The Commons: Afghanistan, now with pictures

Stockwell Day: “We are just being brutally transparent”

The Scene. It was the nice-seeming man from the civil service, briefing reporters before the official announcement by the government’s ministers, who struck the day’s most indisputably hopeful tone. The quarterly progress reports on Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, he noted, now featured colour photographs. Indeed, the fifth page of the latest report includes four pictures.

Perhaps not wanting to seem boastful, the official left unsaid the fact that the package distributed to reporters also included a bookmark.

“One of the many good suggestions from the Manley report was that there should be quarterly reporting, in terms of being able to measure progress, and also the identification of key goals,” Stockwell Day, the minister of international trade, later explained. “And the extensive report that you have before you … is a result of that.”

The minister then moved on to the discussion of Canada’s priority areas. But not before committing to the record one of the great understatements of our present time. “The backdrop for this, of course, is the very serious security situation,” he said. “There’s no question that the insurgency seems to move in cycles. And it’s had a high cycle of late.”

As Day proceeded, his aides passed around a news release. “There is no doubt the security conditions in Afghanistan remain very dangerous,” the man standing before us was quoted as saying on paper. “However, due to the efforts of our brave men and women, I am pleased to report that Canada is making steady progress in Afghanistan.”

Indeed, he was additionally quoted as saying, Canadians efforts are having a “major positive impact.”

To demonstrate as much, the release included seven bulleted points, highlighting our building of military capacity, dams and schools, not to mention our promotion of education, vaccination and reconciliation. Day and Bev Oda dutifully stood at the front of the room and expanded, at impressive length, on these efforts.

Left out of the press release, though, were the first two points of the report itself. Indeed, just after the colour pictures, was this: “Security conditions in Afghanistan remained especially dangerous and by some measures deteriorated during the quarter.” And just after that was the following: “The humanitarian situation worsened in Afghanistan, and the international community assisted Afghan communities (particularly in the northern province) to prepare for severe winter conditions and food shortages.”

“We are moving ahead on each of our signature projects,” Oda said from the stage.

“Throughout Afghanistan, civilian and military casualties reached numbers higher than in any previous autumn quarter since the removal of the Taliban regime in 2001,” read the report. “Attacks against governing institutions continued … Assassinations of prominent pro-government Kandaharis, and other acts of intimidation, also grew more numerous.”

“We are making significant progress on our education signature projects,” Oda explained.

“Public opinion is never easy to gauge in Kandahar, not least because many Kandaharis express reluctance to speak unfavourably of their government to a pollster. But high and rising levels of insurgent violence seemed to be undermining citizens’ confidence in their safety and their future,” the report continued. “In recent polling, more Kandaharis have said their security is getting worse.”

Oda, wearing the oddly tight grin of someone who has been told to smile against her natural inclination, spoke of better natal care, food aid, voter registration and crop irrigation.

“The Afghan National Police in 2008 suffered its highest casualty rates since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, and its morale suffers from poor pay, insufficient support from the Afghan government in fuel, weaponry and ammunition, and other deficiencies,” the report read. “Recruitment and retention of staff has been inadequate. Illiteracy and corruption persist.”

“I remind you that our ultimate goal remains the same,” Oda concluded. “To leave Afghanistan to the Afghans, in a country that will be better governed, more peaceful and more secure.”

Reporters asked questions and the ministers went on this way. As, in its way, did the report.

On Priority 3, humanitarian assistance. “Humanitarian conditions in Afghanistan are poor and deteriorating. Violent conflict, high food prices, drought and the resurgent incidence of polio have aggravated the plight of the vulnerable and created new needs.”

On Priority 4, enhancing border security. “The border itself passes through rough and remote territory, travel in the area is dangerous and requires military protection, and the relationship between governments in Kabul and Islamabad has been troubled for many years.”

On Priority 6, facilitating political reconciliation among Afghans. “No prospects for early and meaningful reconciliation were apparent during the quarter.”

There were attempts to reconcile all this.

One reporter wondered how it was that, despite millions of vaccinations, there were more reported cases of polio in 2008 than the year before. “Well,” Oda responded, “polio is a disease where we saw that it was decreasing and we saw it was increasing.”

One scribe asked Day to account for the aforementioned polling results. “The polling’s coming from two levels. One is at a national level, across the whole country. The other polling, which we look to even more closely, is that which is done locally, right at the local municipal level. The next quarter, we’ll be able to reconcile the two,” Day explained. “Some of these polling reports come out at different times. But it’s two distinct levels of polling, using two different methodologies and that has to be reconciled.”

At this point, a half hour into the show, a TV correspondent appealed for clarity.

“In this report, you say that the overall security has worsened, it’s been one of the most murderous years since we’ve been there, that the level of insurgency and violence is hampering our progress with the army, with the police, that no reconciliation politically is foreseen right now because of the instability. And yet, you are saying that you’re making progress,” she said. “Is this like a new definition of progress?”

Day seemed ready for this. “People want transparency and they want the hard facts. And that’s what we’ve given them. We’re not trying to sugar-coat anything here,” he said, before seeming to do just that.

“In any kind of a conflict zone over a period of time there’s a rise and fall of various types of activity, including insurgency,” he added. “So we are just being brutally transparent.”

And if brutal transparency isn’t your thing, there’s always the pictures.

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