Beleagured Defence Minister Sees Progress in Afghanistan

Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor was supposed to be a casualty of politics by now.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on July 2, 2007

Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor was supposed to be a casualty of politics by now.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on July 2, 2007

Beleagured Defence Minister Sees Progress in Afghanistan

Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor was supposed to be a casualty of politics by now. The former brigadier-general, tapped by Prime Minister Stephen HARPER to simultaneously run the war in Afghanistan and oversee a multi-billion-dollar upgrade of Canadian Forces equipment, has been counted out many times by Ottawa's pundits and political pros. O'Connor entered cabinet last year carrying awkward baggage, having worked, after retiring from the service in 1993, as a lobbyist for defence contractors. The rookie minister quickly established a reputation as a brusque talker who sounded less like a smooth politician than the tank commander he once was. And then, this spring, he appeared, at best, poorly briefed to face salvoes of opposition questions, first about monitoring Afghan detainees, and then about paying funeral costs to the families of Canadian troops killed in Afghanistan.

The combined package - nagging questions about his background, a gruff communication style, and repeated stumbles on key files under Question Period pressure - would normally be more than enough to earn a quick exit from cabinet, or at least a demotion to a less visible role. Yet O'Connor is not only still standing, and with an upright career officer's bearing at that, he also appears defiantly self-confident. "I understand how defence works and I understand how this department works," he says. "What I didn't understand, and I'm learning day by day, is how politics works and how the machinery of government works. And that, I'm still working on."

The fact that O'Connor is being allowed to continue learning on the job is testimony to his high standing with the Prime Minister. Perhaps the clearest indication of Harper's intention to stick by him came in a supercharged May 31 exchange in the House, when Liberal Leader Stéphane DION called for O'Connor's resignation after the parents of a soldier killed in Kandahar said they had not been paid the full cost of the funeral, despite O'Connor's public assurances to the contrary. "He has served this country courageously in uniform for 32 years," Harper said of O'Connor. "When the leader of the Opposition is able to stand in uniform and serve his country, then I'll care about his opinion of the performance of the minister of defence."

Many remarked that it was odd for Harper, who has no military background himself, to set service in uniform as a condition for wading into the debate. Still, he may have been signalling why O'Connor, as a rare recent Canadian example of a crossover from the senior ranks of the military to the top strata of politics, is no ordinary minister in his eyes. And then there is the generational issue: O'Connor will likely go down in history as Canada's last defence minister whose understanding of the place of the military was powerfully shaped by his own memories of the Second World War and its aftermath. At 68, he brings the almost forgotten perspective of those who came of age when the Forces were central to public life in Canada, and then watched over the decades as the military drifted - at least until Canada's soldiers started dying in Afghanistan - to the margins of the national consciousness.

He views combat deaths in Afghanistan as part of a long history of sacrifice, not as a jolting, unexpected punctuation mark at the end of the era when PEACEKEEPING seemed like the Canadian military's main job. "People should not join the Forces just for a nice career if they think they are going to avoid harm's way," he says. "They won't." Although he says the Taliban has been beaten back to a point where it can no longer engage in full-fledged battles, he sees its terrorist strikes going on a long time. Even after Afghanistan, O'Connor expects more of this sort of messy conflict, not the "classic peacekeeping" he once helped the Forces plan for. "Now we anticipate more of these violent insurgencies or civil wars."

O'Connor was born in 1939. His father served in the Air Force during the Second World War, and as a career officer afterward. During the war years, the family lived in Ottawa in an apartment on Queen Street, not far from Parliament Hill, where a modern office building, the World Exchange Centre, now stands. It was from this vantage that, as a five-year-old, O'Connor witnessed the Victory in Europe day celebrations on May 8, 1945. "I can remember the streetcars going down Queen Street there, and throwing all the tickertapes and paper all over the place," he reminisced. "People were just delirious."

He was always sure he wanted to join up, though as a soldier ("Tanks appealed to me"), instead of following his father into the Air Force. After earning a degree in science from Montreal's Concordia University, he enlisted in 1962. His first posting, to the base at Gagetown, N.B., came just a month before the Cuban missile crisis. "I thought I was in heaven," he recalls. "I thought, 'Here I am, a young officer, and I'm going to war.' The Armed Forces were being mobilized, in opposition to the prime minister of the day. We were loading our tanks in railway cars to go to Saint John to go overseas."

O'Connor's memory of his own enthusiasm at the prospect of war with the Soviet Union speaks to his understanding of the appeal of choosing to put on the uniform. "Now, as an older man, I'm quite happy that it didn't happen," he says. "But young guys, even today in Afghanistan, young guys want adventure." In his year and a half as defence minister, he has travelled four times to visit Canadian troops in the field in Kandahar. There can be no doubt he identifies with those soldiers far more than with the political class that he has joined late in life.

