It’s war, not peace-keeping: Wallin

Pamela Wallin’s advice to journalists: Forget about peacekeeping – Canada is at war

Q&A by Karina Dahlin

Q: Where can Canadian journalists find good sources to better understand what’s going on in Afghanistan?
A: In the back of our report we’ve listed a couple of hundred people we’ve spoken to who are experts, and the report itself contains a lot of information. With the website and the access that exists now there’s no shortage of ways to get factual information.

Context is the most difficult problem. We impose in our own minds Western standards when we try to judge how people are reacting; we try to judge their military by our standards; we try to judge their human rights institutional structures by our standards – it just doesn’t work. They have other methods. As journalists we always tend to find some comparison to conditions back home. If you do that, nothing ever lives up to any standards. What we should do is make reasonable standards in Afghan terms, so they have their own culture and their own ways of dealing with things. We need to respect and recognize that.

It helps if you go there and if do some other reportage other than just being imbedded on bases. It troubles me a little bit how the Canadian media has dealt with this and also to some extent the American media. There are others who deal with this with a broader vision; the British have a greater tradition of people in the field and because it’s on their side of the ocean they tend to put more resources into those stories. But it’s expensive to get there and news organizations are putting an awful lot of money into covering this. I think that’s why [reporting] is one of the issues along with a not very useful communications strategy from decision makers, and this is not just the government of the day, it goes right from the time when Paul Martin sent us into a combat role. I think a lot of people today are surprised that we’re in a combat role. They think we’re in some peacekeeping measure.

The days of peacekeeping are long long gone, not in Afghanistan, not anywhere. It’s a left-over idea that many Canadians have that we’ve got all these blue-helmeted exercises. I think Canada ranks no. 39 in the world in terms of numbers of people involved in peacekeeping, but we’re not the world’s leading peacekeepers, as most Canadians think we are.

(According to the Department of National Defence website there are 89 “classic” peacekeepers deployed overseas, in various military observer and multinational headquarters support roles, out of 2,900 + personnel overseas, or somewhere under 3% of Canadians stationed overseas.)

We really have to understand the nature of the battle in Afghanistan. It’s not a war that we will “win.” The strategy is not coming home with some victory day parade down Yonge Street. Our exit strategy is handing over responsibility for security to the Afghans and to have them with the training and the knowledge and the equipment to be able to do the job, because we’re going to be doing battle with the Taliban and other forces for a very long time.

Q: Would it help us understand the Afghan conflict better if we used the word “war”? Is Canada at war in Afghanistan?
A: Yes, absolutely. We dance around that word. I don’t even think people understand what combat mission is.

Q: The fifth recommendation in your report says “The Government should provide the public with franker and more frequent reporting on events in Afghanistan, offering more assessments of Canada’s role and giving greater emphasis to the diplomatic and reconstruction efforts as well as those of the military.” Are you saying there are too many restrictions on reporters in Afghanistan?
A: Not so much that. It’s a restriction on the flow of information. The reporters who are there are able to talk in one way or another with military representatives. It’s much more difficult for Canadian officials, diplomats and aid people from CIDA for example, to be given the go-ahead to speak. It must all come out of headquarters. So our criticism really is of the bureaucratic nature of the system which dictates that all statements going out about Afghanistan should come out of Ottawa.

We have a young and aggressive and bright ambassador in Kabul. He’s very well connected. He should be engaged in media questions. On the other hand he can’t do that by himself, the media has to be able to ask him the questions and not just be in Afghanistan to cover the death of soldiers and their trips home.

Q: Has Canada’s presence in Afghanistan made it easier for the local media to do its job?
A: There isn’t really an Afghan media. It’s not like we’re going into a country and freeing a press that’s been repressed under the Taliban. I think the presence of the Canadian troops has made it easier for there to be a limited and very rudimentary communication with people, but it’s just not a country that’s well-wired in that sense. They’re mobile people who live in the desert.

For more on Pamela Wallin’s presentation, including excerpts of her speech with corresponding links to the panel’s report, visit the programs section of the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s website. 

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