Selling Afghanistan: A Discourse Analysis of Canada's Military Intervention, 2001-08

Article excerpt

Since 2001, Canada's successive federal governments have gone to great pains to explain the military intervention in Afghanistan to Canadians. In spite of these attempts, communicating with the public about Canada's involvement in Afghanistan has been a challenge for political leaders. Many commentators have been critical of the Canadian government's communication strategy and have alleged that disapproval for the mission was greatly influenced by the inability of Canadian officials to present a clear and transparent public message on Afghanistan.' Though this view is widely held, there has been no rigorous empirical examination of the content of the official discourse on the Canadian operation in Afghanistan since 2001. Given the absence of such analyses, the following questions must be addressed: is this harsh judgment of Canadian officials warranted? If so, does it imply that successive Canadian governments have failed to effectively explain Canada's presence in, and policies towards, Afghanistan?

This article examines how successive Canadian governments have explained and justified Canada's presence in Afghanistan between September 2001 and March 2008. In particular, I examine how successive Canadian governments (those of Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, and Stephen Harper) have presented and sold Canada's presence in Afghanistan. My findings reveal that there has been a significant variation in the quality and content of government speeches on Afghanistan. Based on these findings, the article reinforces criticisms that this varying quality and content has weakened the coherence of the successive governments' Afghan message.

To conduct this study, I collected all published speeches made by prime ministers, ministers of national defence, and ministers of foreign affairs and international trade between September 2001 and March 2008. In all, 101 speeches mentioning the Afghan issue were examined.2 Though I endeavoured to collect all the speeches available, it is possible that some may have escaped my attention. However, on an aggregate level, this should not overly affect the analysis. It should be noted, furthermore, that it is not my aim to analyze the accuracy of the speeches, but rather to analyze their coherence. As such, I have observed that the Canadian government's message on Afghanistan has been chaotic for most of the past seven years, with the rationales and justifications for the mission undergoing notable shifts. This leads me to conclude that the federal government has not succeeded in clearly communicating the logic behind Canada's intervention and actions in Afghanistan.

The article begins by reviewing critiques of the Canadian government's efforts to explain the Afghan mission. Next, it outlines the three types of justification used to legitimize Canada's intervention in Afghanistan, and compares how the Chrétien, Martin, and Harper governments employed these justifications. In conclusion, the article assesses whether existing critiques of the governments' communication strategies are fair.

CANADA GOES TO AFGHANISTAN: COMMUNICATION KERFUFFLE

Certain high-profile commentators have been dismayed by the Canadian government's efforts to communicate and explain Canada's role in Afghanistan. Janice Stein and Eugene Lang, for instance, assert that the Afghan mission suffers from a personality disorder. The federal government was unable, they say, to explain the various reasons why Canada invested substantial military and financial assets in Afghanistan, describing the mission as being one of sanction, combat, and/or reconstruction. Stein and Lang argue that "[n]o country can afford to go to war with... confusion of purpose. Canada's leaders would need to make compelling arguments for why Canada is fighting far away from home."3 They further contend that the rationale behind the mission was confused and deficient.

The independent panel on Canada's future role in Afghanistan, chaired by John Manley and whose report was published in January 2008, agreed with this critical assessment. …