The Harper government's plan to deploy 1,000 Canadian troops to build up Afghanistan's army will end up training Taliban insurgents, Jack Layton says.
The NDP Leader is redoubling efforts to seize the mantle of standard-bearer for Canadians who are frustrated over the Afghan mission, pledging to campaign in an election for all troops to come home, and arguing that the entire NATO military effort is destabilizing the country, not securing it.
The changing nature of Canada's military mission from combat to training will only mean that Canada will train and equip many who will later join the insurgency, or at best, create a military machine for a corrupt and distrusted Afghan President, Mr. Layton said in a speech at the University of Ottawa.
"Every year, one in five soldiers walks out of the Afghan National Army for good. How many of these become Taliban fighters, taking their training and weapons with them?" he said. "You think you're training government officers, but then you're really training insurgents as well."
Even if the military is loyal, it will serve a President, Hamid Karzai, "that's very closely tied to rigged elections and rampant" corruption, and discredited with his own people, Mr. Layton said. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, he added, is reluctant to send another dime of aid money directly to Mr. Karzai's government, "but he'll give him an army."
It was, for Mr. Layton, a provocative way of underlining how his policies on Afghanistan differ from those of the Conservatives and Liberals, which both support the training mission. It may be good politics: A pair of polls show Canadians are about evenly split in support for the training mission, but if the fourth-party leader can strike a chord with even 40 per cent against it, it can lead to gains.
Canadian combat troops, scheduled to leave Kandahar this summer, will be replaced by up to 950 military trainers on bases elsewhere. Mr. Harper, who repeatedly promised to withdraw all Canadian troops from Afghanistan this year, changed tack under pressure from allies.
Mr. Harper's Conservatives, who once tied themselves closely to the Afghan mission, now keep a low profile on the issue. The government's deep doubts about Mr. Karzai are now public, and the lack of progress in Afghanistan has frustrated Canadians. A spokesman for Defence Minister Peter MacKay, Joshua Zanin, defended the training mission, but didn't explicitly address the possibility that Canadians would be training Afghan soldiers who might desert to the Taliban.
"Our Canadian Forces continue to make real progress in improving the safety and security of the Afghan people, and will continue to do so as part of Canada's new non-combat, behind the wire training role," he said in an e-mail. "Improving Afghans' ability to provide their own security is a key part of building a self-sufficient Afghanistan that is no longer a safe haven for terrorists."
Mr. Layton called for a complete Western military withdrawal - he told reporters after the speech that all allies should pull out their troops - followed by an increase in diplomatic efforts and development aid in a "massive civilian deployment."
That idea has for years been attacked for one main weakness: the fear that the Taliban would seize control, and bring back a harshly repressive theocracy. The Liberals responded to Mr. Layton's speech with a release that argued it's impossible to achieve his plan "in the midst of conflict without providing Afghans with the tools to protect their security and their democracy."
The NDP Leader, in effect, said that the presence of Western militaries is encouraging violence, and aid and diplomacy might provide hope and stability. There's no guarantee it will work, he added, but no evidence the current strategy is producing results.