Mr. Chairman and members of the committee,
I am happy to be here again today to talk about Canada's mission in Afghanistan and the great progress that the Afghan people are making with our help.
As you already know, Canadian Forces are part of a 37-country team that is deployed in Afghanistan under the command of the North American Treaty Organization, NATO, as part of a UN-sanctioned mission.
Since my last appearance here in October, our forces have faced major challenges in the country. But we have also made significant progress. I visited Afghanistan for the first time in March 2006 and have been back twice since. The progress made in Afghanistan can be seen more and more clearly.
Today I would like to outline some of the ongoing advancements I have had the privilege to observe firsthand on my three visits to that country: progress within the security environment; progress in the way Canadians from several different government departments are delivering our contribution to the international mission; and, most importantly, progress in reconstruction and development of Afghanistan.
First, though, it's important to put my remarks today in proper context.
Mr. Chairman, Canada is in Afghanistan for reasons that have been enumerated many times. We're there because our national interest is at stake, because our allies need our help, and because the Afghans themselves requested our presence.
Mr. Chairman, the recent deaths of members of the Canadian Forces remind us that the security situation in Afghanistan remains challenging. The Easter weekend attacks on our soldiers took an emotional toll on both our forces and on Canadians at home. As the Minister of National Defence, I confront the human costs of this mission on a daily basis and with every decision I make. This is a profound cost, but it is not one that can sway us, as a nation, from doing what we must do in Afghanistan.
Canadians share a proud tradition of helping those in need. In partnership with our friends and allies, we are continuing this legacy today. Canada is doing its part, carrying out its moral duty to end this cycle of misery and to help build a brighter future for the people of Afghanistan. We can be proud of our men and women in uniform because of their bravery, their unselfish commitment, and their sacrifice. We can also be proud of them because their efforts have allowed Canada to take a leadership role and to make a profound impact on the international stage.
We need to remember that Afghanistan has not seen real stability for over two decades. Too many years of conflict and neglect have taken a crushing toll. Infant mortality, for example, is devastatingly high. One in five children die before their fifth birthday. Basic infrastructure and public services, which we sometimes take for granted in North America, simply do not exist in Afghanistan. Life for ordinary Afghans can be a constant battle. The Afghan people, the men and women and children, who are struggling so hard, are committed to building a better future.
But unfortunately, as Canadians are all too aware, there are a minority of Afghans who do not want us to be there. They are the Taliban extremists, who tyrannically ruled the country before and who plot to do so again. The hard core of the Taliban are determined to undermine the efforts made by Afghans and their elected government. They have a hunger for power. They are scheming and waiting. They're waiting for us to run from their ambushes, and they are waiting for us to abandon our commitment and the Afghan people. They want to scare the population into obedience by holding weekly lashings and executions and by perpetually holding the threat of death over the heads of innocent men, women, and children. They can be devious, and they are capable of adapting their tactics to copy the murderous practices of other terrorists. They're willing to use any means—improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers, and rocket-propelled grenades—to harm our soldiers and nullify the good progress their country has seen. They are ready to do whatever they can to undermine the efforts and credibility of the Afghan government and the international community. It is because of the continuing threat posed by extremists like the Taliban that the Canadian Forces remains a vital part of the Afghan mission. This is also why our men and women in uniform sometimes have to fight.
Also, Mr. Chairman, in that context, our forces on occasion must detain dangerous individuals. I want to emphasize that the proper treatment of detainees is not only a moral and legal obligation for Canada, its allies, and Afghanistan, but it is imperative for the success of this mission. We expect our Afghan colleagues to uphold these commitments. We have signed an arrangement with the Afghan government to that effect. We are committed to treating detainees humanely, in accordance with the standards set for prisoners of war in the third Geneva Convention. As we have always maintained, if Canada were informed of mistreatment of Canadian-transferred detainees, Canada would notify Afghan authorities, seeking their intervention to stop the mistreatment and to take corrective actions.
