Thank you, John Manley and Co.

John Manley’s report on the Afghan mission does a service to Canada. Which must be the primary criterion for judging it regardless of the difficulties it creates for various politicians or, for that matter, columnists. Yes, columnists. If Mr. Manley’s Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan had produced a comically feeble result, I’d have had a field day with, say, a report on Canada’s Future Role in the European War, where Jack Layton proposes negotiating with the Nazis while Stéphane Dion wants to withdraw from Germany but invade the Soviet Union.

Instead, the panel’s tough-minded, mostly sensible document also forces me to scrap plans for a Robson Report stating various frightfully obvious facts about Afghanistan. I’m not entirely sure why MPs needed the Manley panel to do so, although it probably has something to do with a lack of strategic culture in Canada. But state them it did, in a climate where doing so was a definite public service.

It thereby creates problems for a number of politicians, primarily Messrs. Dion and Layton. Gilles Duceppe’s position on Afghanistan exists in a parallel universe and won’t be much affected. But other people who say foolish things will now run a substantial risk of being swatted with this report, or pointedly reminded of Mr. Manley’s accompanying remarks about the real Liberal foreign policy tradition.

There seems to be some dispute about who really said British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain viewed foreign affairs through the wrong end of a municipal drain pipe. But Canadian politicians with the equivalent contemporary failing, of viewing them through the wrong end of focus groups in swing ridings in Quebec and the Toronto suburbs, will find this report highly inconvenient. So let me again praise Mr. Manley for being willing to take on the job despite the clear risk of exactly that result.

Some commentators have emphasized the difficulties the report supposedly also creates for Stephen Harper, with its bluntness about conditions on the ground, our troops’ equipment and the need to extract more help from our NATO allies other than Uncle Sam. I think they are mistaken for several reasons.

First, if the report had looked like a whitewash, it would have done the Tories no good. Second, the Conservative message, despite some cheerfully daft spin of which the report itself is not entirely innocent, has always been that the Afghan mission is a tough one and we must be resolute. (And if our weasely European allies don’t send more troops by 2009, well, what did anyone expect?) Third, the call for more focus on humanitarian and technical aid offers a superb opportunity for what they called triangulation when Bill Clinton did it.

The Tories can now be seen to be making a reasonable accommodation with reality and finding a path between blind belligerence and craven surrender. Without even changing their policies. For I must underline here the problem of “missionaries and redcoats” that I have written about before. It is not our military but our humanitarian actions in Afghanistan that cause us the most trouble there.

If all we wanted was to safeguard our national security interests by keeping the Taliban out, we could just back local “warlords” with deep roots in the community, an attachment to the old ways and a casual attitude toward brutality. It would cost less money and fewer Canadian lives. Since we are not prepared to do so, we must recognize frankly that women’s rights, democracy and economic modernization represent a far more dramatic threat to Afghan traditions, and the ideals of the Taliban, than sleazy deals with strongmen. We cannot relax our security efforts if we don’t want to see teachers beheaded in front of their students for teaching girls to read. (See also my colleague Dan Gardner’s remarks on trying to make Afghans stop growing opium poppies.)

It would have been foolish to talk of reconstructing the French economy and democratic system in 1944 without destroying our military foes. It is even more foolish in Afghanistan, where our aim is not to “reconstruct” but to transform, making it very different than it ever was before 1979, let alone 2001.

The Manley panel downplays this problem. But it does stress the need to walk the talk on our vaunted human security agenda, and its vigorous message of perseverance in the face of difficulties is good for Canada. If it also helps the Harper Tories, blame the other parties for taking silly positions on a serious topic.

The panel deserves our thanks, whatever difficulties it might have created for politicians … or satirists.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]