Deaths in Afghanistan could hurt Tory campaign
Published Sunday, September 7, 2008 2:21PM EDT
OTTAWA - The enemy has a vote.
It was a favourite phrase of now retired Gen. Rick Hillier, one of Canada's most quotable military commanders.
His well-worn expression was meant to illustrate the violent unpredictability of the Taliban and how insurgent attacks could disrupt the best-laid military and development plans.
But it could take on a more significant meaning as the country embarks on the first federal election campaign since 1945 with Canadian troops at war.
Hillier, arguably the Conservative government's most articulate spokesman for the Kandahar mission, always followed his warning with reassurance that the military does everything possible to "make sure that vote can't be exercised very often."
But preventing the Taliban from influencing Canadian voters this fall may be easier said than done, a military historian warns.
Desmond Morton, a professor at McGill University, says Prime Minister Stephen Harper is wrong if he thinks Afghanistan has been neutralized as political issue.
"The Conservatives want a quiet month -- or two -- to have their campaign, but I don't think anyone will say that out loud to you," said Morton, who informally advised former Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney on military matters.
The number of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan may well surpass the psychological milestone of 100 as politicians stump door-to-door across the country this fall.
To date, 97 soldiers have died -- four of them in the last week, including one Sunday.
The manipulative, media-savvy Taliban are probably thinking about that "a lot more shrewdly and with more information than will the present government," said Morton.
Not so, countered Defence Minister Peter MacKay.
A spike in violence is something the Tories have considered, but he said they're placing their confidence in the army to deal with it.
"The war and the Taliban are not going to take a break if we have an election in Canada," MacKay said recently at a military conference in Calgary.
"As for election issues, come what may -- we'll be ready."
In what was considered a stroke of political brilliance, Harper carved an agreement with the Liberals to extend the military deployment in Kandahar until 2011. He recruited a former Liberal deputy prime minister, John Manley, and a panel of eminent Canadians to help make the case for continuing the war and reconstruction effort.
Tories confidently crowed in private that Afghanistan had been "neutralized" as a potential election issue and indeed it's waned in terms opposition sniping and public attention since the spring.
But a few well-timed, spectacular attacks could force it back into the minds of voters without any help from politicians, Morton said.
Even though the Liberals under Paul Martin took Canada into Kandahar, Morton predicted Harper and the Conservatives could end up "wearing" the blame for the war.
They've closely identified themselves with the mission and twice extended the deployment of troops, defying polls that suggest many Canadians want the troops out of harm's way.
It reminds some observers of the political climate leading up to Spain's 2004 general election, when an al Qaeda-inspired cell attacked Madrid's commuter train, killing 191 people and wounding 1,755.
The terrorist attack was largely credited with the defeat of the ruling Partido Popular party, which had taken the country into the Iraq war along side the United States the year before.
Morton said surpassing 100 casualties in Kandahar may not be exactly the same as the trauma of civilian train bombing on home soil, but the Canadian public has had a lot longer to stew about Afghanistan.
He said Canadian troops may have been ordered to keep a low profile over the next few weeks and stay out of harm's way.
"Nobody will ever admit that to you," Morton added.