The generals have a big problem. The fighting in Afghanistan is over for Canada, and the thousands of recruits they armed, and the fleets of planes, helicopters and tanks they bought, have nowhere to go but home.
Since 9/11 the military budget has ballooned to its highest level since the Second World War, surpassing the height of the Cold War in adjusted dollars.
How much longer will they be willing to keep picking up the military's enormous tab with no war to fight or troops in harm's way to support?
This might explain why celebrated war historian Jack Granatstein, a well-known supporter of the war in Afghanistan and military interests, used the pages of the Ottawa Citizen recently to berate what he described as "the pacifist left" for not supporting the Harper government's military role in the war-torn West African country of Mali, the military's newest mission.
Mr. Granatstein argued that "the Canadian Forces' role has been a minor one." The Harper government deployed one of our newest and largest transport planes to aid the French military fighting minority ethnic rebels and al-Qaeda affiliated fighters in Mali. "Prime Minister Stephen Harper made clear that there will be no members of the CF in combat in Mali," he added, and "Islamist terrorism is a threat to democracies everywhere."
But it comes down to this: who can the public trust?
The fact is the public knows there is a group of people in Canada who benefit from war. It's ugly, but that doesn't make it any less true.
Prime Minister Chrétien once referred to them as the "defence lobby": the CEOs and their hired lobbyists, the associations of hawkish academics and retired military officers, even some members of the media. They all benefit when Canada goes to war, through either money, career advancement, or both.
In my 20 years as a defence analyst, I have come to know them well.
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Many generals retire from the military to take up well-paid lobbying positions with large, mostly foreign, corporations seeking multi-billion-dollar contracts. Recently one such retired air force general was quoted by the Canadian Press, commenting on the need to replace Canada's fighter planes. Sounds reasonable, but the reporter neglected to identify him as a registered lobbyist for Lockheed Martin, the maker of the F-35 stealth fighter which was in line for the sole-sourced replacement contract.
It gets worse. Many reporters, including the one mentioned above, accept an annual journalism award and cash prize from the Conference of Defence Associations, a group of retired military officers whose funding has come from the Department of National Defence. Mr. Granatstein himself has received a similar award from the CDA. In an unusual twist, their half-million-dollar funding deal with National Defence was contingent on their spokespeople being quoted in the media a specified number of times.
Canadians are right to be wary. Conflicts have been used to justify military projects in the past. The Libya conflict was used by the government to justify their disastrous deal for the underperforming F-35 stealth fighter. The air force tried to use the Libya conflict to fast-track their plan to buy attack drones, the same kind the U.S. is using to carry out assassination missions and kill innocent civilians by the houseful.
Would another conflict like Mali, or the next crisis, provide the political momentum to the defence lobby to advance the military's floundering weapons projects, and avoid the budget cuts that other departments are experiencing?
Sadly, Mali has many of the hallmarks of Afghanistan: a post–Cold War civil war where tribal and regional grievances are infused by Islamic extremists with their own agenda, both battling a corrupt and illegitimate Western-backed government whose own forces are marginally less abusive than those they are fighting.
Canada could either be engaged in helping the suffering people of Mali, or lured into another fiasco claiming soldiers' lives, by those with a vested interest in another war. The stakes could not be higher.
Mr. Granatstein noted that both the NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and Bob Rae of the Liberals were supporting the government's actions. "How fortunate that the Opposition parties had better sense in this instance than the Rideau Institute and Ceasefire.ca," he wrote, naming two organizations I am intimately involved with.
If opposition parties are indeed supporting the Conservatives, then it seems to me that the "pacifist left" is needed now more than ever to inform the public about the choices this government is making, to end wasteful military spending, and to keep the defence lobby from luring Canada into another reckless war.