Peace was the message Tuesday night, when the Montreal Citizen Forum hosted a lively discussion on Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan.
The meeting, at St. James United Church downtown, brought together former and current UN officials and lobbyists as well as journalists, activists, and community members to discuss alternatives to Canada’s role in the war.
Peggy Mason, Canada’s former Ambassador for Disarmament at the United Nations, argued that a war mission in Afghanistan was failing the region.
“The present strategy is delivering Afghanistan to the hardliners,” Mason said.
She contended that the only possible mediator in an Afghan peace process is the UN.
Stephen Staples, Director of the Rideau Institute on International Affairs, a think tank based in Ottawa, argued that Canada’s involvement in the Afghanistan war reflected what he called the “Americanization” of Canada’s armed forces.
He contended that Canada’s military culture now relies on concepts imported from the Pentagon, citing Defense Chief Richard Hillier’s involvement in the U.S. Army. Hillier entered a U.S.-Canada officer exchange program in 1998 and served as deputy commander of the III Armored Corps of the U.S. Army at Fort Hood, Texas.
Staples discussed Hillier’s references to the “transformation” of Canada’s armed forces, which he described as a shift away from peacekeeping toward combat.
“We just repeat the terms and hope someone will figure out what they mean later,” Staples said, comparing Hillier’s language to Newspeak from George Orwell’s 1984.
Mason also criticized the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan, which published the Manley Report recommending Canada’s continued involvement there, and argued that the panel was not truly independent.
She said that the report’s recommendations were too similar to Prime Minister Harper’s proposals. Both Harper and the Manley Report favour increased troop numbers and an extension of the armed presence to 2011.
But Jooneeb Khan, International Affairs journalist at La Presse, took issue with Mason’s confidence in the UN, noting the skepticism many developing nations have toward the organization and the flaws in the organization’s structure, which he believes favours an elite group of countries.
“The UN itself needs to be balanced – in fact, needs to be reorganized,” Khan said.
Raymond Legault, a spokesperson for anti-war group Échec à la guerre, agreed that the UN needed overhauling, but stressed that it is often used to justify intervention, which he opposed.
Some audience members questioned the practical problems with forcing a peace process through the UN.
“I don’t understand practically how you get the Taliban to sit down with the powers that be,” said Sasha Mandy, a law student at the Université de Montréal.
Others drew parallels with other international conflicts. One audience member noted Haiti as a precedent for Canadian involvement in Afghanistan.
Jakov Rabkin, a history professor at the Université de Montréal, compared Canadian involvement in Afghanistan with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, arguing that both were neo-colonial efforts by governments without majority support.
Staples suggested that Canadians recall the country’s former role as a peaceful nation.
“This is a fight for Canada’s soul,” he said.