Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The NDP's real position on Afghanistan

At the end of my enormous post-convention post, I wrote about how odd it was for me to come out of the convention bubble and see how the NDP's official position on Afghanistan had been portrayed in the media. In particular, I was surprised by how the situation was being portrayed as the party's leftmost wing forcing the NDP to adopt a hard-left stance. There certainly are hard-left elements within the party, and they certainly do exert plenty of pressure on the party leadership--but the problem with that line of reasoning was that the official position as worded hardly amounted to a hard-left one. So I chalked this discrepancy up to media sensationalism and thought nothing more of it.

Then came the bloggers, who were worse. They've called Layton "Taliban Jack" ad nauseum and accused defence critic Dawn Black of wanting "to return to the days where Afghan women were brought to the centre of sports stadiums built by the UN, and stoned to death" and thinking "kids shouldn't be able to go to school." On the September 17th Bloggers' Hotstove podcast, Conservative blogger Stephen Taylor presented a caricature of the NDP's position that had only the fleetingest flirtation with reality, and he sounded so much like one of those spinning Tory talking heads on CPAC that I almost turned it off in disgust. But I chalked all this up to typical blogger polemicism and dirty-tricks partisanship and thought nothing more of it.

Imagine my surprise last night, then, to find that Conservative bloggers had started claiming that Layton was "reversing his party's Afghanistan position" to...what it's been all along. (My first thought upon reading this was that you really can't win as a politician: when the inevitable simplistic portrayals of your position start appearing, you get painted as a radical, but when they realize that you're actually saying something rather pedestrian, you get painted as a flip-flopper.) But all right, I'm going to be charitable and assume that the kind of distortion of the NDP's position that I've been seeing for the past month hasn't, in fact, been deliberate, but attributable to an ordinary human misunderstanding. And I'm going to try to clear it up.

To do that, we have to be able to address two issues: what, exactly, the NDP is calling for, and why they are calling for it. And for that, we have to go straight to the original source--to the party's actual official statements on the matter. First, what they're calling for, from the August 31st statement:

That's why I'm announcing that as a first step, New Democrats are calling for the withdrawal of Canadian troops from the combat mission in southern Afghanistan. Withdrawal should begin as soon as possible - working with our international partners to ensure a safe and smooth transition - but with a view to having it complete by February 2007. Canada can then focus on building a made-in-Canada foreign policy that moves us toward reclaiming Canada's place in the world. One that is clear, comprehensive, and balanced.
In point form, then (and rephrased from politician-speak into plain language), the NDP is calling for Canada to:
  • take troops out of their combat role in southern Afghanistan
  • work with other countries to make sure this withdrawal can proceed safely
  • complete this withdrawal by February 2007, and
  • come up with a new foreign policy that's a little more independent from the United States.
In light of the misunderstandings that have occurred, it's also important to look at what this statement doesn't say, namely:
  • we should pull every Canadian soldier out of Afghanistan, including the ones working on humanitarian aid projects
  • Canada's military can serve the country better sitting on their duffs and twiddling their thumbs, and
  • Afghanistan would be better off with the Taliban in charge.
So that's the what; now let's look at the why. Again, from the same August 31st statement:
By participating in this aggressive counterinsurgency war, Liberals and Conservatives claim to be making Canada safer. But Canadians are asking themselves whether Canada’s role in this war is actually making our country less secure. These are valid questions. Our efforts in the region are overwhelmingly focussed on military force--spending defence dollars on counter-insurgency. Prime Minister Harper need only look at the experience in Iraq to conclude that ill-conceived and unbalanced missions do not create the conditions for long-term peace. Why are we blindly following the defence policy prescriptions of the Bush administration? This is not the right mission for Canada. There is no balance--in particular it lacks a comprehensive rebuilding plan and commensurate development assistance. [...]

Naturally, we must continue to work multilaterally to get tough on terrorism. But, we also understand that making the world a safer place requires us to go much further. Issues like international development assistance to combat global poverty, reforming international institutions, peace building and securing human rights are all part of the solution. So is the strategic use of our highly-skilled and well-respected Canadian armed forces. Canada has a long history of stepping into the breach when called upon by our international allies.

