‘This is about choices’

The prepared text of Jack Layton’s speech today on the mission in Afghanistan.

The prepared text of Jack Layton’s speech today on the mission in Afghanistan.

Thank you. And Happy New Year.

A new year — a new chance to build a better world, to learn from past mistakes, to get on the right track. Of course, this is the year we expected to welcome our troops home from Afghanistan

Fully and finally. By vote of Parliament. Long overdue. Canada’s been in this war for nine years now. Six of those in a major combat role. Longer than the second world war.

In 2006, New Democrat members from coast to coast to coast passed a resolution to bring our troops home. We said this was the wrong mission for Canada—the wrong way to bring stability to the people of Afghanistan.

Five years later, our conviction is the same. And more and more Canadians are feeling the same way. But Mr. Harper has just broken his promise to bring our troops home this year.

Instead, he has extended Canada’s military mission once again — based on a backroom deal with Michael Ignatieff, who actually proposed the idea.

They denied your elected Parliament any role in their decision to keep our soldiers there. This is anti-democratic. This is wrong. This is a failure of leadership.

Real leadership means putting Canadians and our values first — doing the right thing when it counts. Instead, we see Mr. Harper playing political games.

Enough is enough.

A decade in, Canadians take this personally. We care about Afghanistan. We want to offer some kind of hope to these battered people.

It’s going to take a different kind of leadership than we’ve seen from Stephen Harper or Michael Ignatieff.

And today, I’d like to suggest what that leadership will look like.

* * * * *

First, let’s look at the choice Mr. Harper has made.

Three more years on the ground — nearly a thousand soldiers — to help NATO build up a 300,000-strong Afghan security force.

When Mr. Harper says this is just a training exercise, he’s using semantics against common sense. Every Canadian knows what a  thousand pairs of boots on the ground means. This is a major military mission.

You know, even if we trusted Mr. Harper — even if we believed his wide-eyed claims that our soldiers will be safely sequestered in classrooms in Kabul — this would still be the wrong mission for Canada.

A month before Christmas, an Afghan security officer-in-training sat down to tea with American troops in Nangarhar province. Later that day, he broke out of a practice drill and gunned down six. The Taliban took credit for sending six more soldiers back to their families in flag-draped coffins.

Other Taliban fighters complete their NATO training before leaving to launch attacks against NATO or government targets.

Every year, one in five soldiers walks out of the Afghan National Army for good. How many of those are Taliban fighters — taking their training and weapons with them?  Even NATO admits the number may be high.

Imagine. You think you’re training government officers, but you’re really training insurgents as well. That’s reality in a war without two clear sides — where allegiances can be fluid, not always ideological.

But let’s play this out. Let’s imagine we could build a loyal, stable 300,000-strong security force.

Who would it serve?

Hamid Karzai’s government has lost the respect of the Afghan people. Instead of seeing their quality of life improve, people see a regime in Kabul that’s tied to rigged elections and rampant corruption.

Transparency Watch ranks Afghanistan 176th out of 178 countries for corruption. Half the aid money the world is pumping in is being lost to “consultants and corruption.”

That’s what Oxfam found. Kabul survives in part by paying off warlords — fuelling the frustrations of those left out — fuelling the insurgency against the government. A vicious, vicious cycle.

In November in Lisbon, Stephen Harper said he wouldn’t give another “dime” in aid directly to Karzai’s government because it is so corrupt. Think about that. Stephen Harper says he won’t trust Karzai with a dime, but he’d give him an army.

If this sounds like a plan that hasn’t been thought through — well, that seems to be literally true.

Canada had a plan. The military mission was ending. A civilian-only mission was set to begin. Then something happened: an announcement was made — a promise broken. And now Mr. Harper is making up the rest as he goes.

Look at the sequence here.

First, Mr. Harper announces the mission extension — says it’s vital.  Only then does he send a fact-finding team into Afghanistan to figure out what Canada might be able to do there.

This isn’t the first time Mr. Harper has justified a mission extension by emphasizing the training component.

But each time the result is the same: more combat, more casualties, not enough progress for Afghans.