As the has stated in the House of Commons, officials of our government are following up recent allegations regarding the mistreatment of detainees with the Government of Afghanistan. Canadian officials have expressed our concerns, both to the Afghan government and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. We have strongly urged them to investigate the allegations and, if required, to take corrective actions. This is an issue that the Canadian Forces, Canada, and our international partners take very seriously.
We should also recall that there is a conflict under way in Afghanistan. The security of the Canadian Forces is at issue. The Taliban will use all means at their disposal, including information, to test our resolve. We are doing our best against a cunning adversary, but we are not alone in our efforts. As I mentioned earlier, Canada is part of a larger multinational mission.
Earlier this month I was honoured to host my counterparts from the seven other Regional Command South troop contributing nations at La Citadelle in Quebec City. This was another opportunity to continue our work on identifying concrete actions to strengthen our efforts in southern Afghanistan.
We rely upon our allies and partners. They, in turn, rely upon us. And the Canadian Forces are ready to do the job.
Every day they demonstrate why they are considered one of the most capable forces in the world, and our government has ensured that they have some of the best equipment available, such as the Leopard 2 tanks, which will be delivered soon. We know this is just one important element. The expertise, the skills, and the training of the Canadian personnel are a major reason behind improvements in the security environment. Their work and dedication sent a clear message to the Taliban of what Canada is capable of, and the Canadian Forces are sharing this know-how with their Afghan counterparts in building their independent capacity.
In Operation Baaz Tsuka, our first major operation in 2007, the Canadian Forces worked with the Afghan national security forces to drive insurgents out of the Panjwai and Zhari districts. The competence and professionalism of the Afghan National Army troops in this operation could be traced, in considerable measure, to the leadership provided by our Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team--otherwise known as “omelette”.
As many of you know, the Canadian Forces are also helping to build up the Afghan National Army through our work at the national training centre. Afghans are eager to take responsibility for their own security and they are dedicated to building a safe and stable future. The Canadian Forces, their international partners, and the Afghan national security forces have all committed to bringing security to the region. It is only through security that progress and development can continue.
I must tell you, Mr. Chairman, that during my last visit I was struck by the signs of progress that were shaped, in part, by the efforts of the Canadian Forces. For the first time, I was able to go to forward-operating bases that were previously considered far too dangerous for civilians. When I talked with Canadian troops during my visit, they kept saying how inspired they were by the Afghan people they see every day. A returning member of our strategic advisory team has commented that once you meet these people, the thought of abandoning them is horrifying.
The positive outlook among Afghans--the thirst for a better future--is hard to ignore. Afghans are facilitating development according to the Afghan culture and Afghan needs. We are helping them to rebuild their country on their terms and through regular shuras, or meetings, between Canadians and local elders, Afghans tell us what their priorities are.
This is how a school in the Panjwai district was able to reopen its doors last November.
At the request of the Afghan people, Canadians hired local workers to repair the broken windows and toilets of the school, as well as to put screens on the windows and install doors, wash basins and taps.
This project, like the others where Canadians are working to help meet the goals of the Afghan government, are in accordance with Government of Afghanistan priorities.
These are priorities that stem from the Afghanistan Compact that 60 members of the international community, including Canada, signed with the Government of Afghanistan in January 2006. This five-year pact between Afghanistan and the international partners follows the achievement of the political goals outlined in the Bonn Agreement. The compact commits the signatories to achieving specific objectives. The international community, for its part, has pledged to provide the necessary resources and support. The benchmarks laid out in the compact address Afghan security, governance, and development needs, and we have set specific timelines for the completion.
Progress in achieving Afghanistan Compact benchmarks is being made on many fronts. The Afghan National Army, which Canada is helping to train and professionalize, is making great strides in reaching the strength of 70,000 troops required by the compact. The security situation in Kandahar province has improved so much that the World Bank program is more active there than ever before. Assistance to agricultural development has made possible the construction of more than 10 kilometres of irrigation canals and 13 kilometres of drainage systems. Villages in Kandahar province are now being serviced by 150 kilometres of new roads, including four bridges, 50 kilometres of power lines, 10 power transformers, and 42 power generators, all built with Canadian help. And more than 1,000 new wells, 8,000 hand pumps, four large water reservoirs, and kilometres of new water supply networks have been built in Kandahar province with Canadian support.