Unfortunately, the number of conflicts around the world today, including deepening tensions in the Middle East, mean that we must carefully choose where we can make the greatest difference. New Democrats understand the need to send troops into combat and the risks involved. We support and have supported appropriate missions. Our duty is to ensure that Canada participates in missions where the objectives and mandate are clear and where there are clear criteria for success.
And then later, and somewhat more pithily, in Jack Layton's September 10th keynote address at the convention:
That mission is the wrong mission for Canada. There is no plan for victory. There is no exit strategy. There is no sign that it is making the Taliban weaker or the world safer. And there is no hope of changing the realities on the ground in Afghanistan--with the forces we have or can commit.
So again, in point form and rephrased into plain language, the reasons for the NDP's official stance on Afghanistan are as follows:
  • like the war in Iraq, the Afghanistan war is poorly planned
  • also like the war in Iraq, too much money and effort is being poured into combat while the humanitarian side is being neglected
  • we're following the U.S.'s lead in a mission that's supposed to be Canada's
  • it's impossible to win a war when we don't have a clear statement of what winning would entail, and
  • as things now stand, we're not doing any long-term good over there.
And again, what the official position doesn't name as reasons for withdrawal:
  • Afghanis have the right to govern themselves without any interference from us
  • War Iz Baddd, and
  • Canadian troops are no better than imperialist invaders, and the Liberals and Conservatives are complicit in that invasion for sending them there in the first place.
Now, no matter how you feel about the NDP's hard-left element, you have to admit that this simply isn't a hard-left position. What this actually is, is a pessimistic position. Yes, that's right: where the Conservatives are adopting the positively Pollyanna-ish stance of what amounts to "if we just stick around for another two to five years, we can defeat Afghani society's rogue elements and then go back to building hospitals and schools for children," the NDP is saying what can be boiled down to "we're just spinning our wheels in combat in Afghanistan, and since what we're doing isn't going to work anyway, we should pull our troops out of a futile combat role and put them into a role where they can do some good." The irony is delicious, isn't it?

Now, there's certainly plenty to criticize about that stance. As a militant agnostic on Afghanistan ("I don't know, and you don't either"), I don't agree with it myself. But if you're going to criticize it, criticize it for what it actually is. Call it too short-sighted, too ad-hoc, or, yes, too defeatist. Point out what this commenter at bound by gravity says: that ceding Kandahar to the people we've been fighting could move the warfronts to parts of the country that are currently relatively peaceful. Point out the fact that calling for withdrawal from the combat mission without a serious, thorough debate in Parliament is no better than extending the mission without the same. Say what my friend Jo Cook said at the convention: "We need more information, more consultation, more thought. I believe we need a coherent foreign policy framework for military and international affairs which this party has never developed." But--and this goes for both the traditional media and the bloggers--argue with the NDP's real official position, not with what the stereotyped mental image of the NDP in your head has come up with.

To do that, of course, people have to listen, watch, and analyze, instead of knee-jerking and name-calling. But you can call me a Pollyanna if you want, but I actually don't think that's too much to ask.


Anonymous said...


Good post IP. That helped to clarify a few things for me too.

I should know by now that the NDP's true position on things is rarely accurately reported by the media.

I'm beginning to wish that I could have attended the convention and see and hear what really happened for myself.

Olaf said...

Good post Idealist,

I'll link it on my blog, in response to my own updated post. However, I still take issue with what he said in the interview, and don't believe he can reconcile it with what he's said before.

As I see it, there are two possible interpretations of what Layton has been saying all along:

1) Bring all Canadian troops home, as most media sources seemed to imply at the time, and as some of his speeches could be construed as saying

2) Bring home only the troops in the south, and leave the northern troops, as was suggested by a few news sources (namely the Toronto Star and CTV). I also believe this is your interpretation of Layton's position.

Beyond these two, I haven't seen any other interpretation, and merely taking the troops out of southern afghanistan wouldn't constitute "bringing them home", which Layton has suggested on numerous occassions.

However, it seems that the position he took in the interview, as I and Dr. Roy interpreted it (I haven't heard from anyone else who actually saw the interview, which would be nice), was that he only said he wanted the troops out of southern afghanistan (as opposed to what "the headlines said"), and that some or all of the troops currently in the south should be working "with other NATO countries". Now, I've made mistakes before, and I would love to see a transcript or video of the interview, otherwise I'm just spinning my wheels, so to speak.

