Prime Minister Harper scored a diplomatic coup March 26 signing a long-sought free trade agreement with Japan. This was the product of long negotiating and deft footwork and is to be savoured because of its rarity. Harper has pissed away two golden opportunities to enhance Canada’s stellar standing among nations. Canada has been widely respected on the world stage, arguably, since taking Vimy Ridge on April 1917. Lester Pearson invented peacekeeping to resolve the 1956 Suez crisis. Canada was first voted to a two-year term on the UN security council in 1948 and for five terms thereafter every decade. Canada was expected to be a shoe-in to be chosen for a seventh term in 2010. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper preferred political gamesmanship to international statesmanship, choosing to attend a Tim Hortons photo op rather than join his counterparts in New York. Double-doubles over diplomacy. The coveted seat went to Portugal, which had a grand total of 140 troops in Afghanistan at one point. Inexplicably, the 2010 NATO summit on Afghanistan was held in Lisbon. Widely respected Canadian Press journalist Murray Brewster covered the summit and wrote, “the Harper Government had done everything it could to shove Afghanistan off the public agenda and it succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. A sort of collective amnesia took hold, a grey, foggy recollection.”
In Lisbon, Harper should have been trumpeting the way the world’s 74th largest armed forces punched well above our weight after shifting the focus of our combat operations to Kandahar. Just as in 1917, we have garnered immense respect from our allies. That respect was earned at a terrible price; 158 of our best and brightest left Afghanistan in boxes, including the man who replaced me in the field, my friend Bill Turner. Bill was shattered by a massive roadside bomb made of three artillery shells. He was returning to base from an exhausting month in the field. Medic Andrew van Eyckelenboom was killed on the last day of his tour—his kit was already at the airfield— when he was blown up by a Syrian suicide bomber. Boomer died five months after I was wounded. Nichola Goddard became the first Canadian woman to die in combat on my tour. The last time I heard the bagpipe strains of Amazing Grace, I was at attention on Kandahar Airfield saluting a coffin with my flag stretched over it. For the rest of my life, I will feel deep, intensely personal grief when I hear the song. Many soldiers, myself included, have survived injuries that would have been fatal if not for dedicated medics in the field and the skilled medical staff in Kandahar. John Croucher had to beat out the flames engulfing his body with his bare hands after a roadside bomb attack. At least three men left both their legs behind in the desert. I left a puddle of my blood and brains in the dust of a remote village called Shinkay.
I think the decision to move into Kandahar Province – the size of Nova Scotia – was misguided, to say the least. I have tried without success to track the decision-making process and the decision makers. Perhaps the forced amnesia Brewster wrote about in 2010 Lisbon stretches back to 2006 Ottawa.