Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Jane Armstrong, "O'Connor on blitz to sell Afghan mission," Globe and Mail, November 15, 2006.

VANCOUVER -- Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor kicked off a cross-country public-relations blitz on the Afghan war by arguing here yesterday that terrorists must not be allowed back to the country where the Taliban and al-Qaeda once flourished.

"We cannot allow the Taliban to return to their former prominence, to take over Afghanistan and resume their regime of terror and tyranny, to flaunt their disregard for human rights, to punish and terrorize their own people, to murder innocents, to harbour those who would threaten us and our families at home and abroad," Mr. O'Connor said in luncheon speech in Vancouver yesterday.

Quoting Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Mr. O'Connor said Afghanistan five years ago was a "terrified and exhausted" country. The minister then listed off reams of statistics that bolstered his argument Afghanistan is in far better shape today.

Schools have been built, young girls have returned to school, living standards have improved and about four million refugees have returned to their homeland, he told the gathering, sponsored by the Vancouver Board of Trade.

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Vancouver was the first stop of a cross-country journey to explain Canada's mission in Afghanistan, which has been extended to 2009. Mr. O'Connor will also visit Calgary, Toronto and Quebec City this week.

The blitz comes as a large number of Canadians are expressing concern about the Afghan mission and this country's role in it.

Fifty-five per cent of respondents who took part in a poll conducted last month by the Strategic Counsel for The Globe and Mail and CTV said the price being paid by Canada is too high.

Opposition critics said the government should not have extended the mission without getting assurances that other North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries were committed to putting their troops at similar risk to those undertaken by the Canadian forces.

Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh said yesterday that the Canadian mission has evolved from one of reconstruction to one in which soldiers from Canada were asked to find and eliminate the Taliban.

"I think the public sees clearly that this government hasn't dealt with this issue in a very forthright fashion, either with the Parliament or with Canadians," said Mr. Dosanjh, when asked about Mr. O'Connor's tour.

"They are now trying to get it off the ground in response to the public perception, which is grounded in reality, that this government has actually distorted and changed the focus of the mission and therefore the people of Canada are saying, 'We don't support that new focus.' "

Forty-two Canadian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2002.

This week, a report written by Afghan and international officials said insurgent activity has risen fourfold this year and extremists launch more than 600 attacks a month.

Some of the worst violence is in Kandahar province, where Canadian troops led a massive military offensive last summer and where they also lead a reconstruction effort.

Speaking to reporters after his speech, Mr. O'Connor was defensive when asked about deteriorating security in southern Afghanistan.

If anything, the situation in the Panjwai region west of Kandahar city is improving, he said.

"The amount of activities from the Taliban have [been] reduced over recent weeks in our area," he said. "We've had a great effect on that area. We are starting to improve the security there."

When asked what is the solution to the rising number of suicide and roadside bombings, Mr. O'Connor replied: "Intelligence is one solution. You get people to report on other people and what they are doing. And that you rely on the Afghan National Police and the army to do that.

"There are also technical ways to deal with many of the suicide bombers and [improvised explosive devices], but I'm not going to get into the technical solutions because I'm not going to help the Taliban."

Mr. O'Connor conceded it is tough making the case for war when Canadian soldiers have lost their lives, but he said the Canadian news media in Afghanistan have a role to play.

"We would encourage media, when they are there, to try to show the other aspects of what's going on there," he said.

"We're going to start telling Canadians more and more what's going on there, and what kind of things are being achieved there because right now, they have a very limited idea of what's happening in Afghanistan."

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