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A Canadian soldier rests on the muzzle of his rifle while riding in an armoured vehicle in Kandahar province on Nov. 16, 2007. (FINBARR O'REILLY/Reuters)
A Canadian soldier rests on the muzzle of his rifle while riding in an armoured vehicle in Kandahar province on Nov. 16, 2007. (FINBARR O'REILLY/Reuters)

David Bercuson

Afghanistan: You can't take politics out of war Add to ...

The struggle to prevent a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan goes on, as it must, whatever the latest strategy from the International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul, or the Pentagon, because if it doesn't, the result may well be Taliban governments in both Kabul and Islamabad.

Such a result will, at the very least, significantly raise the prospect of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan and create a number of other very scary scenarios for the West. It will most assuredly embolden radical jihadism and significantly damage chances for a global rapprochement between Islam and the rest of us.

Why then is U.S. President Barack Obama hesitating about committing new troops to Afghanistan? Why has Canada apparently decided to leave the struggle while it is still in the balance? Why has Australia not agreed to replace the Dutch in Uruzgan province? The answer is simple: Everyone is playing politics with the war in Afghanistan.

Playing politics with wars is supposed to be a "bad" thing. We expect our political leaders to play politics with employment insurance, or tax concessions for donations to political parties, or how slowly or how quickly infrastructure money is flowing. We expect political parties to use public issues to gain a march over their opponents, as they have since parties first began to appear about 500 years ago.

But we are repelled by the very idea that political parties play politics with war, which, after all, involves killing lots of people and laying waste to vast areas. Surely war is far too serious - and its results far too solemn - to be played for political advantage.

No, it isn't.

In his oft-quoted tome On War, Prussian military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz declared that "war is not merely an act of policy, but a true political instrument," or politics by other means.

Von Clausewitz has his detractors, but few of them disagree with his notion that politics essentially defines what war is. If collective violence is perpetrated solely for criminal gain - or because a city's team loses the Stanley Cup - that's not war. The Taliban may be religious extremists, but the danger they pose is that they wish to exercise that religious extremism through a political instrument - the state in Afghanistan, or Pakistan.

Thus, politics can't be taken out of war and, in the case of democracies, it shouldn't even be attempted.

Democracies at war, for example, are still democracies.

During the U.S. Civil War, the Union government suspended habeas corpus, leading to many excesses in repressing dissent, but Abraham Lincoln still had to face an election in 1864 and his chief opponent, General George B. McClellan, ran on a platform of ending the war. Winston Churchill had to face a vote of no confidence in the British House after the fall of Singapore in 1942. He won it. Prime minister Robert Borden and opposition leader Wilfrid Laurier fought an election over conscription in 1917. Borden won.

Since war is another form of politics, political leaders will do politics (and be accused of "playing" politics) because when a government wages war, it uses the lives and resources of its citizens and it will and ought to be politically responsible for the outcome, if not also morally and legally responsible.

Governments "playing politics" with war in the past has had mixed results. Prime minister Mackenzie King made no public commitment during the late 1930s that Canada would fight alongside Britain in the event of war, preserving national unity, and getting an almost unanimous declaration of war against Germany on Sept. 9, 1939. But his "no-commitment" policy virtually guaranteed that the Canadian military would not be ready when war came. Was military readiness more important to Canada in 1939 than national unity in the face of war? Canadian historians are still struggling with the question.

Given the strong opposition in Quebec to the war and the anti-war stance of the Bloc Québécois and the NDP, Stephen Harper's choices are no less difficult. As a minority prime minister, he courts a majority. To court a majority, he cannot fully support the war in Afghanistan however much he may wish to. Mr. Obama is in much the same position despite Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress because the Democrats are themselves split.

Political circumstances change, of course. As one wag declared, "In politics, a week is a long time." Whatever either major party, Liberal or Conservative, may say now about Canadian combat troops in Afghanistan past 2011, they would probably say something very different the morning after winning a majority government - and there is almost no chance Canada won't have an election by the spring of 2011.

If the U.S. President truly commits to the war in Afghanistan, a majority government in Canada will stand beside him.

David Bercuson is director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

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