This is the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, meeting number 24. Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), we are meeting today to receive a briefing on the situation in Afghanistan.
I begin today by thanking our Minister of National Defence for making himself available to appear before our committee.
The foreign affairs and international development committee is focused on the study of democratic development and how we can better help those around the world enjoy the benefits of democracy that we enjoy in our nation. The nature of our committee is that when issues arise, including the Middle East this summer, the situation in Darfur and others, we try to deal with them as a committee. No other issue has had a higher profile on our radar screen than the efforts of our brave men and women in the Canadian armed forces in Afghanistan.
We have a special briefing on the situation in Afghanistan today. The Honourable Gordon O'Connor, Minister of National Defence, has made himself available to personally bring us up to date and to answer questions on Canada's contribution in Afghanistan.
Mr. Minister, we thank you for appearing.
Accompanying the minister today, we have the Acting Deputy Minister, Rodney Monette, and the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier.
We welcome you to our committee. We thank you for appearing.
As you know, the committee is set up so that you can make your opening remarks. We will go into the first round of questions immediately following that. The first round is a ten-minute round. We look forward to your comments, and we trust that you look forward to our questions.
Thank you, Mr. Minister. The floor is yours.
Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, last week I had the opportunity to speak to your colleagues on the Standing Committee on National Defence about the progress we are making in Afghanistan. It's a pleasure for me to appear before this committee and discuss the mission and the fine work that Canadians are performing every day.
Today I'd like to put our involvement in the Afghanistan mission in context, because it's important for Canadians to understand how conflict and disorder on the other side of the world affect us here in Canada. I also want to outline some of the successes that Canadians have achieved in Afghanistan, the vital milestones we have helped the Afghan people reach.
I'd like to begin by reminding this committee that our world has changed since the end of the Cold War. Threats to peace and security are no longer contained by borders. The attacks of September 11, in which 24 Canadians amongst about 3,000 people died, have changed the way we see our world forever. Canadian security is no longer threatened by mass armoured formations striking through the central plains of Europe. We no longer fear waves of nuclear armed bombers attacking North America by way of the Arctic. The real threat now comes from terrorism, from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and from failed and failing states.
This new reality has fundamentally changed the way we conduct our operations. Whether it's in Somalia, Sudan, or Afghanistan, peace support operations no longer resemble the classic model of peacekeeping. The image of an unarmed peacekeeper standing between two enemies to help implement a peace accord does not reflect today's reality, or the forces' experience in recent years. New threats to security have required a new type of response. The presence of Canadian diplomats, RCMP, municipal police officers, and development officers alongside the military in Kandahar speaks volumes about how things have changed. Today's operations are more robust, more complex, and they include a wide range of players.
Previously, soldiers were typically the face of operations. Now they are part of a team that delivers a multi-dimensional response. Increasingly, this new integrated approach forms a key part of larger international efforts. We aren't the only country threatened by terrorism. Global security is a collective responsibility. In this world of borderless security challenges, Canada has a duty to act. Canada is in Afghanistan, for example, with more than three dozen other countries. Each country is contributing to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. I'm proud to say that among those nations, Canada is playing a leading role.
We are in southern Afghanistan, the most challenging area of the country, with brave men and women from countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, the Netherlands, Romania, Estonia, Denmark, and countries such as Poland, whose recent commitment of 1,000 soldiers who will assist in eastern Afghanistan fills an urgent need. But the challenges posed in southern and eastern Afghanistan should not, and cannot, be borne by a few nations alone. That is why I will continue to encourage other members of NATO to help share the burden.
Canada is also in Afghanistan because we believe in protecting our values of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. We have a duty as members of the United Nations, of the G8, and of NATO. We're in Afghanistan at the invitation of the Afghan government, and we're in Afghanistan to help Afghans.
Life is extremely difficult for Afghan citizens. They have little opportunity for education, health services are inadequate, housing is of poor quality and the people are subject to violence, injustice and poverty on a national scale.