However, I don't think that only pulling troops out of their combat role in southern Afghanistan, and not bringing those troops home to Canada, would be consistent with the position that Layton has been championing all along.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


"Bring them home" is simplified politician-speak--something that every party is guilty of. What would realistically happen if Canada followed the official NDP position on Afghanistan is a) sending those troops back to Canada whose expertise is in a purely combat role, b) keeping those who are already working on humanitarian and reconstruction efforts where they are, and c) probably redeploying some of the current combat troops in those efforts (those who are trained to do that kind of work, anyway). It's technically not incorrect to say that the NDP wants to "bring them home," but it's oversimplified, much in the way that the Conservatives' position is oversimplified when they say "finish the job" (what job? you've never told us exactly what that job is!).

(This, by the way, is reason #487 why I could never run for elected office. I don't think in sound bytes, and it'd drive me completely batshit not to be able to say all of what I mean, all of the time.)

Thanks for being willing to engage in level-headed discussion about this, though, Olaf. It's much appreciated.

Mike said...

Well said IP. Good job.

West End Bob said...

I actually don't think that's too much to ask.

Nor do I - Good post!

Anonymous said...


Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Like I said to Olaf, "bring the troops home" isn't an incorrect representation of what the NDP's position has been all along; it's an oversimplification of it. Besides, if you're so much in favour of keeping troops in Afghanistan, shouldn't you be pleased to discover that the NDP isn't quite as bad as you thought?

Oh, and I deleted your poem. I'd prefer not to censor comments, so I'd be happy to link to it in a comment if you want to put it up in your own blog. It was a bit overlong, though, and it cluttered this discussion.

Anonymous said...

However, I don't think that only pulling troops out of their combat role in southern Afghanistan, and not bringing those troops home to Canada, would be consistent with the position that Layton has been championing all along.

11:22 -------EXACTLY----------


I didnt hear any calls from anyone to bring our troops home from THAT "quagmire"!

I also didnt notice any greiving Canadians--except of course, for their families. After years of dismantling, demonising, and ignoring the Canadian military, all of a sudden, everyone is so "concerned" for our dead soldiers.

SINCE KOREA--------------

IF THE NDP WERE TO STAND UP TODAY AND SAY; you know what, we really dont want a military, we think its rather silly, and far too much "AMerican"---
THEN I'D HAVE A LITTLE RESPECT FOR LAYTON AND HIS GANG--instead, they say they dont want our guys fighting and dying in Afghanistan, but DONT MIND IF THEY FIGHT AND DIE IN DARFUR OR LEBANON!?!?

By Layton's logic, the last four soldiers that died in Afghanistan, while delivering humanitarian relief---that was okay---because they werent shooting at anyone at the time.?? Oh, no wait a minute, it wasnt okay, because it was AFGHANISTAN. But if they had been killed in Cyprus, Egypt, Somalia, Cambodia, the Balkans,East Timor, Golan Heights, Lebanon, Darfur, or right here in Canada----that would be acceptable?

Anonymous said...

Good call to delte the poem---we wouldn't want people on this site to know what Canadian Soldiers who are doing Canada's dirty work REALLY think!


Idealistic Pragmatist said...


If you'd actually read the post you're responding to, I think you'll find absolutely no one--either in the post or the discussion--standing up for the official NDP position. So I'm not sure who you think you're arguing with here.

Anonymous said...

Nothing better to say eh?


Good Luck to ya!!

Olaf said...


I appreciate your cordial and balanced treatment of the matter as well, it's refreshing.

I understand now that "bring the troops home" sound bite is politician-speak, but you could excuse someone not as close to party as yourself, who relies mainly on the MSM for news, to become confused. The majority of the media portrayed the position in this way, and I don't remember Layton ever correcting this interpretation over the month or so it's been in the news (until, perhaps, the interview yesterday, transcript pending). It was definitely not my intention to deliberately corrupt Layton's position, if I infact did so.

Also, I have one more question before we put this sordid affair behind us. I'm still confused as to how the resolution Layton endorsed was so magnificently misquoted on the NDPs on website ( )

The resolution called on Harper to begin "the safe and immediate withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan" and "support the continuation of development assistance to Afghanistan and democratic peace building."

The quotes are theirs.

Perhaps you could clear this up for me.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why the NDP (at least it's leadership) thinks that combat isn't important in creating a stable country.

And before you flame me, I've never voted for the Conservatives though I would have for Joe Clark, John Crosbie (if he had beaten Mulroney), Robert Stanfield, and Bill Davis. Alas I was too young. Red Tories basically. I voted for the NDP provincially in Ontario and federally for the NDP in 2004 and the Green Party in 2006. Why I have to say this is beyond me, but I figure I'll get hit as right wing nutjob otherwise. I'm a centrist left wing nutjob :)

I understand their position, but frankly that's the job these days. Peacekeeping is over, if you have doubts go take a look at Rwanda where we watched them die. I have no problem with peacemaking, and I don't see why others do.