Unlike previous defence ministers who tended to operate mainly from offices on Parliament Hill, O'Connor works every day in the Department of National Defence's bunker-like modern headquarters, where he was interviewed by Maclean's. His office affords a commanding view down the Rideau Canal to the Gothic spires of what he refers to, with a faint but distinct air of derision and a jut of his chiselled chin toward the Peace Tower, as "that place over there."

It is no surprise that he is ambivalent about Parliament Hill. He didn't like what the politicians there did to the Forces from the 1960s through the 1990s. And he can't be very happy with what has happened to him there more recently. But if he can hang on to his job long enough, and the Tories to power, his ambitious procurement program and unflinching stance on Afghanistan could leave a permanent stamp that more conventionally skilful politicians might envy.

He was never obvious cabinet material. "I doubt he ever expected it," says Douglas Bland, a Queen's University professor of defence management and former army buddy of O'Connor's. He joined Harper's Canadian Alliance before it merged with the Progressive Conservatives in 2004. At first, he volunteered to work on policy in MP Scott Reid's riding, on the western edge of Ottawa. O'Connor insists he had no ambition to seek office. But when seat redistribution split the riding in two before the 2004 election, Reid and others urged O'Connor to run in the new Carleton-Mississippi Mills constituency. "My initial reaction was that I was too old," O'Connor says. "It was suggested that I turn on CPAC. When I did, I realized there were a bunch of old farts on it, and I wouldn't be alone."

He won the riding in the 2004 election, and during the Conservatives' stint in opposition served as Harper's defence critic and largely crafted the party's defence platform. It promised "large-scale investments" to strengthen a "combat-capable defence force," and claimed the Liberals had for decades "undermined and underfunded Canada's armed forces." That reflected O'Connor's personal experience, watching the military dwindle from its post-Second World War might, and then struggle through an era of budget cuts when Jean CHRÉTIEN's Liberals were eliminating the federal deficit in the second half of the 1990s. He was out of uniform before the toughest years of restraint, having retired in 1994, not long after a Somali teenager was beaten to death in 1993 by Canadian soldiers serving on a UN peacekeeping mission. "Morale was abysmal," he says of that period.

He joined the international public relations and consulting powerhouse Hill & Knowlton as a lobbyist for big defence corporations like General Dynamics and Airbus Military. After the Tories won the 2006 election, some predicted that lobbying background would keep him out of cabinet; his political tormentors still say it should have. "There was an appearance of conflict of interest and he shouldn't be there, period," says Liberal defence critic Denis Coderre. But attacks on O'Connor as a tainted former lobbyist have grown less persistent as contracting fails to show his old clients faring unusually well. Some questions were raised, to be sure, when General Dynamics won a $30-million contract this spring to supply the Forces with gear to detect biological threats. On the other hand, Airbus has had to mount an aggressive campaign to try to reverse Defence's choice last fall of Lockheed-Martin's C-130J tactical-lift transport planes, in a deal expected to be worth close to $5 billion, over its competing A-400s.

More serious, at least to political insiders, is the view that O'Connor just hasn't held his own in the House. His worst day may have been March 19, when he had to reverse himself after months of insisting that the International Committee of the Red Cross was monitoring and reporting back to Canada on the condition of detainees captured by Canadian troops and then turned over to the Afghan army. In fact, the ICRC's policy allows it to report on its findings only to the Afghan government. "I fully and without reservation apologize to the House for providing inaccurate information for members," O'Connor said.

Or perhaps May 30 was even more excruciating for the proud former general. That was the day Lincoln and Laurie Dinning of Wingham, Ont., held a news conference in Ottawa to refute O'Connor's claim the previous day that the military was paying the full cost of funeral services for all soldiers killed while he was defence minister. The grieving father said the funeral of his son, Cpl. Matthew Dinning, cost more than $12,000, and the military paid just $5,600. "Will the Prime Minister ensure that no mother, no family suffers this again, and will he take the first step and fire that minister of defence," shouted Liberal deputy leader Michael Ignatieff in what must have been one of the most stinging of the many demands for O'Connor's head.

Even the most fierce partisan, however, would be hard pressed to imagine that O'Connor meant to stiff mourning families of fallen soldiers. Indeed, this week Lincoln Dinning said he is pleased with a new arrangement that increases payments for funeral costs. (The new rate of $12,700 will be retroactive to all service members killed since Canada began its involvement in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, and replaces the old basic rate of $4,675 for burial costs.) "Given my background I want to be sure soldiers, sailors, airmen and their families are treated properly and a few dollars here and there don't matter," O'Connor says. "There have been a number of occasions where I've had to personally intervene and say, 'This isn't fair.' There's nobody to blame for this. The way bureaucracies work, when rules are set, they follow the rules."