Life expectancy in Afghanistan is among the lowest in the world. Mortality rates of this country’s women in childbirth and infants are among the highest. Afghanistan has an extreme dearth of resources. Stability cannot be attained as long as these conditions persist. And changing these conditions is one of our greatest challenges in Afghanistan.
We've been reminded in the last few months of just how dangerous the job of the men and women of the Canadian Forces is. I've spoken to the families of the fallen soldiers, and I am humbled by their dignity and grace. Despite their grief, they acknowledge and support the purposeful work that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and airwomen are doing.
If Canada and its coalition partners abandon Afghanistan now, the Taliban would infect Afghan society once more. Could Canadians stand by while the Taliban ban women from the workplace, leaving thousands of families without an income? Could we again allow them to shut down girls' schools and colleges, to thoughtlessly destroy cultural institutions and monuments, and to use sport stadiums for public executions? Could we turn away as Afghanistan civilians were summarily executed, as houses were burned and private property was destroyed? Could we wait in fear as al-Qaeda got settled in again, making a home for itself from where it could again haunt the world?
The answer of course is no.
As the Prime Minister indicated in his United Nations speech, success in Afghanistan cannot be attained by military means alone. That is why the Canadian Forces constitute only a part of an integrated approach to ensure that Afghanistan never again falls in the hands of the Taliban or other similar people.
Afghanistan is a country with immense untapped potential. Reconstruction and development are our principle objectives in Afghanistan and they remain the first priority for Canada. We have given Afghans the opportunity to rebuild their country, in accordance with the Afghan National Development Strategy.
Our armed forces support these objectives by establishing a secure environment, which is an essential condition for effective and sustained development.
But as Afghan President Hamid Karzai stressed during his visit last month, a democratic nation is not built overnight, nor in one or two elections.
We have made significant progress in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has held its first multi-party elections. Millions of refugees have returned home. Children are in school. Thousands of armed insurgents have been demobilized. The Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police are taking real and positive steps forward toward gaining control of security within their own country.
We're not finished yet. Our goal is simply articulated. When Afghanistan and its government are stabilized and it's able to independently handle its own domestic concerns, when the terrorists and their local support networks have been defeated, and when these things are irreversible, we will know we have succeeded.
Canada has been integral to Afghan success so far. Canadians should be proud of our reconstruction efforts. We've truly broken new ground in our approach to development. Provincial reconstruction teams, also known as PRTs, did not exist in 2002, when we first arrived in Kandahar. Today, however, the PRT network is really at the core of what our Canadians are doing in Afghanistan. Yes, combat operations are still being carried out to help stabilize the region, but reconstruction is our focus and our goal.
Our progress in the Kandahar region over the last six months has laid the groundwork for continued improvement. Operation Medusa is just one of our recent successes. This last summer, the Canadian Forces provided the necessary security and assistance for our allies, the British and the Dutch, to deploy in southern Afghanistan. Without Canada's support, NATO expansion into southern Afghanistan could not have happened as quickly.
We are now patrolling and conducting combat operations in areas previously considered Taliban sanctuaries. Our operations in the Pashmul and Panjwai areas have also planted vital seeds of development. We are building Afghanistan development zones in strategic areas, pockets of development from which future renewal can spread.
We are also helping to build up the Afghan National Army through our work in the Afghan National Training Center and through joint combined operations with the Afghan authorities, such as the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police.
Daily, Canadian men and women are meeting ordinary hard-working and peace-loving Afghans. They are conducting meetings with elders, delivering development aid, and making a difference in the everyday lives of Afghans. For instance, the Canadian PRT donated computers and constructed a water distribution system for Kandahar University. They have distributed more than 6,000 donated school kits to children around Kandahar province, and 100 bicycles to the Ministry of Education for the end-of-the-year awards. All this builds Afghan domestic capacity and helps us to move closer to our ultimate objective of a fully independent and stable Afghanistan.
