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.”