He is more guarded in what he will say about his inconsistencies on the detainee issue. One Defence official, asking not to be identified, suggested the problem should never have been his to contend with in the first place, since arriving at a deal with the Afghanistan government on prisoner transfers is properly the responsibility of diplomats, not soldiers, so questions should have been fielded mainly by Foreign Minister Peter MacKay. O'Connor is careful not to pick fights with fellow ministers, suggesting only that he was not well briefed by officials. "In Parliament I work on the best advice I have at the time," he says. "And so that whatever the advice is at the time, I try to relay that advice."

If he's muted about what went wrong with his own responses to detainee questions, O'Connor is much more forceful characterizing the underlying partisan tone of the debate. He continues to suggest the Liberals and other opposition MPs were unduly concerned about the condition of Taliban prisoners. This despite the fact that independent observers as well, including Amnesty International, have raised concerns about possible abuse of prisoners at the hands of Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security. "For three weeks," O'Connor says of the opposition's tack when the detainee debate was dominating Question Period, "they talked about the care and feeding of the Taliban."

O'connor dismisses the opposition assaults on him in the House as "ankle-biting," mere distractions from his core objectives. Indeed, he sounds less defensive and more crisply persuasive when he shifts from issues like detainees and funerals to fighting the Taliban and rebuilding the Forces. He argues that since Canadian troops moved early last year from Kabul, the Afghan capital, to Kandahar, in the violent south, their successes on the battlefield have fundamentally changed the security equation. "When our troops arrived in the Kandahar area they were confronted by nearly 1,000 Taliban to the west of the city," he says. "The Taliban were intending to encircle Kandahar city, which is the second city of Afghanistan, and sort of set it up as their capital. What happened is that our forces, with assistance from the Americans, the British, the Dutch, ended that dream. Kandahar province will have regular violence in it; there will be bombs. But the Taliban have no capacity to concentrate against us."

The assertion that the Taliban is less a fighting force today than a terrorist group may be cold comfort, given this week's news from Afghanistan. In a scene of carnage worthy of Baghdad, a bus full of police instructors was blown up in Kabul, killing 35, while a roadside explosion in Kandahar city claimed the lives of three coalition soldiers and an interpreter. "Yes, you're going to see these horrible things go on where the Taliban tries to terrorize people," O'Connor says. "That's what the idea is, try to scare people away. But we're not budging."

At least not before the mission runs out in Feburary 2009. And maybe not even then. Much of the political debate surrounding the mission now focuses on exit timing. Liberal Leader Dion says Canada should announce now that it will pull its troops out of the combat zone at the end of the current two-year commitment. The NDP calls for immediate withdrawal. As for O'Connor and the Tories, they aren't signalling the next step. "We haven't decided yet what the future is," he says. "If we decide to make any changes, we promise to bring it to Parliament for debate and a vote." The best exit strategy for NATO as a whole, O'Connor argues, is to train up the Afghan army, which is still not halfway to its target size of 70,000 troops, to take over defending the country.

Even if Canada's troops rotate out of Kandahar in 2009, it seems unlikely Canadian engagement in Afghanistan will quickly wind down. Canada's involvement is arguably more extensive than it has ever been with any developing country. Not only are about 2,500 members of the Forces stationed in Afghanistan, Canada is committed to spending nearly $1 billion in aid there in the 10 years ending in 2011. Afghan soldiers are increasingly fighting in close co-operation with Canadians in so-called Operation Mentoring and Liaison Teams.

Efforts to sell the mission back home are being stepped up, with Gen. David Fraser, just returned from leading NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, and David Sproule, recently back from serving as Canada's ambassador in Kabul, among those being used to spread the word. Their message is heavy on reconstruction and development, a bid to counter the steady stream of media images of bloodshed. Sproule says that when he first visited a forward base of Canadian troops in Kandahar back in late 2006, the locals had cleared out of the area for fear of being caught in the combat zone. This spring, when he visited the same place again, the villagers had returned. "There were lots of people, a normalcy," Sproule said. "Discussions were around reconstruction and development. We'd gone beyond security."

He says hundreds of development projects are now underway in Kandahar, where only last year many observers said aid seemed all but impossible to deliver because of the threat of violence. O'Connor also touts the spread of aid in Kandahar and throughout Afghanistan.

Perhaps unexpectedly, however, his attention seems to be shifting from the biggest Canadian military and foreign policy challenge since the Korean conflict to the home front. This summer, O'Connor promises to draw new attention to the military as a bulwark of Arctic sovereignty, and as an emergency response force in case of natural disaster or terrorist attack. "You're going to see initiatives that make sure our army, navy and air force are in the north," he vows. "And you are going to see other initiatives that improve our security here in the south."

All this while he continues rolling out a $5.3-billion five-year spending spree, which the government calls its "Canada First" plan, that includes new planes, helicopters, ships and army trucks. He talks in terms of a to-do list. "If I can be allowed to stay here long enough to get through it," O'Connor says, "our ARMED FORCES are going to be a lot better off." Considering the political trial by fire he's survived so far, it would be foolhardy to bet that he won't hang on long enough to check off a few more items.

Maclean's July 2, 2007