OTTAWA — The British foreign minister described Afghanistan as a “stalemate,” and U.S. President Barack Obama’s new super envoy to the region called it a “mess.”
But Canadian Defence Minster Peter MacKay said Monday that real progress is being made in Afghanistan — allowing only that it is not coming as quickly as some might like.
MacKay also told the Commons defence committee the mission will cost an extra $331 million this year, a figure that had the Bloc Quebecois deriding Afghanistan as a fiscal “black hole” and the NDP questioning the escalating cost of the war as the world wages another battle against a sagging global economy.
“Yes, this is an expensive mission, an expensive undertaking on the part of our country,” MacKay told the all-party House of Commons panel.
“(If) we’re there to protect people and promote peace and freedom and security, and the promotion of quality of life for these people, then we are succeeding. At the rate that we would like? Perhaps not.”
As he has done at many previous committee appearances and in public speeches, MacKay again cited children — girls in particular — going back to school, program delivery, a polio eradication program, skills training, microfinance and road building as tangible signs of progress in the face of the growing Taliban insurgency that inflicted a record rate of violence on western soldiers and civilians in the last year.
But with the rising cost of the mission and the rising death and injury rate to Canadian soldiers, some opposition MPs criticized MacKay’s interpretation.
NDP defence critic Dawn Black noted the assessment by David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, who told BBC radio on Monday that western troops and the Taliban are trapped in a “strategic stalemate in parts of the country through their use of improvised explosive devices.”
Bloc Quebecois defence critic Claude Bachand bluntly told MacKay that, in his view, “not a great deal of progress” has been made in Afghanistan.
“We always challenged the rather rose-tinted vision that we were given,” Bechand said of past government briefings.
“This is simply a bottomless pit in which Canada is getting bogged down in terms of the money that we have to lay out.”
MacKay told the committee that $331 million of the $441 million in supplemental spending that the Defence Department required was for the Afghanistan mission. The overall defence budget is more than $18 billion.
MacKay had just returned from the major international security conference in Munich, Germany, on the weekend at which several top members of the Obama administration offered a downbeat assessment of Afghanistan.
“I’ve never seen anything like the mess we have inherited,” Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s new special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan told the international gathering. “In my view, it’s going to be much tougher than Iraq.”
Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton Accord that ended the Bosnian war, said, “there is no Dayton agreement in Afghanistan. It’s going to be a long, difficult struggle.”
MacKay told reporters after his testimony that he was sitting next to Holbrooke when he delivered that speech and that he didn’t interpret it as an indictment of progress in Afghanistan.
MacKay said he believed Holbrooke was commenting on “the previous American government’s efforts to co-ordinate their military and their diplomatic and humanitarian effort. He felt that it has not been co-ordinated. And that has been a problem, quite frankly, and I share the view.”
MacKay also said that he is not committed to the idea of having upwards of 1,000 extra Canadian Forces troops in Afghanistan for the August presidential elections. A senior Forces general said the military is considering a number of options to provide additional security during national elections this summer when Taliban activity is expected to spike.
“As is always the case, the military are very prepared; they would look at a full range of options that we would be able to provide, particularly during this election period. No decision has been taken as of yet,” MacKay told reporters after the hearing.
This story, which was originally published online on Monday, reported that a senior general said an extension of the Afghan mission of some Canadian troops was being considered during the national election this summer. While the general said contingency plans were being considered to provide security during the campaign, he did not specify an extension of the current troop rotation was under review.
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