Progress in Afghanistan remains dependent upon our ability to sustain, over the long term, the support we promised in the Afghanistan Compact. This, in turn, is dependent upon ensuring security and stability in southern Afghanistan. Security and development objectives are intertwined like the strands of a rope. Security enables development and development enables security. And that is why Canada's approach to the Afghanistan mission involves diplomats, military and police forces, and development and correctional officials. All are playing essential roles in Afghanistan's transition. While the military is working alongside the Afghan forces to help provide security, Canadian civilian officials are making progress on other fronts.
It was obvious on my last trip that Canada has made advances of its own in terms of how we are conducting this mission. The Canadian Forces, the Canadian International Development Agency, the Department of Foreign Affairs, and others have learned in the last year to work much more closely and effectively together, building bridges across departmental lines. They are truly forming what can best be called Team Canada, addressing the challenges they face with an integrated approach and bringing their respective strengths to bear. For example, our embassy staff, including of course our ambassador, are meeting on a regular basis with the Afghan government and international representatives. They are providing advice on a range of key issues, such as effective governance and the protection of human rights, and they are working to strengthen Afghanistan's relationship with its neighbours.
Furthermore, Canada is supporting the Afghan government with the provision of a 15-member strategic advisory team in Kabul. This team is composed of military and civilian officials from DND and CIDA. It provides planning support to Afghan government ministries like the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development in an effort to meet the goals of the Afghanistan national development strategy.
Canada is among the top three aid donors in Afghanistan, having pledged approximately $1 billion to Afghan development and reconstruction projects over 10 years. And in February we announced the further $200 million in funding to be used this year and next.
Mr. Chairman, while we often focus on specific markers of progress--access to health care, education, and basic services--it is their underlying meanings that you can't ignore. You have likely heard me speak previously about the thousands of kilometres of road that now exist in Afghanistan that were not there before. In fact, the major focus for Canadian troops since last fall has been the construction of Route Summit, a two-lane paved road that connects the Panjwai district with Highway 1. Route Summit is only four kilometres long, a few laps around Parliament Hill, but its impact will be immeasurable. The road will make it possible for a farmer to get his produce to bigger markets--a chance at earning a reasonable income for his family. It will mean that previously isolated villages can benefit from visits from doctors. It will give the police and army the ability to respond more quickly to crisis. And more importantly, the road symbolizes the Afghan government's capacity to provide for its population. Route Summit is an accomplishment that Canadians in particular can be proud of. Our combat engineers worked with local construction crews to build a road, while our soldiers protected them. Sadly, some Canadian soldiers lost their lives in an effort to secure the territory through which that road is being built. They have left an incredible legacy.
Canadians can also be proud of what our 330-member provincial reconstruction team has achieved in southern Afghanistan.
The Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team is made up of members of the Canadian Forces, a civilian police contingent led by the RCMP, as well as representatives of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and of the Canadian International Development Agency. The team's mission is to provide essential services to the local population in the name of the Afghan government.
But we can do more than that. During Operation Baaz Tsuka, for example, soon after the Canadian Forces and Afghan troops had secured a town, elements of the provincial reconstruction team moved in and began providing materials for construction work. In the town of Howz-e Madad, for example, the PRT brought in two containers filled with things like wheelbarrows, diesel generators, fuel, dried fruit, and shovels. This critically timed civilian/military cooperation delivered an important message to local villagers. They saw that Canadians were not there as invaders or occupiers; they were there to support the people and the government, at the request of the Afghan citizens. This is one of the reasons this mission differs so significantly from those of the past.