Say we (the Western countries who contribute to UN peacekeeping and NATO peacemaking operations) put 5 million men in arms and lose a few tens of thousands, but in the process save millions of people in Africa (Congo, death toll latest war min. 3.5 million. Worlds largest and bloodiest war zone since the end of WW2) and over the world

Why not? Is a western life worth more then a Africa? Well it obviously is, since no one has invaded the Sudan. But why?

If the NDP wants to go to Darfur (which they've raised a few times) I'm all for it and so are the quarter million dead because nobody bothered to save them, but it would involve invading a country and overthrowing it's technically legitimate government. It would involve in other words a fairly large war without UN approval.

Because they're never inviting the UN in, and if they do China is vetoing it because of the oil.

So let's do it. We don't need subs, we don't need combat aircraft, we don't even need airborne forces. We need special forces, ground troops with light armour, logistical support, and experienced infrastructure consultants using local labour to rebuild (or in most of Africa, just plain build) the country. So institute a draft and let's get started.

Why not? We'd be saving millions of people all over the world. We'd be ending the practice of raping your own family to death for the fun of watching it. We'd be bringing clean water to people who've never had it.

We'd be, in other words, saving the frickin' world from itself. Now that I think is a worth cause past any of this right wing/left wing stuff.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for such an informative post. Stuff like this is why I like reading blogs.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Two little nitpicks: I'm a woman, and the first word of my blog's name is 'Idealistic', not 'Idealist'. (People usually shorten it to IP, actually.)

Now on to the substance of your comment...

I'm not sure what you mean by Layton "endorsing" the resolution, because I'm pretty sure party leaders don't put their official stamp of approval on resolutions. But even if he did do that, there's nothing in the quote you cite that's inconsistent with the position as I've outlined it. The NDP *is* calling for a withdrawal of troops, and they *are* calling for those troops to be brought home. The ones involved in the combat mission, that is. There's nothing in that resolution quote that says that all troops, including the ones involved in humanitarian aid, should be withdrawn. In fact, the combination of "the safe and immediate withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan" and "support the continuation of development assistance to Afghanistan and democratic peace building" reads to me as meaning exactly what I outlined above. There's no contradiction.

wednesday keller,

I don't flame, actually, so you're in good hands as far as that goes. But like I said to anonymous, if you're looking to argue with someone who supports the NDP's official position, you're in the wrong place.

That said, I think it's a bit of a cognitive leap to assume that the NDP thinks that combat "isn't important in creating a stable country." In fact, I suspect that if they were convinced combat would actually help build a stable country, they'd have wanted to stick around. But like I said, the official position is a pessimistic one, and the powers that be in the NDP really do seem to believe that the current mission is pretty hopeless.

To be fair, they may yet turn out to be right about that, in which case I'd support a withdrawal as well. (It's the pragmatist in me--there's no sense in fighting a war that it's impossible to win.) But after looking at all the available evidence, my position is that the NDP doesn't know that it's impossible to win, they just believe that--just as the Conservatives don't know for sure that it is winnable but are making all sorts of decisions based on the assumption that it is. Under these uncertain circumstances, we don't need withdrawal any more than we needed a two-year extension to the mission. What we need right now is information.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

P.S. to wednesday keller,

Some evidence that the NDP does actually believe that combat is worthwhile when the war is more winnable than they believe Afghanistan to be (from the August 31st statement and the September 10th keynote address linked above):

New Democrats understand the need to send troops into combat and the risks involved. We support and have supported appropriate missions. Our duty is to ensure that Canada participates in missions where the objectives and mandate are clear and where there are clear criteria for success.


Canadians are prepared to fight wars that are right for our country. We've done so proudly. That's why we're so proud of our veterans.

Olaf said...

Again IP,

My apologies for misguessing your gender, however, I have a reasonable explanation. I'm a conservative, you see, and wasn't aware that girls could get computers now, let alone had learned how to use them.

You'd also think that, because your name is simple enough, and can be found at the top of your site and comments at all times, it wouldn't be difficult to get it right. But, as a conservative, I form opinions based on what I want something to be (your name being Idealist) and try to make the facts fit that opinion.

So, because of ideological constraints, I cannot be held responsible.

