Saturday, 19 April 2008

A Hillier of Beans

Outgoing Chief Of Defence Staff Rick Hillier has been properly eulogised by the senior members of an apparently grateful government, but his resignation may imply more than any of the principal actors seem willing to admit.

Stephen Harper made it very clear during the recent NATO summit in Bucharest that he intends to start selling our Afghan mission as an act of disinterested philanthropy, rather than as an anti-terrorism campaign, believing that Canadians will find altruism more attractive than self-interest. Obviously, the need for the military to produce evidence of altruism (i.e. completed development tasks) will need to take priority over anti-Taliban combat.

One wonders how this strategy would sit with a general who, soon after being named Chief of Defence Staff, said this during a Maclean's Q&A session:

"Before Sept. 11, we were deploying men and women around the world, sometimes in very dangerous places, in essence as a reflection of Canadian values. I don't think anybody truly believed our existence, our survival, our security and stability depended on those operations. We were doing it because Canadians like to help out around the world. Since Sept. 11, we deploy men and women around the world to protect Canadian interests. We know that if we don't bring stability to places like Afghanistan, they will bring instability to Canada".

Clearly, a Chief of Staff who thinks that "Canadian values" and "helping out around the world" are superannuated luxuries that must be wiped off the agenda for the sake of the aggressive pursuit of our national interests is not the ideal point-man for a communications strategy intended to emphasise the selfless features of the endeavour.

More troubling are Hillier's views on the Afghani warlords. NATO, and the U.S. in particular, have made no secret of their displeasure with many of the warlords under Hamid Karzai's political protection. Undisciplined, volatile, violent, often as fundamentalist as the Taliban, warlords have helped turn Afghanistan into one of the world's foremost narco-states. The Q&A makes quite clear, though, that Hillier is rather fond of the scamps. In talking of the friendliness of the Afghan people, he enthuses:

"You had to experience their version of friendship to understand it. I experienced it from normal people we met right through to President [Hamid] Karzai himself -- and including many of the warlords. They weren't necessarily malicious, so we worked with these folks".

When asked whether he respects the warlords, Hillier responds:

"Absolutely. They beat the Russians pretty fairly and squarely and, at the end of the day, they were responsible for thumping the Taliban. Many of these folks were incredible leaders. Many of them had one goal: a stronger Afghanistan that was a centre of stability for the region. Others went down the road of personal greed, into the drug trade and a variety of things, but in many cases from insecurity because they didn't know what their position was going to be in a future Afghanistan. Some of them became very close friends".

Given that the U.S. is putting at least as many resources into taming and disarming the warlords and destroying their poppy crops as they're putting into fighting the Taliban, how happy could the Americans have been to be working with someone who thinks the warlords are real stand-up guys?

Putting aside what the Americans think of these "incredible leaders", let's hear what someone on the ground thinks of them--and not just anyone, but a woman (one of those about whom our pro-war armchair warriors claim to be so concerned).

Malalai Joya, at twenty-nine the youngest member of Afghanistan's lower house of parliament, visited Canada last year to speak about Afghani women's issues. This incredibly brave woman, who is still forced to wear a burqa in her "liberated" country and who has been threatened by fellow Jirga members for her outspokenness, had this to say about the warlords:

"The Northern Alliance fundamentalists are mentally similar to the Taliban, but superficially they have changed to suit their power by talking about democracy and the 9/11 tragedy...Today, they control Afghanistan. Some of them are ministers, governors, commanders or ambassadors. They control Afghanistan and our people are like hostages...The international community will not succeed in Afghanistan, because...they fought against the Taliban by supporting another bunch of terrorists".

A woman who lives in constant fear of being assaulted or killed by the people who ostensibly represent Afghan "democracy" is describing as Talibanesque murderers the folks Rick Hillier thinks of as "friends"--just normal, hard-working chaps. Allow me to go out on a limb and suggest that Hillier's oddly misplaced loyalties must have made for some awkward NATO joint planning sessions and some very awkward DND/PMO communication sessions.

Just tangentially, the Maclean's Q&A also vexes the status of Hillier's "straight-shooter" reputation. Hillier heaps fairly florid praise upon the recent Liberal budget (the last, I believe), which pledged $12.8 billion in new defence spending. He says:

"We'll look back and see that this was a turning point for the armed forces. Finally, that huge reservoir of support in the population for the men and women who wear the uniform manifested itself in the budget announcement".
About Prime Minister Paul Martin, Hillier says:

"What I've seen in my short time as chief of defence staff is a significant amount of time this prime minister devotes to defence and security issues. I'm pleasantly surprised. That was reflected in the budget, and it will be reflected in the defence policy statement".

Wait a minute. Isn't Hillier the guy who excoriated the Liberal Party last year as the authors of "The Decades of Darkness"? I don't recall hearing him exclude Paul Martin from that sweeping denunciation or defend Martin against the "soft-on-defence" slander of CPC pitbulls during the 2005-6 election.

Of course, correcting the CPC propaganda would have required Hillier to politicise himself, an act of shameless transvestiture that Hiller no doubt thought pointless until the electorate confirmed his old master or gave him a new one. After all, effective pandering is all about timing.


Red Tory said...

Very punny.

There are a lot of good things to be said about Hillier, but at the same time his flaws shouldn’t be overlooked — this is an excellent critique of a few of the more glaring ones.

ch said...

his resignation may imply more than any of the principal actors seem willing to admit

Interesting post. It seems that Hillier will have served a shorter period than other recent Generals, and is resigning during a time of war no less. This does seem odd for someone who has always come across as committed to his troops. He can't possibly be quitting just to golf.

Anonymous said...

Quite a few successful military leaders who are popular soldiers' generals advance their sell-by date by treading the line between the civil and military (Monty, Patton, MacArthur,). He's a bright guy and maybe saw where it was inevitably heading.

But what a legacy. For those who share Orwell's belief that people sleep peaceably in their beds because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf, the sea-change in morale and public respect in three years is astounding. For years it seemed the Canadian soldier was the plaything of a bureaucratically corrupt brass and politicians stuck in their high school UN clubs, a near-invisible small-town type one might see in a bus station if one was the sort who frequented bus stations. Now he/she gets standing ovations at NHL games and passes up the line at grocery store check-outs. Remember the old "There is no life like it" jingle that bouncily suggested it was all about traveling the world and learning trades in gender-balanced harmony? Now it's "Fight Fear" in black and white against sombre music. I think Kipling would have been a big fan of General Hillier.

Sir Francis said...

I think Kipling would have been a big fan of General Hillier.

I rather think Kipling would have expected a soldier of the Queen to fight against warlords rather than with and for them. Fuzzy-wuzzies are not supposed to be calling the shots [political incorrectness alert!]...

By the way, Monty never stepped over the line into politics. Perhaps he should have. The Normandy campaign might have been less of a bloody shambles if he had forced Eisenhower to let him to do the smart thing rather than pursue that idiotic American "broad-front" nonsense that bogged us down in Somme-like battles of attrition for a year.

Anonymous said...

Oh, indeed. The Imperial British never lined up behind corrupt hereditary leaders or powerful warlords for strategic reasons. They always first made sure their allies subscribed to the principles of the South Camden Conservative Association or the Fabian Society.

Sir Francis said...


Now, now--there's no call for sarcasm...