The humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan is heart-rending. Because this disaster is unfolding in the midst of a federal election, it is also politically dangerous for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
If you think it’s callous to link the electoral fortunes of a political party to thousands of expats and Afghans who aided the Canadian mission, and who are now at risk in Kabul, remember Alan Kurdi.
The photograph of that young boy lying on a Mediterranean beach after he and his family drowned trying to flee the Syrian civil war in 2015 shocked the world. And because the family had been trying to reach Canada, but an initial immigration application had been rejected as incomplete, the photo damaged the prospects of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in the midst of that year’s federal election campaign. The photo of Alan Kurdi helped make Justin Trudeau prime minister. Politics is a hard business.
On Wednesday, a video surfaced that appeared to show Afghans, Canadian documents allegedly in hand, wearing red hats to identify themselves to Canadian authorities, standing in water pleading to be admitted to Kabul airport, while Canadian troops watched and did nothing. There is bound to be more to the story – for one thing, the soldiers were no doubt following orders – but the video is deeply distressing nonetheless.
Post-mortems may reveal there was little the Liberal government could have done to rescue more people in Kabul who needed Canada’s protections. The swiftness of the Biden administration’s abandonment of the Afghan mission, and the speed with which the Taliban seized power, surprised even people well versed in the country and its issues. Many of America’s allies were caught flat-footed by the collapse of support; they are struggling, as we are, to pull as many people out as they can in the hours that remain.
And unlike the 2015 election campaign – when, after the Alan Kurdi photo appeared, the Liberals and NDP rushed out campaign promises to settle tens of thousands of Syrian refugees – there is nothing that the opposition parties can credibly say they would do differently going forward.
“Mr. Trudeau has abandoned people,” Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole told reporters Tuesday. He maintained the government could and should have started identifying and relocating those at risk months ago, and promised to do a better job if he is made prime minister. Maybe. Maybe not.
Mr. Trudeau insisted his government is “doing everything we can to help get as many people out as possible.” It’s up to voters to decide whether to take him at his word. But the political damage could be serious. If people who tried but failed to get to Canada are killed in the coming days, it will be Alan Kurdi all over again.
In the meantime, it’s pretty obvious that Women and Gender Equality Minister Maryam Monsef stepped in it Tuesday when, at a press conference, she urged “our brothers, the Taliban,” to ensure the safety of those trying to leave the country. She later explained that the use of the word “brothers” was “a cultural reference, of course.” Okay, but it was also politically dumb, of course.
Would the rescue mission be proceeding any differently, were Mr. Trudeau and his ministers at their desks focused relentlessly on the airport in Kabul rather than campaigning? Who knows?
But Liberals now face a trifecta of accusations: that they called an unnecessary election, that they called it even as a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections gathers momentum, and that they called it while a humanitarian crisis worsens in Afghanistan.
The Liberals may not deserve any more blame for the situation in Kabul now than the Conservatives deserved for the death of Alan Kurdi in 2015.
Nonetheless, governments are responsible for what happens on their watch. And the debacle in Kabul is occurring on Justin Trudeau’s watch, just as the debacle in the Mediterranean occurred on Mr. Harper’s. And in both cases, the governing parties were right in the middle of elections.
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