And if Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff get their way now, we will see more casualties — if not behind the wire, then when mission creep inevitably takes Canadian soldiers back outside the wire.

Mission creep has already started.

This week, NATO’s top training commander, General Caldwell, said that he wants to see Canadians back Kandahar — not safe in Kabul, as Mr. Harper is saying.  General Petraeus, the US war commander in Afghanistan, is already planting seeds of doubt about the 2014 mission end date.

Kandahar—not Kabul. 2014—for now. You see what’s going on here.

From the day Stephen Harper took office, he’s been talking about training and end-dates—but really pushing a military mission with no end in sight.

A mission that stops us from trying a new approach. A mission that is not doing enough to make life better for Afghans. A mission that’s not bringing Afghans any closer to their dream of a stable and peaceful existence.

There has to be a better way.

* * * * *

Canada may not be able to change NATO’s approach in Afghanistan. But we certainly don’t have to follow it blindly.

As Canadians, we make our own choices.

We’ve done our part for the military option.

Now the question is: What should we do going forward?

How should we honour the sacrifices we’ve already made?

What should Canada’s contribution be now?

How can we best help the people of Afghanistan now?

Is it by cutting Canadian aid in half, as Mr. Harper is doing?

Spending five times more on military might than nation-building?

Is it by teaching more young men to fire a gun — instead of rebuilding their country? Is that what Canada should be doing?

That’s not what we’re hearing from Scott Taylor of Esprit de Corps — hugely respected among rank-and-file soldiers.

That’s not what we’re hearing from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

That’s not what we’re hearing from ordinary Canadians.

What I hear people saying is this:

Instead of arming a regime that the people don’t respect, let’s try working with the people to rebuild a country.

That’s the New Democrat plan.

A plan to help build peace and improve lives — with an Afghan state that’s accountable to the people.

A plan that builds on Canada’s strengths and values.

A plan of practical solutions that I’ll share with you now.

* * * * *

Corporal Steve Martin, age 24, was the 154th Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan. Thousands more are coming back to us wounded and traumatized. Yet even now, these women and men stand tall, ready to serve.

Whatever political stripes we wear, I think all Canadians can agree:

Canada’s soldiers are a cut above.

They have represented us with courage, professionalism and honour.

They have done more than their fair share in Afghanistan.

And it’s time to bring our troops home.

* * * * *

That military disengagement is the first essential step.

Only then can we do justice to step two: diplomacy.

Conservatives used to wail whenever anyone suggested “talking to the Taliban” to achieve peace. The world has left those backbenchers behind.

Now most people recognize that without negotiated reconciliation, Afghanistan has no hope for stability.

Decades of conflict have left Afghanistan with few institutions. After the Taliban, the vacuum was filled by a maze of local warlords —  some well-intentioned, some who rule by violence, some tied to the Taliban, some others paid off by Kabul.

There’s still no rule of law or effective justice system. No consequences for corrupt officials and strongmen who block progress toward democracy. And no way out for Afghans without negotiating those democratic institutions into existence.

Canada can play a leadership role here, sparking talks to build a stable Afghanistan — with accountable government, a justice system, legitimate elections.

With our experience in resolving conflicts, there’s a host of diplomatic roles we could play:

  • Pre-negotiating sticky local issues ahead of a wider peace process — isolating extremists by engaging moderates who fight for the Taliban not for ideology but to feed their families.
  • Making sure reconciliation includes ordinary people — especially women — not just warring factions and power players.
  • Coordinating a Regional Contact Group to challenge countries in the neighbourhood to take responsibility for resolving this conflict.
  • Hammering out solutions for issues that fuel the conflict — from drug trafficking to terrorism to economic development.

Anyone watching up close knows that this work urgently needs doing — but nobody’s leading the way yet.

One of those leaders can be Canada.

* * * * *

Finally, after military disengagement, alongside diplomacy: development.

Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries.

One in two Afghans lacks adequate housing, water, electricity.

Half the Afghan population is now under 15 years of age.

They could be the generation that rebuilds Afghanistan — or they could form the next generation of desperate insurgents.

You cannot build a nation on a foundation of hunger and despair. For that, you need hope, education, public health, an economy.

