Sunday, September 09, 2007

Harper Well Positioned On Afghanistan?

Conventional wisdom assumes that Afghanistan is one of the Harper government's achilles heels. However, you could make an argument, from a tactical point of view, that the Conservatives are actually well positioned moving forward, or at the very least, not as vulnerable as first blush would suggest. As the opposition parties ramp up the Afghanistan rhetoric, it might be fair to say the Conservatives are emerging as the only option for the pro-Afghanistan crowd. In the world of Canadian politics you don't necessarily need majority support to be successful, particularly when the other parties are dividing the anti-war support.

Polls show an increasing unease with the mission, but the actual support numbers remain steady:
51 per cent of respondents across the country said they support the mission, while 45 per cent oppose it. The numbers remained virtually unchanged from a month ago.

In Quebec, support for the nation’s overseas combat activities actually rose to 35 per cent this week from 30 per cent in July, while opposition dropped to 61 per cent from 65 per cent.

Harper doesn't enjoy majority support for his handling of Afghanistan, but:
Canadians are divided on the government’s handling of the mission (44% agree with how the mission is being handled, 48% disagree the rest were unsure).

In Ontario, 50% agree/somewhat agree with the government's managing of Afghanistan, 31% in Quebec.

There is a political danger if all the opposition parties appear too "dovish" on Afghanistan. That reality leaves Harper alone as the champion of the mission, which might enjoy enough public support to give the Conservatives a fighting chance. Afterall, Harper only needs the support of 40% of Canadians to dream of a majority. Even in Quebec, 30% support isn't an electoral disaster, a divided Ontario even more encouraging. The other parties carving up the anti-Afghanistan vote, leaves Harper will plenty of political elbow room.

The government has pulled back recently with the "consensus" talk, and today Harper is again looking to the opposition for support. The key player will be the Liberals, who must find a niche in the mainstream, arguing against the current configuration, will also articulating a responsible future path. Harper is already alluding to the absence of a plan:
But the governing Conservatives say the Liberals, in particular, have not been clear on what type of role for the military should follow.

"We're obviously listening to what the opposition parties are saying, (and) trying to get some sense of what it means, because quite frankly, (for) a couple of those parties, there's quite a change in message from month to month, and even week to week"

The trick for the Liberals, demonstrate opposition, while also laying out a plan beyond "out in 09". If there is a detailed vision, then Harper doesn't enjoy the pro-Afghanistan landscape all to himself- there are alternatives, different paths for "success". I believe it is politically risky to assume that Harper is on the wrong side of Afghanistan, and he will pay a price. A closer look at opinion shows enough core support for Harper to fair quite well, or at the least not suffer the damage many of us assume. In a two-party system, Harper would be quite vulnerable, but Canada's fractured politcal system allows for less than impressive support to translate into viability. Thoughts?


Anonymous said...


This article has a more direct confrontational take on his statements. Almost sounds like a different set of comments:

The more nuanced reporting in the Gazette article brings up all the issues you raise. But the "we won't have a vote on 2009 unless you do things my way" sounds like it would highlight con resistance to end the military mission - which is exactly what Dion has been saying since last Spring.

I dare say this sounds like Bush's (scarily) successful attempts to always twist and shimmer their statements about Iraq in order to keep things going just as they are.

I hope the same strategy doesn't work in Canada.

bigcitylib said...

The numbers that I have seen re terminating/changing significantly the mission after '09 are significantly pro however (about 75% vs. 25%), with the Tory vote about split.

That's the political calculation behind Dion's position, and I think it is a sound one. said...

It may be sound politically based on however the wind is blowing, but is it right to keep Canadian soldiers in a situation where they literally cannot win without significant concessions from Pakistan, ie closing it's border and seizing weapons and funds.

reference the for an indepth review of the situation, posts July17 to the 19th.

Steve V said...

Dion position is sound in one respect, but if the Liberals can articulate a strategy beyond 09, then it neuters any attempt by the Cons to wedge the issue. I think the Liberals have to be careful, in that criticism must be accompanied by constructive alternatives. I've said this before, if you argue NATO needs to know our 09 intentions now, then it follows Canadians need to know what happens after 09. Dion has made some statements, and the Cons are starting to stress the Afghan forces angle, but a comprehensive plan would be a benefit.

There are the firm hawks, which are in the Con camp, and the complete withdrawal crowd in the NDP camp, the Liberals can take the compromise view, which best reflects the complicated opinions of Canadians.

Anonymous said...

Dion is not clear? He has consistently said - that Canada can't take all the brunt of combat and that some other NATO country should take their turn (rotation of duties). He doesn't mind that Canada carries on with peacekeeping, building, etc.

So, what's so hard to understand about Dion's position?

Karen said...

Interesting points Steve, but I haven't heard Harper say much, except as it relates to training forces, as has Dion.

It seems to me, that Dion has been steadfast in his position from the start, (though the con's say otherwise). After Dion issued a release on his position, Harper basically echoed it. After Dion suggested a new role for Cda., stressing the other 2 D's, and mentioned training, Harper echoed it.

I see what you are saying and I think we will hear more next month, but I find it passing strange the government of the day insists that the opposition lay out future strategy, when they themselves have not indicated their position.

Steve V said...


