Canada's initial involvement in Afghanistan began shortly after 9/11, when the Liberal government agreed to send a small number of soldiers to assist and support the US invasion. Most Canadians believed the framing of their participation as part of the country's longstanding commitment to peacekeeping, efforts that reflected their strong support for alternatives to war and destruction after WWII and the Korean War. But the first blow to public support occurred after four Canadians were killed, and another eight were wounded, in a so-called "friendly fire" attack by US military forces. A year later, in 2003, 1800 troops comprised Canada's commitment to the International Security Assistance Force. Within a year, as people began to realise that the fight was far from the peacekeeping efforts of yesterday, and that the risks to Canadian soldiers were very high, criticism began mounting. Soon it became clear that the main reason Canadians were fighting in Afghanistan was because we were not fighting in Iraq. It has become a costly and unpopular mea culpa.
Canada's participation in the US-led invasion of Afghanistan has never garnered support among a majority of Canadians. Disapproval for "the mission" (as it is now called) has hovered at about 56% in public opinion polls, compared to 41% who approve of Canada's involvement. Recently the issue has become intertwined with questions about the depth of democracy in our own country and whether or not the fight for these principles should be taking place on Canadian rather than Afghan soil. In addition, the war has had an overall negative impact on the culture of the country, with growth in military spending at the expense of other needed social programs such as health care and post-secondary education. The military has come to dominate and reshape our collective historical memory: no longer are literacy, lower mortality rates and improved quality of life our greatest achievement; rather the glories of battlefields past and present increasingly represent the essential character of the nation.
Since 2007, Amnesty International and the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) have been pursuing charges against General Rick Hillier, Canada's chief of defence staff (and a dead ringer for Colonel Miles Quaritch in Avatar), the Minister of Defence, Peter McKay, and the Minister of Justice, Rob Nicholson. The two groups have also launched an international application for a judicial review of the transfer of prisoners detained by Canadian forces to Afghan authorities since 2005, charging that inadequate safeguards were in place to protect detainees from torture. The BCCLA argues that "transfers of these detainees violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Canada's international human rights obligations not to transfer detainees when there is a high probability of torture or ill treatment."
In November 2009, Richard Colvin, the former second in command at the Canadian Embassy in Kabul, was called before a Parliamentary committee to answer questions about the detainee issue. Colvin's explosive testimony before MPs described how he had warned Canadian officials, including top-ranking military officers and ministry staff, in 2006-07 that Afghan detainees handed over to Afghans were subsequently being tortured. Peter McKay, the defence minister, dismissed his testimony, saying Colvin was a "Taliban dupe." Prime Minister Stephen Harper who leads the right wing Conservative government, has adopted the harsh rhetoric of Dick Cheney, George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld to denounce critics of the war, calling them "Taliban sympathizers" and "unpatriotic". The all-party committee has demanded that the government turn over documents referenced by Colvin, but Harper has refused - just as he has refused an unprecedented order by Parliament to release unredacted documents about the Afghan detainees to the committee.
Rick Hillier, along with two retired generals (who were given access to documents, unlike the Parliamentary committee), was put before the committee by the government to refute Colvin's claims that he had been ordered to stop reporting on the detainee issue. As things heated up during the holidays, Richard Colvin provided a 16-page rebuttal of his own which outlined the sources of his information about the torture of Afghan prisoners. His letter said that "embassy staffers were told that they should not report information, however accurate, that conflicted with the government's public messaging.". On December 3, 23 former diplomats (described as "models of discretion") wrote a letter expressing deep concern over the government's personal attack on Colvin, and within days the number of signatures had grown to 71. By the end of December, 132 had put their names to the letter and major newspapers began calling for the resignation of the defence minister. A Parliamentary vote supported a judicial enquiry in to the detainee issue and there is now a Facebook page demanding that an inquiry take place.
Amidst claims by the government that the Afghan detainee issue is "old news" and not even news that Canadians care about, the normally polite and reserved public is registering some concern about the direction their government has taken. A majority - 51% - told pollsters they believed Colvin's testimony, while only 25% said they believed the government. The government's response to the political and constitutional crisis was to prorogue Parliament - on December 30th, a day when relatively few would be following the news. This is the second time in less than a year it has done so, the last time to avoid a non-confidence vote by the Opposition parties in Parliament. In an unusual front-page editorial the country's main national newspaper, the Globe and Mail said that by putting Parliament "on ice", Stephen Harper was allowing his government to "elude the detainee issue, a move that undermines the democratic rights of the people."
It is likely there will be a national election either in the Spring or Fall of 2010 - definitely not before the Winter Olympics. Whether the Opposition parties can keep the issue of war or peace at the front of people's minds will depend on a number of factors, including whether the news media will want to hold the Harper government's feet to the fire. On December 30th the same day that Harper suspended Parliament, four more Canadian soldiers and one well-known and respected journalist were killed by a roadside bomb. The death toll, and the internal crises that the war has contributed to - the lack of democracy and accountability, the redirection of taxpayer dollars to fund the military rather needed social programs, the crude and "un-Canadian" vitriol that now characterizes the federal government - will have to be political issues that progressive liberals and the left put on the public agenda.
Colleen Fuller is an author and a researcher in health and pharmaceutical policy based in Vancouver.