It was a reasonable question, seeing as Washington had warned the Taliban that if Afghanistan was taken by force, it would not be recognized internationally.
Garneau answered that it was too soon to say what Canada would or would not do, just like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had suggested earlier the same day.
Within hours, Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole released a rather different response:
“The use of force by the Taliban is completely unacceptable and that’s why today I am announcing that a Conservative government will not recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.”
The other opposition parties echoed his position.
Not much later, government critics were out in force:
“Once again, with Trudeau at the helm, Canada’s foreign policy is weak, equivocating and unable to condemn oppressive regimes … Canadians deserve better than this.”
Another analyst later described O’Toole’s posture as a “powerful stand against the violent, bloodthirsty terrorist organization,” and “yet another example of our weak-kneed national leader following rather than leading on important issues.”
Clearly feeling the pressure in the midst of an election that he should never have enabled, Prime Minister Trudeau changed his tune, threw his foreign minister under the bus, and declared that Ottawa had seen enough, and no longer had any plans to recognize the Taliban.
It seems to me that this record of events highlights a collective failure among analysts and practitioners of Canadian foreign policy to appreciate the role of diplomacy in international crisis management.
And I fear that the consequences of Ottawa’s reversal could be deadly for the very people we are trying to help.
Let me explain:
I suspect that the majority of readers would agree with the prime minister’s suggestion that Canada’s top priority in Afghanistan should be “getting Afghans who worked for the Canadian military and federal agencies out of the country safely.”
The Taliban is indeed the cruel, vengeful organization portrayed by government critics.
Even if its pledge to grant amnesty to former opponents were truthful (and it clearly isn’t), there is no guarantee that Taliban sympathizers wouldn’t take matters into their own hands and murder any perceived ‘traitor’ at the earliest opportunity.
In this context, with every Afghan who ever supported the Canadian intervention in grave danger, the last thing that Ottawa should be doing is deliberately increasing the size of the bullseye on the back of their heads.
Condemning the Taliban definitively, no matter how justifiable, does just that.
In contrast, Ottawa’s initial position might have bought our evacuation team some time by daring the Taliban to protect the lives of Afghans with Canadian ties as evidence of its professed commitment to change.
Regardless of whether the tactic might have succeeded, the government had left its options open. (Minister Garneau was quite clear in the interview that Canadian recognition was unlikely.)
Unfortunately, elected officials (and their advisors) too often view foreign policy as a venue to demonstrate their virility.
They should know better.
In my 20+ years studying Canadian foreign policy, I have rarely seen a significant world actor cower in response to Ottawa’s tough talk, and I’ve never seen it happen in response to threats from the leader of the Canadian opposition.
So what now?
The Afghans we are trying to rescue are less safe; our minister of foreign affairs has been discredited and humiliated by his boss; and the public has been left with the impression that foreign policy is about puffing your chest and being “strong.”
Canadians do indeed deserve better than this.
For more on my concerns with the ongoing national obsession with foreign policy leadership, take a look at this essay. On Afghanistan, I’ve been paying particularly close attention to tweets coming from Global Affairs Canada’s Colin Townson (a deep-thinking graduate of the Canadian Forces College’s National Security Programme). I also blogged about it in a previous post.
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