Instead of cutting Afghan aid in half, Canada should be supporting more humanitarian and development work.

Not dumping money into corrupt channels, but supporting proven successes like the National Solidarity Program — undercutting corruption by helping communities identify, plan, and manage their own projects.

Supporting apprenticeship programs that teach young Afghans to lay bricks and build bridges — not just fire guns.

Helping Afghans take ownership over the process of building an economy and rebuilding a country.

Contributing to public health — including helping women’s organizations train female healthcare providers.

Our Foreign Affairs critic, Paul Dewar, updated me last month on one of the more successful humanitarian programs in Afghanistan.

You may have heard that seven million kids have now been vaccinated against polio.

Well, this is happening because UNICEF and the World Health Organization are negotiating access to Taliban-controlled areas.

What these development workers on the groun are telling us is that the absence of troops helps account for their success.

When they’re not tied to troops, they’re just not a target.

They’re building goodwill instead.

They’re pouring cold water on Mr. Harper’s mantra that you can’t do development work without overwhelming military security.

Security matters. But security comes with a justice system, not soldiers serving a corrupt regime. Security comes with the stability we’d help build through diplomacy, and development.

* * * * *

Would this new direction guarantee peace in Afghanistan?

Of course not.

Afghanistan is a hive of competing warlords, fiefdoms and histories.

Thirty years of bloody struggles. Three million dead.

Others have tried and failed to bring order.

There are no certainties here.

But this isn’t about certainty. This is about choices. And Canadians have choices to make now.

Even the hawks admit now that the insurgency won’t be pounded into submission.

What our plan offers is a new measure of hope for Afghans.

An approach ordinary Canadians can believe in.

If Canadians care about Afghanistan — and we do — then surely we owe it to ourselves to try.

* * * * *

Imagine living in a Canada where your Prime Minister makes you feel included, represented and proud.  Where your Prime Minister cares enough to do the right thing — even on something as tough as bringing stability to Afghanistan.

That’s what it should feel like to be a Canadian citizen. But that’s not the kind of leadership we’re getting from Stephen Harper — or from Michael Ignatieff, for that matter.

It may be years before we learn the full story about why Mr. Harper is breaking his promise to bring our troops home this year. It may be years before we learn how voices inside NATO caught his attention instead —what was said or bartered.

All we know is that the Prime Minister who promised to be different is delivering more of the same old politics. Listening to insiders instead of ordinary Canadians. Committing Canada to endless war, with Mr. Ignatieff’s help — to service interests he’s not even telling us about.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

To Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff, I say: It’s not too late to bring our troops home this summer. It’s not too late to give Canadians the leadership they deserve. The kind of leadership we’re seen from New Democrats like Jack Harris (our Defence Critic) and Paul Dewar (Foreign Affairs Critic).

Before them: Dawn Black … Alexa McDonough.

And over the years, some of you in this room.

If you’ve questioned this war, chances are you’ve been insulted.

Maybe even called a traitor.

Nobody should have to hear that.

I respect you for standing up for what’s right.

And our job is not done — there’s still work to do.

It’s time once again to stand up and be heard.

Here what I’m going to do.

Today, I’m launching a national campaign to take your voices to Ottawa.

I want you to be part of it.

When you leave here today, visit the NDP.CA website — sign our petition.

Talk to your friends. To your colleagues.

Speak up in class. Write letters to the editor. Call into those radio shows.

This is the time to say it: We won’t let our Prime Minister ignore us.  We won’t let him commit Canada to war without end.

Stephen Harper, bring our troops home.

We choose a new role for Canada to bring hope to Afghanistan.

If Canadians speak out loudly enough — if we make this uncomfortable enough for Mr. Harper — he’ll feel the pressure to change course.

And if he chooses not to, then let me tell you.

I will make this an issue in the next election .

To make sure Canadians’ voices are heard in Ottawa. ­

So when we gather here again next year, or a decade from now, we won’t be staring into the black hole of yet another mission extension.

Instead, we’ll be saying, “My God, that was hard. But the fight was worth it. And Canada’ s finally doing what we should be doing in Afghanistan.”

Thank you.