Where did I say Dion hasn't been clear in the now? What I am saying, we need more than the easy platitudes beyond 2009. Will we rotate to another region? Will we have any military capacity, such as defending the border in the east? What exactly does peacekeeping mean in this region? Are we still firing shots like in the Balkans? Do we have benchmarks, a 5 year plan?

What I'm really saying, if Liberals really want to marginalize Harper as the stubborn hawk, then they need a credible plan that speaks to the middle ground. It's more advice than a criticism, a way to stay ahead of Harper, who is clearly trying to blur the lines for the Conservatives benefit.

Steve V said...


Did you notice Harper pushing the training angle in his latest comments, which is a clear indication of the massaged language?

It isn't the job of the opposition to lay out a strategy, but it might be smart politics in the end. I keep saying this, but I really like the idea of Canada moving to the border with Pakistan to stop infiltration. Today I read an article that said the majority of suicide bombers are coming from the tribal regions, which makes the border all the more critical. To adopt this position allows for responsibility, without bombing the countryside, in a mission that Canadians could clearly see value, as well as our allies.

Karen said...

Steve, I read the same article and wrote on it. IMO, any strategy regarding the border, will require cooperation from Pakistan. That's not going to happen anytime soon. Musharraf set up those training camps. They were intended to be used with respect to Kashmir. The US promised to assist him with Kashmir but have since reneged.

All of that said, I think Cda being at the border, would simply doing more of the same for a long, long time.

As to the first part of your comment, indeed Harper is using various "pat" lines, but to be honest, he seems to be less clear as time goes on. For instance, what does he mean when he says that the mission will end unless there is consensus, then today says, he won't have a vote in parliament unless he has consensus to extend it past 2009? Has he now told us that the con position is to extend the military mission? Pure gold if that's the case, or is he leaving it open (as to what we would do), in order to test the waters?

I expect it's the latter and I think we're going to see a whole lot of "good news" stories coming out, pumping Canada with pride, in order to cast the opposition as defeatists and cowards. I don't know what this play is called, but I'm damned sure they are reading from a carefully crafted script.

rabbit said...

steve v:

It isn't the job of the opposition to lay out a strategy

Come election time, that's exactly it's job. No good to say "Harper's Afghanistan plans are flawed." Voters will expect a detailed alternative.

One thing that complicates things for the Liberals is that it was Chretien that got Canada into Afghanistan - thus it is not entirely "Harper's war".

Steve V said...

"he seems to be less clear as time goes on."

They seem to be floating different scenarios which makes them appear pragmatic.


I completely agree come election time, people debate showing your cards prior, although I tend to prefer doing so, particularly in this.

rob said...

I agree with you. I've been saying it for a while.

I don't understand why the media keeps pointing to Afghanistan as some kind of achilles heel for Harper. The claim doesn't stand up to even a small amount of scrutiny.

Monkey Loves to Fight said...

You have a very good point. I think one thing few mention is even though most Canadians aren't right wing, most right wing policies usually have around 40% support and 60% opposition and if the opposition is divided, the right wing policies carry the day. The right wing policies we need to attack Harper most on are ones where only 30% of Canadians support 30% could really hurt the Tories as this would mean under 100 seats and depending on the distribution of those votes possibly as low as 80 seats (lets remember in 2004 Harper got 30% with almost nothing in Quebec, so with support now in Quebec, this would mean even less support in English Canada than 2004 if he fell this low).

tdwebste said...

If we are going to resist the urge to abandon the Afghan people, we need to understand why so many Canadians want out.

One reason why many people do not support Harper in Afghanistan, has nothing to do with Afghanistan and everything to do with Harper. People do not believe Harper can bring good governance to Afghanistan. Of course people who completely unconditionally support Harper don't have this problem.

Harper and the Conservatives are fundamentally failing at peace keeping in Afghanistan, because they have not even attempted the long term and final goal required for peace which is 'good governance'. This opinion is formed not based on Harpers handling of Afghanistan, but his handling of Canada. Very few people really know what is happening in Afghanistan, but everybody can see what Harper is doing in Canada. He has taken steps to reduce the independence of the judiciary. And is seems apparent why with his handling of the Wheat Board and now Elections Canada. An independent judiciary is a tool to prevent corruption. Even extending the summer recess is seen as an attempt to govern outside the parliamentary system. I believe this is one reason why many people do not want to give Harper a mandate to stay in Afghanistan. This is partly why people are so split on what to do. They realize we need to be in Afghanistan, but under Harper's leadership we will only make things worse so we need to get out.

This is Canada's own guides for peace keeping.

When a state 'fails' and becomes a threat to the stability of its neighbours, the Canadian government may choose to intervene. Any such intervention will have diverse goals – to be accomplished within differing time - frames:

• Short - term operations will focus on stabilization and protection of civilians.

• Medium – term: projects will include rebuilding basic infrastructure – water, sewage, and transportation.

• Long - term goals involve the establishment of 'good governance', trustworthy security forces, and an independent judiciary.

These there objectives do not occur sequential, but simultaneously where the long term and final goal takes longer to complete. Good governance requires fighting corruption and sources of corruption.

Steve V said...


I think you just articulated a viable alternative to the Harper doctrine, that Canadians would embrace. I believe that mainstream Canada is conflicted on Afghanistan, it is not a either/or proposition, but a complicated question. Many of those that say we should end our military involvement also say we have a obligation to help the Afghan people. Support for Harper isn't the same as support for Afghanistan, which is what some of your points address.