Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Harper on CNN and his sudden wisdom on Afghanistan

Harper's comments on Afghanistan, seen on CNN Sunday have been well discussed in the blogosphere in the past 24 hours but thought I would try to add a few points to the development. At the very least, I want to note Harper's great awakening on the blog.

The key statements by Harper that attracted so much attention were these:

"We're not going to win this war just by staying," Harper said.

"Quite frankly, we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency. Afghanistan has probably had – my reading of Afghanistan history (is) it's probably had an insurgency forever of some kind.

"What has to happen in Afghanistan is we have to have an Afghan government that is capable of managing that insurgency." (emphasis added)

The video of Harper with Zakaria is here:

The spin dispensed in the House of Commons today over Mr. Harper's remarks was "nothing new here, move along":

Tory MP Laurie Hawn, parliamentary secretary to the defence minister, said Harper didn't say anything he hasn't said before.

"Mr. Speaker, the prime minister and anybody who is knowledgeable about the mission has been saying from the start that this is not a militarily winnable mission alone," Hawn said.

"The simple fact is, Mr. Speaker, our priorities haven't changed, our methods haven't changed. The prime minister was talking about military-alone solutions, and nobody has ever said that is the ultimate solution."

Harper's remarks though, were notable for at least two reasons.

First, it was striking, the matter of fact, I-knew-it-all-along tone in which Harper conveyed this message. This certainly is not what Canadians have heard from Mr. Harper over the course of this mission. It's worth reminding ourselves of his early cut and run language on the Afghan mission and tarring of the opposition as Taliban sympathizers. From 2006 (CBC link):

"There will be some who want to cut and run, but cutting and running is not my way and it's not the Canadian way," he said, to a round of applause.

"We don't make a commitment and then run away at the first sign of trouble. We don't and we will not, as long as I'm leading this country."
To hear him now, it's just one more issue on which he's done a complete turnaround. He does it with such apparent ease, no conscience exhibited whatsoever about his evolution.

So the fact that we are now hearing some reality based rhetoric from Mr. Harper is refreshing but nevertheless offensive. And it's all the more offensive because it came to us by way of an interview on CNN. The courtesy of speaking frankly on the Canadian mission is not given to Canadians in any meaningful democratic forum but as part of a taped interview during an American media blitz in order to gain American attention. The Conservatives do have their obvious priorities, after all.

Which leads to the second point here. Harper's statement on the insurgency is likely not motivated by any truth-telling on the state of affairs there. It's all about putting a finger to the wind on the direction the Americans are going and trying to get into the leadership mix. The insurgency remark stepped up his most recent position as articulated in the press conference with Obama in Ottawa. There he spoke of a need to train the Afghans, to move toward an end date and increase economic development. But as of Sunday, Harper's framing of the insurgency and the inability to defeat it has had the effect of raising the existential question of the mission to the fore once again at a time when the Obama administration is dialling up its commitment yes, but simultaneously reassessing strategy. The LA Times blog wonders about the timing of the Harper statement:
Coming just days after Obama ordered 17,000 additional U.S. combat troops into that forever-fighting land as a mere holding action, pending further study and possible additional deployments, that's got to be a stunner to the new White House team.
A stunner. Mission accomplished for Mr. Harper, trying to maintain the President's interest at the same time that President Obama is gearing his nation up to commit more forces and increase the focus on Afghanistan. And doing it in a manner that "...rained all over Barack Obama's Afghanistan parade this weekend." What's so ironic is that the Americans are portraying Harper as some wise man on Afghanistan when that is just so far from the truth...