Commons foreign affairs committee met today to discuss Mali, where France is currently engaged in war against al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups who had taken control of the northern half of the country. Canada has loaned France the use of a transport plane.

Robert Fowler, the former Canadian and UN diplomat who spent 130 days as a hostage of these same Islamists in northern Mali in 2008 and 2009, testified to the committee.

Fowler argued that Canada should contribute more to the French-led mission, including military assets such as intelligence officers, air power and special forces. He said millions of people in northern Africa are in “significant peril” from the Islamist threat and that no Canadians — indeed no Westerners at all — are safe in large swaths of the Sahel where these Islamists hold sway.

There can be no negotiations with them, he said, because there is no middle ground between what they want and what we might be prepared to give. He recalled his captors bragging about the millions of dollars they had obtained through kidnapping and smuggling, and yet they dressed in rags. They didn’t care about material possessions, only jihad and entering paradise as a martyr in God’s war against the infidels. Economic development, in other words, isn’t going to convince them to put down their weapons. They don’t want jobs; they want to die. And they must be killed — “diminished” is how Fowler put it.

He didn’t propose a forever mission, but nor did Fowler shy away from the reality that however badly we might want efforts against al-Qaeda and like-minded groups in the Sahel to be “African-led,” African forces in the region can’t handle this threat on their own. If the Islamists can be significantly “diminished,” Malian and other African forces might be able to hold the line, but getting to that point requires outside help.

As with previous debates on Mali, too much of this one concerned bickering over issues that are important but nonetheless peripheral to the ongoing war: the amount of aid money promised and delivered; the wisdom of shutting down Rights and Democracy; the status of the Office of Religious Freedom, and Canada’s overall diplomatic presence in Africa.

However Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who testified and took questions after Fowler left, did tackle the war directly.

“I am very cautious about sending in potentially thousands of Canadian troops to Malian soil, as has been called for by others, to what is already amounting to a counterinsurgency,” Baird said. “We’re not at the drop of a hat going to get involved in another Afghanistan.”

Baird’s reasoning strikes me as honest but nonetheless problematic. I suspect Canada’s long engagement in Afghanistan has soured this government, and the Canadian public, on other military deployments. America is similarly reluctant to intervene anywhere after its costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the side effects of this isolationism can be seen in the unabated slaughter in Syria, which no one in the West much feels like stopping.

But by framing Afghanistan, or something like Afghanistan, as a situation to avoid, Baird is also implicitly portraying Canada’s mission there as a mistake. If Baird doesn’t want Canada to get involved in another Afghanistan, what are we still doing in the original one? (Canada has 950 troops deployed in Afghanistan  — not that anyone pays attention anymore.)

I personally believe Canada and our allies should be in Afghanistan, and should remain there after 2014, when we’re all going to leave and pretend Afghans will be able to secure their country on their own. (They won’t. But don’t worry: we’ll blame them so we don’t have to feel guilty about it.)

There was a time when this government also stood behind its commitment to Afghanistan. Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper described the oppression Afghans suffered under the Taliban. “Some might say that’s not Canada’s problem,” he said. “Well, it is.”

Now, though, one gets the impression that members of this government wish it wasn’t. In only a few years, Afghanistan has gone from a symbol of Canada’s solidarity with those who are oppressed by Islamist terror to a warning why we shouldn’t be too hasty to fight for what we ostensibly believe in. It makes us a smaller country.

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