I've visited our troops in theatre twice now, and I've seen the good work our men and women in uniform and their civilian counterparts are doing, and the results they are achieving.
Foreign Affairs continue to play an active role in transforming Afghanistan into a stable, safe and self-sufficient state.
Delegates from the Canadian Embassy meet regularly with their Afghan and international counterparts, as well as with President Karzaï. They provide wide ranging advice on important subjects such as improving governance, promoting and protecting human rights, reforming the security sector and establishing national judiciary institutions.
CIDA is working hard to assist the Government of Afghanistan, and has delivered on Canada's aid commitments to Afghanistan in Kandahar and across the country.
CIDA development specialists also pursue commendable projects in other regions of Afghanistan. It is very difficult to work in Kandahar because the challenges there are greater than elsewhere in Afghanistan, but we manage to make progress.
The RCMP are building the capacity of the local police. Canadian police are monitoring, advising, mentoring, and providing much-needed training for their Afghan counterparts. President Karzai called the international community's work in Afghanistan a cooperation of civilizations, a partnership that extends from enhancing security to developing rural areas to providing education and health services to needy people. He named Canada as a leader in this international partnership.
Through our team's work and outreach efforts, our PRT is helping to create an atmosphere of stability and trust. Canadians are helping to rebuild a healthy society and are helping to make it impossible for the Taliban to gain a hold again.
This summer when I visited our troops in Afghanistan, I asked how we could support them better. What they asked for was more equipment and more personnel. To ensure that our vital stabilization and reconstruction efforts continue, our government immediately took steps to enhance our military task force in Afghanistan. We are deploying an additional infantry company and a tank squadron, as well as armoured recovery vehicles, armoured engineering vehicles, and engineers to the Kandahar area. We are also providing our forces with a counter-mortar capability, including a radar system to locate enemy weapons. We're seeing to it that our troops get what they need to do their jobs.
Ladies and gentlemen, in many offices of National Defence Headquarters, you can find strategic maps of Afghanistan. They indicate the locations of all the nations that are working hard to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. As a Canadian, I'm proud to see our flag prominently pictured on those maps. It shows us taking a rightful place in the world as a leader in ensuring that Afghanistan never again becomes a haven for international terrorists to threaten global security. We owe a great debt to our Canadian Forces. They are among the very best in the world, and they are making progress in one of the most volatile regions of Afghanistan. Canadians are united in pride and gratitude and are behind them.
Mr. Chairman, this government is committed to ensuring a safe and secure world for Canadians. We are committed to helping Canada meet its international responsibilities, and we are committed to help the Government of Afghanistan rebuild and re-establish a stable society for its people. In short, we are committed to this mission.
I would now be happy to entertain your questions.
Mr. Patry, I'll try to answer your first question clearly.
When I arrived in Afghanistan most recently and I found the situation on the ground, I realized that the intensity of operations was at such a level that the infantry typically defending the PRT, most of them, were being pulled away to go into operations to try to suppress the Taliban. This again took a lot of the security away from the PRT, from their work. But that had to be done at the time, because the important issue at that time was to suppress the Taliban so they didn't encircle Kandahar. That's what they were trying to do at the time.
To counteract that, what we're doing as a government, on the recommendation of the military, is sending in an infantry company from the Van Doos. I think they're starting to stream in there now over the next month. About 125 infantry are going in and will be dedicated to protecting the PRT. That then allows the remainder of the infantry and the armour and the artillery to devote their efforts to the battle group to keep suppressing the Taliban.
We're also, at the same time--because I said at the time, and I'm on tape saying it, that I wanted more projects produced--sending, and have already started to send, military engineers into the PRT from Canada to help manage and implement more projects. That process has started. So you're going to see, over the next few months, a substantial increase in the amount of development effort coming out of the PRT.
With respect to the comment of Brigadier-General Howard, I can deal with that part. I can't deal with the other parts. I believe that what he was referring to was the difficulty, the challenge, of having CIDA instituting projects in the Kandahar area, because they have to get the agreement of the Afghan people, the government, they have to hire a lot of the local labour, and it's a challenge at the moment, with respect to the security situation, to try to get enough labour to do the tasks. I believe that's what General Howard was expressing about those projects.
