MacKay blindsided by 2007 Afghan review

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office was so seized with controlling public opinion of Canada’s shooting war in southern Afghanistan that even Defence Minister Peter MacKay wasn’t always in the loop, says a new book about the conflict.

TORONTO — Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office was so seized with controlling public opinion of Canada’s shooting war in southern Afghanistan that even Defence Minister Peter MacKay wasn’t always in the loop, says a new book about the conflict.

The Savage War, by Canadian Press defence writer and Afghanistan correspondent Murray Brewster, paints a portrait of a PMO keen to preserve its tenuous grip on minority power and desperate to control the message amid dwindling public support for the war.

MacKay, who took over Defence from Gordon O’Connor in August 2007, was blindsided by the Harper government’s decision later that year to set up a blue-ribbon panel to review the mission headed by former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley, Brewster writes.

“It wasn’t discussed with the broader cabinet, no,” the minister says in the interview.

“I didn’t know all of the specifics.”

Jack Layton knew even less. In interviews before his death earlier this year, the late NDP leader confides to Brewster that Harper never once tried to engage him in an in-depth discussion about Canada’s deepening involvement in a deadly counterinsurgency effort.

The revelations emerge at a time when MacKay suddenly finds himself at the centre of a brewing controversy surrounding his use of government-owned Challenger jets — 32 times since 2008, at a price tag of more than $2.9 million.

He’s also in hot water over a 2010 vacation at a Newfoundland fishing lodge owned by the federally appointed chairman of Crown corporation Marine Atlantic, during which he was picked up by a Cormorant search-and-rescue helicopter.

In the book, MacKay also suggests Canada signed on to the Kandahar posting without a clear grasp of how enormous a challenge the mission of beating back the Taliban on their home turf was going to be.

“I don’t think there was a true recognition on just how difficult it was going to be to turn back the wave of insurgency,” he says.

His first phone call as foreign affairs minister in early 2006 was from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The topic was Afghanistan.

MacKay also suggests the decision to go to Kandahar was borne in part of a sense of guilt — on the parts of both the previous Liberal government and the new Conservative one — of Canada not having participated in the U.S. mission in Iraq.

“The deployment down to Kandahar, my understanding from the briefings, came after much consternation within the department and within the previous government about not having gone to Iraq,” he says.

There was “almost a sense of, ‘We have to do something more significant than we have thus far.”’

The book documents how Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apparent need to keep communications on a short leash was fuelled, in part, by sagging public support for the war and the hardening opposition of the New Democrats, the part that ended up advocating for an immediate and total withdrawal.

Throughout the conflict, Harper never once had an in-depth discussion about the war with Jack Layton, whose fierce opposition to the mission earned him the nickname “Taliban Jack.”

“Whenever the topic was brought up, Harper would just smile and say, ’We’re going to have to just agree to disagree on that, Jack,”’ Brewster writes.

For Layton, who died earlier this year after a battle with cancer, it was an appalling break from governmental custom in times of war: co-operation, consultation and a sense of everyone in Parliament, be it in the government benches or the opposition, being on the same side.

“Most governments, when you’re in a war context, the structure of the relationship changes and there’s this kind of understanding that we’re at war,” Layton is quoted as saying.

“They could have shared certain kinds of information. There was none of that.”

From the outset, the NDP felt misled about the intent and predicted consequences of Canada’s move to Kandahar, a decision that was made in 2005 without any input from the party or debate in Parliament, much to Layton’s dismay.

Paul Martin, the Liberal prime minister at the time, depicted the Kandahar mission to Layton as relatively benign, not unlike the country’s deployment in the capital of Kabul to the north, which began in 2002.

“He generally characterized it within the ambit of the mandate that had been ours to date, except that it would involve more troops and in a different location,” Layton says.

“I was concerned because I felt that it wouldn’t be possible to go to Kandahar and have the same kind of role that we had previously. I told him I was concerned.”

That concern continued to mount over the course of 2005 amid the increasingly aggressive anti-Taliban rhetoric coming from Gen. Rick Hillier, then the chief of defence staff, and Defence Minister Bill Graham’s public warnings that casualties were likely.

“Layton and his handful of MPs went from concerned to uneasy to fidgeting in their seats,” Brewster writes in describing how the NDP ended up being such staunch opponents of the war.

“The fact that they couldn’t square what was being said made them suspicious.”

In 2006, with Canadian casualties mounting, some of Hillier’s people were frustrated with the fact the government was saying little about the war, allowing the NDP to fill the void with anti-military rhetoric and robbing the mission of public support.

That frustration “boiled over” during a meeting between Defence Department officials and the PMO on Sept. 6, 2006, in the immediate aftermath of bloody Operation Medusa, Brewster writes. Hillier chastised Harper’s staff for what he considered a lack of moral support.

