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John Manley, left, chairman of the independent panel on Canada’s future role in Afghanistan, along with members of the panel, Derek Burney, and Pamela Wallin,(left to right) hold a news conference in Ottawa on Jan. 22, 2008. (FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press)
John Manley, left, chairman of the independent panel on Canada’s future role in Afghanistan, along with members of the panel, Derek Burney, and Pamela Wallin,(left to right) hold a news conference in Ottawa on Jan. 22, 2008. (FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press)

David Mulroney

Bipartisanship can work: It got us out of Afghanistan Add to ...

Bipartisanship is more often piously invoked than actually achieved, something we recently witnessed as the United States wobbled on the edge of the fiscal cliff. We could certainly use more bipartisanship here in Canada to help us think through broad issues of national importance. We should, for example, be tapping the deepest pools of wisdom and experience to solve the current impasse over aboriginal treaty rights. Fashioning a foreign policy that addresses the challenges as well as the opportunities inherent in China’s rise requires a similar degree of openness to new ideas.

We do have some recent experience to guide us. Five years ago today a panel of eminent Canadians, led by Liberal John Manley, delivered some very useful advice to our Conservative Prime Minister.

The panel offered Canadians sensible and achievable objectives for a mission in Afghanistan that had until then lacked a clear purpose. In doing this, it also pointed the way to an honourable exit.

By the late summer of 2007, it was clear that we needed new thinking about the mission. The Canadian Forces were engaged in a seemingly endless counter-insurgency campaign in Kandahar, fighting the Taliban each spring and summer, then watching the insurgents slip over the border to refit and resupply in Pakistan before the next fighting season. Civilian Ottawa was almost completely disengaged from the mission, viewing it as a traditional reconstruction effort best advanced by writing cheques to international agencies.

Turning to Mr. Manley may have been shrewd political move, but it also served to broaden the panel’s perspective. A highly effective foreign minister and deputy prime minister, he had travelled to Kabul shortly after the fall of the Taliban, and had stayed in touch with relief efforts through work for Care Canada. Mr. Manley was joined by Derek Burney, Paul Tellier and Jake Epp, a trio that represented decades of experience at the centre of decision making in Ottawa, and by Pam Wallin, a former journalist who would, it was hoped, help improve muddled government communications.

In a single gruelling week, they travelled to more places in Afghanistan and met more people than any official Canadian visitors before or since. Trips to New York and Brussels shook what little confidence they had in the multilateral organizations in whose name the mission was being conducted. They were frustrated by what they took to be buck-passing and excuse making at the UN, and furious at the readiness of NATO to quietly endorse a two-speed strategy, allowing the U.S., the U.K. and Canada to do all of the heavy fighting. They were appalled at the patchwork of differing national strategies that constituted the mission, but they saved their toughest question for officials in the two capitals that mattered most to them: Kabul and Ottawa.

They were blunt with President Karzai and his advisers, concerned that official corruption and an unbridled drug trade were creating sympathy and financial support for the Taliban. They were quietly sceptical about the rosy predictions offered by our own generals, and exasperated by the lack of Canadian civilian engagement in Kandahar.

But what they saw on the ground convinced them that the mission was worthwhile. They argued that it should continue if some important requirements were met. These included securing the bare minimum number of boots on the ground, helicopters and drones needed to offer a chance of success. They also made it clear that the mission had to be about something. This ultimately translated into projects to build schools, expand polio immunization and bring much needed water to the farms and orchards of Kandahar.

The panelists believed that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had to personally own the mission. This led to the creation of a special cabinet committee that provided the civilian oversight that the mission had previously lacked. Messrs. Manley, Tellier and Burney recalled past work on once-in-a-decade challenges like the Canada-U.S free-trade agreement, where it was necessary to create a task force at the very centre of government to cut through competing bureaucratic agendas. They called for something similar on Afghanistan and suggested that it establish benchmarks for success and provide quarterly progress reports to Canadians.

When it came time to present their recommendations, Mr. Manley warned the Prime Minister to be prepared for a long list. But Mr. Harper was unfazed, telling them that if he had felt that everything had been going well, he wouldn’t have asked for advice. In the end, he accepted every recommendation.

His only change was significant. The Panel had been unwilling to set an end date for the mission. But Mr. Harper, concerned that Afghans would never truly own the mission unless they believed that we were actually leaving, added an end date of July, 2011. The mission was now about doing specific things in a particular place by a specific time. I later met with a British commander who said: “I envy you Canadians. You have an exit strategy.”

By the time Canadian soldiers and civilians left Kandahar in the summer of 2011, most of the project work inspired by the panel had been completed. This is a significant achievement given the intensity of the insurgency, and looks particularly good in comparison to the results achieved by allies in far quieter corners of the country.

The panel’s contribution should remind us of the benefit we get from tapping the experience, political judgment and good sense of distinguished Canadians who aren’t limited by the narrow perspectives of hyper-partisan Ottawa. And it should inspire us to be open to this approach again when we need to bring the highest levels of wisdom and objectivity to issues of national importance.

David Mulroney, a senior fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto and former Canadian ambassador to China, served as secretary to the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan.

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