With respect to those other questions, I can't answer the CIDA portion. You'd have to ask the CIDA minister.
Thank you, Minister O'Connor, General Hillier, and Mr. Monette, for being here today. I think on behalf of all of us at this table, we'd certainly like to extend our deepest gratitude to the men and women who serve in our Canadian Forces, who serve our country so nobly, and their families for the sacrifices they make in enabling this to happen.
Minister, we're not winning in Afghanistan. Taliban control in the region is up, militant activity is up, unemployment is up, opium production is up, and our death rate is up. The Taliban of 2006 is not the Taliban of 2001.
I think there are four conditions for success. One is security. Second is the training of Afghan security forces, including the police, which are a major problem on the ground, as you know. Third is the development of poppy eradication and crop replacement. And last is dealing with the insurgency coming from outside Afghanistan.
My questions are really twofold. First, when your government extended our commitment to 2009, what were the troop commitments by our NATO allies at that time, and are those troop commitments there today? Could you tell us specifically what those troop commitments were, by country?
Second, unless the insurgency coming from outside Afghanistan is dealt with, this will be a war without end. So could you tell us what you're doing to deal with the insurgency coming from outside Afghanistan?
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you, Minister, General Hillier and Mr. Monette.
This mission is problematic to us. The reason we insisted on your appearing today is that we cannot see our way clear with regard to what is happening in the field, i.e. the war, and the humanitarian aspect.
Some people, especially in Montreal, are currently organizing to ask the population to protest the war. That is not the position my party has taken, I want to make that clear. However, while we must respond to those people, we have no reliable information on what is happening over there.
What is the status of the mission? Is it true that we are losing? If not, what gains have been made? Does humanitarian aid reach the people?
Minister Verner repeated that, thanks to support and reconstruction provided by Canada, we are gaining the hearts and the minds of the Afghan people. On the other hand, several NGOs say that, in their opinion, that is not the best approach. Indeed, we have our troops fighting on the one hand while humanitarian aid should not serve to seduce the Afghan people but rather to make concrete steps towards helping the Afghans’ situation progress.
With regards to stabilization, you have stated that the greatest part of the country is stable. If that is the case, how is it that the Minister was not able to visit certain areas and that she had to be content with meeting people in the Embassies and a few Afghan government officials?
An old principle of neutrality was repeated by Mr. Watson from CARE Canada, “You can’t take sides in a conflict”.
As parliamentarians, how can we interpret that since, on the one hand, we are a party to this war yet we are told that we want to work on development? To what point are we in fact able to implement development in the field? Are conditions favourable for development? If not, when will we be in that position?
Thank you very much for those questions.
First of all, we have chosen a side. We've chosen the side of the government. The Government of Afghanistan asked us to be there; the people of Afghanistan asked us to be there. We're not neutral with respect to the terrorists, so yes, we have chosen a side.
The other thing is that in the south and in the east—but I'll talk about the south because we're in the south—there's a serious insurgency going on. We have to do two things at the same time: we have to try to suppress the insurgency and we have to try to make the lives of people better. We have to do both operations at the same time.
As for those people who suggest that somehow, if you pull the military out and just leave the NGOs there, life will go on and all these development projects will go on, I cannot accept their suggestion.
In the north that may be possible. In the west it may be possible, where it's relatively quiet and where NGOs can operate relatively quietly. But in the south, until the insurgency is brought under control we have to maintain—NATO has to maintain—substantial military forces to suppress and hopefully eliminate the Taliban. But at the same time we have to get involved in humanitarian efforts.
When you look at the humanitarian efforts, the Government of Afghanistan itself sponsors a number of projects through the country, including in the province of Kandahar, which we talked about. They have projects and the United Nations has projects going on in Kandahar province, the United States' aid programs have things going on, our military has projects going on, Foreign Affairs has projects going on, and CIDA has projects going on in the thing.