Now, that foolishness aside, I'd just like to point out that I was asking how the NDPs own website (and the Globe) could have both misquoted the resolution, not whether or not it's consistent.

However, calling for "Canadian troops" to be removed from Afghanistan, does seem to mean all Canadian troops, and was misguiding.

I'm pretty sure that, as a rule of logic, if you say "Dogs are animals", you are saying "All dogs are animals", not somewhere between one and all dogs are animals, if you follow my reasoning.

So, in conclusion, saying, as sometimes was the case, that the NDP supports the 'immediate withdrawl of Canadian troops from Afghanistan', does, to me anyways, seem to suggest that this is all Canadian troops (or at the very least, all of the troops in the south, which Layton seemed to contradict in the interview yesterday, which brought on this whole fiasco).

ANYWAYS, clearly I'm splitting hairs here for no apparent reason. Thanks for your clarifications. I'd appreciate your presence on my site whenever possible to keep me honest.

ps I hope you picked up on my facetiousness at the beginning of this comment... I have been told that my particular brand of "humour" can often be misinterpreted, so I feel the need to provide a disclaimer, especially when my comments could be construed as offensive.

KevinG said...


Good post. I had a few mistaken understandings and this has helped.

The media will report the clips they want and they tend to be the sensational bits which aren't always the substantial bits.

I think Layton could have done a better job of focussing the debate though. IMO, how you divide your investment up in terms of security, humanitarian and infrastructure is a really important thing to discuss -- you can do that without threatening to make a two legged stool out of our contribution though ;)

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I suppose I can see why you'd have made that assumption, and I'm certainly not accusing you of deliberately muddling the facts. But as someone who went to the convention and watched all the debates, I honestly never thought they wanted to pull every last soldier out. And it never occurred to me until last night that anyone else might actually believe that, either.

Oh, and as to the humour, an ability to laugh at yourself is always a plus. You're one of the cool conservatives in my book.


I'd love for that to have happened, too, but the content of the resolution meant that the "pull the troops out" part was inevitably going to get the limelight. Besides, if you really do believe that the war is unwinnable and hopeless, then you're also necessarily going to think it's too late for that sort of discussion.

Anonymous said...

So exactly what war is "right for Canada" in the eyes of the NDP? Beheading old women , destroying education facilities, only allowing males to go to school, removing womens rights, living off the profits of Heroin, and defying a somewhat democratic government aren't the right ideals to fight for.

Darfur at the moment is themselves saying don't even bother coming here until things are a little more sorted out.

One thing that always gets forgotten when it comes to "peacekeeping", the key word there is "peace", which means there must first be some to keep.

Unfortunatly that entails the use of force in most cases.....

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


So exactly what war is "right for Canada" in the eyes of the NDP?

Well, I don't speak for the NDP. But I think the answer to that question is right here: "Our duty is to ensure that Canada participates in missions where the objectives and mandate are clear and where there are clear criteria for success."

In other words, a war that's "right for Canada" is one in which we know exactly what the goals of being there are, exactly what we have to do to reach those goals, and have a clearly stated way of measuring whether or not we're doing that. That's an entirely reasonable position, as far as I'm concerned--it's just that the powers that be in the NDP are a lot more certain than I am that the mission in Afghanistan can't possibly be made to fit those criteria.

Anonymous said...

An Italian soldier, serving in KABUL was just killed today by a bomb placed under a bridge.

Sure glad his country could keep him out of the "combat" so he could die anyway.

Soldier's deaths are okay, as long as they're not "soldiering" right?

Better bring all the troops home, winter's coming. Who else is going to shovel your driveway?

Anonymous said...

"THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the NDP will call on the Canadian government to withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan immediately and failing a complete withdrawal, the NDP will seek redress in the appropriate court to have our illegal occupation of Afghanistan cease."
"WHEREAS no war is a "just war..." -- Toronto Centre NDP

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


If you're trying to convince me that the mainstream of the NDP would agree with that hard-left Toronto Centre resolution, by all means, build a case for it. I'm all ears (eyes)?

Simply quoting a resolution that didn't even make it to the convention floor won't cut it as an "argument," though.

West End Bob said...

You Go, IP!!

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit confused by something. You seem to approve of the NDP for not naming "Afghanis have the right to govern themselves without any interference from us" as one suitable reason for withdrawing Canadian troops from Afghanistan.

Am I to understand that you don't believe that Afghanis have the right to govern themselves?