Vote for quagmire? Making the war an issue

Stephen Harper would love it if the war in Afghanistan did not figure prominently in this federal election campaign. The rationale for this supposition is simple: the majority of Canadians clearly disagree with the Prime Minister on “the mission.”

On Friday evening, as politicos polished up talking points and refined their candidates’ “message boxes,” and as the country braced for a snap election campaign, I watched Peter Mansbridge on CBC’s The National read through some significant poll results on public opinion about Afghanistan. The iconic anchor, such a consistent and loyal proponent of the war effort, seemed almost deflated by the decisiveness of the figures.

When asked by Environics what they thought of Canada’s military action in Afghanistan, 56 per cent of respondents disapproved compared to only 41 per cent who approved. A full 34 per cent “strongly disapproved,” compared to a mere 14 per cent who “strongly approved.” In a separate question assessing the prospects for “success” in Afghanistan, a whopping 65 per cent predicted that Canada’s mission would end unsuccessfully.

A senior executive at Environics, Donna Dasko, summed things up with an understatement, "So we can see the public is clearly, at this point, leaning against the mission."

With support leaning away from the war, it might not take much more for public tolerance of Canada’s Afghanistan adventure to fall right over. Only hours into the campaign Sunday, the military announced that another Canadian soldier had died, bringing to 97 the total war dead. The figure is all too likely to pass the 100 mark during the course of the election campaign.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, as civilian casualties continue to mount, public opinion also appears to have taken a strong shift against the occupation. The Senlis Council, a research and advocacy group that supports the NATO war, recently found that more than 6 out of 10 Afghans wanted foreign troops to leave.
Reports of the rampant corruption of the Karzai government, warlord impunity, repression and lack of basic services such as electricity complete the picture of the misery of forced displacement and violence faced by ordinary Afghans.

Mounting public dissatisfaction with the war, rising casualty totals and an almost absolute lack of even token examples of “progress” achieved on-the-ground – it would seem to be the perfect storm to make Afghanistan a central issue in the campaign. If the vote were to become, in some regions at least, a de facto referendum on the war, the NDP and Bloc Quebecois would stand to make major gains.

There are, of course, a couple of mitigating factors that could help Harper ride out the war’s lack of popularity. First, there is the Liberal Party, who in March of this year joined with the Conservatives to extend the war until the end of 2011. This was a blunder by Stephane Dion, who could have forced an election on the war, but one he may well not have been able to avoid given the pressure from his hawkish leadership rival, long-time U.K. resident and former Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff.

The Liberals’ capitulation on the war, as with so much else, at least clarifies matters. It is quite a stretch to imagine the Liberals campaigning against Canada’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan, given that they started it and that they re-directed it (under Paul Martin’s leadership) to the Kandahar counter-insurgency without a semblance of debate in public or in Parliament.

The other obstacle to Afghanistan becoming an election issue is the media coverage itself. A Russian veteran of the Soviet Union’s quagmire in Afghanistan has, without hyperbole, compared Canada’s media coverage of the war to Pravda back in the day. Anti-war spokespeople are likely to receive little to no airtime on the major networks, and precious little column space in the major dailies.

And that’s where independent media and activism have such an important role to play. When Harper and Dion come to your town, they need to hear the message of opposition to the war loud and clear. And the local candidates need to get an earful at all-candidates meetings.

Without public mobilization and organizing, the poll numbers on the war will scarcely matter and Harper will get a free pass to continue "the mission." This campaign, let’s make sure that Afghanistan can’t be ignored.

Derrick O’Keefe is the editor of

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