Insiders later attributed the silence to the PMO’s difficulty in crafting a suitable political message.

“It was always a crisis,” the book quotes one anonymous PMO official as saying.

“I think the reason there was so much silence was because we were trying to figure out how to transition the communications politically from a hard terrorism message to, you know, about women voting and all that stuff.”

That’s why, Brewster writes, “there was no consoler-in-chief during that awful summer.

“The country that had not been at war in half a century was left to figure out for itself why its sons and daughters were coming home in caskets.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Alberta vaccine rollout expanding to front-line health-care workers

More than 240,000 eligible health-care workers can begin booking vaccine appointments starting… Continue reading

File photo
The Red Deer Rebels will have three new assistant coaches when the WHL regular season starts on Friday. Brad Flynn (left), will be on the bench alongside fellow assistant Ryan Colville (right) head coach Brent Sutter (middle). (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Sutter steps down as Red Deer Rebels head coach

Red Deer Rebels Owner, GM and head coach Brent Sutter has stepped… Continue reading

Premier Jason Kenney announced $200 million more money that will benefit seniors living in continuing care on Wednesday. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Alberta’s in-school rapid screening test program expanding

Alberta’s in-school rapid screening test program will expand to as many as… Continue reading

Parents and students learned Tuesday what the coming school year will look like. It's pretty much back to business as usual, said Education Minister Adriana LaGrange. School precautions include frequent cleaning, keeping students in the same groups where possible, planning the school day to allow for physical distancing and staying home when sick. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Alberta’s largest school board says no to United Conservative draft school curriculum

CALGARY — Alberta’s largest school board says it will not use the… Continue reading

Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan is among those who have signed an open letter criticizing the government’s return to stricter health measures. (Advocate file photo).
Updated: Kenney tells UCP caucus COVID-19 dissent OK, breaking health rules means expulsion

15 MLAs released letter on Wednesday critical of new health restrictions

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau watches a speaker appear by videoconference during a news conference in Ottawa, Friday, April 9, 2021. Grassroots Liberals have overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution calling on the federal government to develop and implement a universal basic income — despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's apparent lack of enthusiasm for the idea. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau winds up Liberal convention with election campaign-style speech

OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau wound up a three-day Liberal convention Saturday with… Continue reading

Team Canada skip Brendan Bottcher makes a shot against Italy at the Men's World Curling Championships in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, April 6, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Men’s world curling championship in Calgary in COVID limbo

CALGARY — The men’s world curling championship in Calgary remained suspended Saturday… Continue reading

Pipes intended for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline are shown in Gascoyne, N.D. on Wednesday April 22, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Alex Panetta
Non-profit Quebec law centre to aid environmental group targeted by Alberta oil firm

QUEBEC — The Quebec Environmental Law Centre is coming to the aid… Continue reading

Conservative leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 6, 2020. Top Tory leaders of past and present will speak with supporters today about what a conservative economic recovery from COVID-19 could look like. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Conservatives cite empathy, relationships as ways to help expand their movement

OTTAWA — Conservatives should show empathy with Black residents who say they’ve… Continue reading

NDP Leader John Horgan celebrates his election win in the British Columbia provincial election in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. New Democrats are reconvening for the second day of a three-day policy convention as they look to push past the glitches of the virtual event's opening sessions and rally around keynote speaker John Horgan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
New Democrats reconvene as hiccups, frustrations plague national policy convention

OTTAWA — New Democrats reconvened Saturday for the second day of a… Continue reading

FILE - In this Monday, Oct. 23, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump speaks during a joint statement with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. Former President Donald Trump plans to affirm his commitment to the Republican Party — and raise the possibility that someone else will be the GOP's next presidential nominee — in a closed-door speech to donors Saturday night, April 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
Trump in 2024? He says only that ‘a Republican’ will win

PALM BEACH, Fla. — Former President Donald Trump plans to affirm his… Continue reading

A cruise ship sits docked waiting for passengers to be evacuated in Kingstown, on the eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent, Friday, April 9, 2021 due to the eruption of La Soufriere volcano. (AP Photo/Orvil Samuel)
Ash-covered St. Vincent braces for more volcanic eruptions

KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent — People who ignored an initial warning to evacuate… Continue reading

Owner of 4 Point Taekwondo Kevin Mejia holds a board as organizer and martial artist Kevin Olsen breaks it in Edmonton on Friday, April 9, 2021. One hundred martial artists from around the world, will be breaking a board for an event called "Break for a Breakthrough." The idea is for martial artists to unite and re-engage with the arts because they may have drifted away or lost enthusiasm as a result of the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Break for a Breakthrough: Canadian hosts international martial arts demonstration

EDMONTON — Whether he’s breaking a wooden board, a clay tile, cement… Continue reading

Most Read