Now I'd like to share with you a story regarding the hundreds of Afghan workers we employ each day in Kandahar province. Thanks to the efforts of one of our Canadian Forces financial officers, we are now paying Afghan staff in their own currency. We have started a trend that has challenged our allies as well. More and more Afghans are asking to be paid in local currency. The Canadian Forces officer who began this also ordered two automatic teller machines: one for Kandahar city, their first ever; and one for the Kandahar airfield. While ATMs may seem like a frivolous investment, they provide Afghan notes, a development that has more than a symbolic importance. Every Saturday, Kandahar airfield hosts a lively market, where allied soldiers can spend Afghan money to buy handicrafts from the local merchants. When the merchants step off the base, they use those Afghan notes to buy food at the local market. They use them to buy their produce and school supplies and to pay the doctor. The simple effort of bringing in two ATMs that use Afghan currency has helped stimulate economic development in this country. In the end, even the smallest efforts have a positive effect.
Mr. Chairman, on my recent visit I saw firsthand that life is returning to places that had previously seemed deserted. There is more activity in the villages than there was before. In Kabul, local garbage pickup has resumed. This may seem like a small thing, but it is evidence of much larger progress through return of basic city services. In Kandahar city, there are now traffic jams. Traffic jams were not a problem there before. Traffic is a sign of activity, it's a sign of security, and it's a sign the economy is rebuilding--the hustle and bustle of a community taking its first steps towards prosperity. Prosperity means that children can go to school rather than having to work to provide for their families. In the end, an educated child means a better hope for the future of Afghanistan.
Mr. Chairman, as I said at the beginning, in the last six months in Afghanistan the Canadian Forces have met many challenges. They have distinguished themselves through their commitment to the difficult tasks they have been asked to perform. Security has been our most obvious focus.
I ask our critics, those who claim Canada is not devoting enough energy to reconstruction efforts, to listen to those who have been there and who have seen the progress for themselves: the men and women of the Canadian Forces, our development workers, police officers, and diplomats.
The past few weeks have reminded us all of how difficult the situation remains. A surge in Taliban activity is still possible this spring. But we are making progress, however slow and however different it may look from what we might expect here in Canada. This is Afghan progress.
Canadians should take inspiration from the fact that after so many years of war and poverty the Afghans are defying all opposition and choosing to move in a new direction, towards freedom and democracy. Canada has a significant role in changing Afghan expectations for the future. Canada is making a difference in the world, for Afghans and for Canadians.
Mr. Chair, I must emphasize that we are committed to the Afghan government, the United Nations, NATO and our international partners until February 2009. In due course, as that date approaches, our government will evaluate the decision based on the facts. Until then, Canada will continue to honour its international commitments, and we will continue to support the Afghan people and their government by our words and by our actions. Canadians know that our contributions are essential to our success in Afghanistan, and all Canadians should be very proud of the Canadians working there and the progress that they are making. They should also be very proud of their government, which is resolved to stay the course by supporting our soldiers and by honouring Canada's international responsibilities. Our government is committed to help the Government of Afghanistan to rebuild its society, to create stability and security, but above all, to guarantee Canadians a climate of security on the world scale.
Thank you very much.
Even though the things I have to say to you are not very pleasant, I do thank you for being here. I have many other questions to ask you, but, exactly for the reasons you mentioned, I am going to start with the enormous efforts being made by the men and the women in the army, be they from Quebec or from Canada, as well as with the considerable needs the Afghan people and these soldiers have and the grave dangers they are exposed to.
Because of that, Mr. Minister, it seems to me that you have a responsibility to them, to the Canadian people and to the Afghan people, to tell the truth and to do what you say. So, what have we been talking about for so long?
I know that General Hillier signed the first agreement, I remember. Of course, I am talking about the agreement on the handover of prisoners. I have done some negotiating in my time. I have read a few documents. This is not a complicated document, except that it is missing Afghan acceptance and Canadian commitment to allow, like the Netherlands agreement...
My copy of the agreement is in English only. So I am going to translate. In section 4, it says that representatives of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, representatives of the Netherlands embassy, including members of the military acting on behalf of the embassy, and others as required “will have full access to any persons transferred by the Netherlands military forces to Afghan authorities while such persons are in custody”.
These groups will have full access to the transferred prisoners all the time they are in custody. It is also agreed that the Red Cross and the Red Crescent can visit them as well.
