Our future in Afghanistan: didn’t the House say something on this matter?

Defence Minister Peter MacKay says keeping Canada’s Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar after 2011 is a possibility, and in doing so he raises a basic question about the government’s Afghanistan policy.

Canadian Press reports that MacKay was asked pointedly by reporters about whether the PRT would stay in Kandahar beyond the planned withdrawal data, and he replied airly, “We’re considering a number of options.”

Canada set up the PRT in 2005. It’s run separately from the main Canadian military contingent in Kandahar. The troops who protect the PRT make up about half of its 330 members, the rest including diplomats, prison experts, aid specialists and police.

On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with MacKay, or anyone else in the government, looking at prolonging the PRT’s mission beyond 2011—except that that to do so would appear to violate the only clear guiding statement of Canada’s intentions in Afghanistan that any of us have to go on.

That would be the motion passed by the House of Commons, with Conservative and Liberal support, on March 13, 2008. It said that Canada’s military presence in Kandahar—expressly described as including “the continuation of Canada’s responsibility for the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team”—should extend until July 2011.

A straightforward reading of the motion would not allow the PRT, or any other Canadian operation, to remain in the volatile southern Afghan province after the withdrawal date, since the text passed by the House expressly directs the government to “notify NATO that Canada will end its presence in Kandahar as of July 2011.”

Now, the Oct. 13, 2008 motion isn’t scripture. If the government wants to revise it, then fine. But that would require making an overture to at least one opposition party to hammer out new set of rules for the Afghanistan engagement, and then tabling an updated motion and passing it.

Just ignoring the existing motion and proceeding as though the government enjoys a flexibility that is precluded by clear direction from Parliament is not acceptable. At some point, somebody has to take that place where our elected representatives sit and deliberate and vote seriously.

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