The job of our military and security component is to try to protect all of those agencies. They're not just protecting the Canadian aid program; they're trying to protect all the aid programs. They're trying to bring the insurgency under control.
From my point of view and in my assessment, we are making progress. What the Taliban most recently—in the last month or two—have tried to do is isolate the city of Kandahar. They came in from the west, they tried to go in to the south, and they were going to try to isolate Kandahar city. They made the fatal mistake of concentrating, and between 500 and 1,000 of them concentrated to the west of the city. That's what Operation Medusa dealt with.
We and our NATO allies were quite successful in dealing with them as a threat so that they will not threaten Kandahar city, in any sense of blocking it or cutting it off. What they reverted to is their typical tactics, suicide bombers and IEDs or mines put under roads. That's what they've reverted to, because they have found out they cannot defeat us militarily.
We're continuing, and all the NATO nations are continuing, to try to suppress the Taliban, but at the same time we have to conduct humanitarian operations.
I don't know if I answered every one of your questions or not.
Sir, there's been a lot of discussion around what we are trying to do, which is essentially to use 100% of the Canadian Forces to do 100% of our deployed missions, specifically focused on the one in Afghanistan because that's where most of our deployed people are. The deployed missions are the ones with the most stress, the most demand on our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and airwomen and their families. The intent is first of all to have a better tasking mechanism across the Canadian Forces. In the past ten years we've probably used a total of 40% of our Canadian Forces to do 100% of those missions.
We've not been as effective as we need to be at reaching right across. When we need logistics people, or military policemen and women, or intelligence officers, or signallers, or all the supporting enabling trades, we need to reach right across the Canadian Forces and use them for operations also. It has always been the same people in the combat units who have carried the burden, and what we want to do is be much more effective and much fairer in using everybody.
We want, first of all, to use them in their primary roles, and that's a key part right there. So we're reaching right across the Canadian Forces. In part, we can't do that because during some of the financial cuts that we've taken in the past, which were pretty brutal to us.... For example, we took a lot of money out of our posting budgets, hundreds of millions of dollars. We posted people to combat units, posted people to headquarters or training schools, and we thought it would be a good thing that they would stay there longer than in the past. It was good stability for their families, good stability for them. Over ten years, we've realized that the negative implications of that are enormous. That is to say, those folks posted in combat units carry all those deployed burdens on their shoulders, and we don't have the money to facilitate the exchange of people, put the lessons learned from the operations into training schools, take the people who have had training school deployments or employments and put them into our combat units. That's only part of it.
Secondly, we're looking at a way to take care of those precious infantry men and women, combat engineers, gunners from the artillery, and of course I would be remiss if I didn't say the crewmen and crew women from the Armoured Corps, who really are at the point of contact with the Taliban. What we want to do is use everyone we have across the Canadian Forces to fill out the units, so we don't have to ask people to go back more than once unless it really is an urgent need.
In other words, sir, we look at taking them out of National Defence Headquarters, taking them out of other headquarters, other training establishments, and putting them back into the combat units and backfilling in those spots where we absolutely need to--we'd actually like to slice a little bit off there--with navy or air force personnel to pick up some of that slack. We look at our recruiting pool, how quickly we are recruiting people for those combat trades, and are there people in the recruiting system right now that we could, for a two-year period, put into some of that combat training to train them completely as infantry men or women and use them for a period of time before they go on to where they want to go as a primary MOC. We're using reserves and offering men and women in the reserves, many of whom you mentioned--that's the example you mentioned, sir, from the regiment in your area--who desperately want to go on this mission because they believe in it, giving them a better opportunity to sign up for a longer-term contract, or do a very quick component transfer into the regular force.
In short, we're doing a plethora of things. I've only named probably about 5% of that. We're looking at how we share the burden completely across the Canadian Forces, so that no one man or woman has to carry an inordinate amount of it on their shoulders.