In the agreement signed by General Hillier in December at the beginning of the 2005 election campaign, no similar commitment is to be found. It simply says that the participants will “advise the International Committee of the Red Cross through appropriate national channels” and that “the legitimate role of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission is recognized”.
Of course, there is a statement of principle saying that the participants will treat detainees according to the terms of the Third Geneva Convention, but there is nothing that says that the Government of Canada, represented by General Hillier at the time, agrees to hand over prisoners but reserves the right to visit them, or any other group, at any time. That is what is in the Netherlands agreement, and not in the Canadian one.
After all the protests in the House, you finally said that Canada had signed an agreement with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, the AIHRC. But the only thing in the agreement is this:
|If the AIHRC is made aware, the Commission agrees to notify the Joint Task Force Afghanistan, or the Canadian embassy, of any poor treatment suffered by a detainee who has been transferred to Afghan authorities by Canadian Forces.
I repeat “if it is made aware”. Did you give them the authority at all times? No. So why? Answer me.
Mr. Minister, you are an intelligent man. We have two documents each of two pages, plus the Netherlands one, also two pages. The Netherlands keeps coming up. Did you take the trouble to read the documents? Answer, please. If so, why did you not demand the same requirements? This is important. We wasted all that time in the House because we were angry. We were angry because the Government of Canada was lying to us and because this government, which claims to have values, does nothing to prove it. This is serious. It is serious for the soldiers, and for the Afghan people, who not only need to be told what our values are, but to be shown them by our actions. It is also serious for the people of Quebec and Canada.
Why did you not read this document? And if you did, why did you not demand the same requirements in our agreement?
I'm not sure Mr. Obhrai is going to have much time.
Mr. Chairman, one thing I won't do is to ask any of these gentlemen to resign, because I think they're all doing a hell of a job in leading our troops in a very difficult situation.
Recently we had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan with the defence committee. I'd like to run over a couple of things we learned there.
One of the things that really impressed me was the complexity of our involvement there. We're not talking strictly of combat troops engaging the Taliban; we're talking about a full-blown effort at all levels to rebuild that country. It wasn't just the infrastructure or homes and things that had all been beaten down to nothing, but the governance, the legal system, and law and order. There was nothing; it was flat. And we took on, with 36 other countries, a pretty tough job to go there to try to help rebuild.
I must say it was the former government that gave that job to us, and it's this government who's carrying on under the guidance of the CDS to see that it's carried out to the best of our ability. So congratulations to the minister and to all involved in getting the equipment that our soldiers need to do that job.
One of the things I saw was Warrant Officer Henley, I think his name was, going out with his little silver suitcase to talk to the shuras or councils. They talked about ink spots, about building a little spot of support out somewhere in the district and letting that grow. I admired that guy for his courage, that he could go out and do that on a daily basis and create that rapport at the ground level.
I know we're working at all levels, from the minister's office down; however, I think it's the grassroots involvement at that level that's going to win this for us. We're going to win the hearts and minds—and we are. When we talked to the Afghan people there they were very, very confident in what was happening and very, very optimistic.
When we were there, there was an RIP just starting, a rotation in place. In talking to the troops who were leaving in their rotation, I found they were optimistic about the changes that have been made. They told us this time and time again, and these weren't hand-picked people who came to talk to us, Mr. Chairman. We sat down every meal with a different group of Canadian soldiers, and they told us that what they were doing was the right thing and that they were making a difference. That to me is an indication.
We can talk about spending a dollar on the military or a dollar on reconstruction, but it all works together. I think we need to spend more dollars to get that country secured. Once that's done, we can spend more money on reconstruction, but it's happening at all levels now.
So I'd like to ask the minister about capacity building. When I talk about capacity building, I want to talk about it at a basic level, and that's the Afghan auxiliary police and the Afghan National Police Force. In order for us to be able to get out of that situation any time in the future—and I know we're committed to February 2009—these forces are going to have to be able to step up and take over the security of that country, along with the army.
I'd like you to comment about our involvement in that. Are we going to meet the plateaus that have been set forward? They're talking of some pretty large numbers for the army—70,000 to 80,000 trained and equipped and ready to do. Are we dreaming, or is that attainable?