Canadians think the mission in Afghanistan is good for our reputation in the world, but see the mission as very difficult and aren’t convinced we can succeed there. Those are the principal findings of an SES Research poll for Policy Options. Conducted by telephone among 1,000 Canadians from April 26 to May 1, the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent, 19 times out of 20.
When we asked Canadians whether they thought Canada’s mission in Afghanistan ”œenhances, diminishes or has no impact on Canada’s international reputation” (ques- tion 1) 48.1 percent they replied that it enhances our repu- tation, a 2-1 margin over those who said it diminishes it (23.2 percent) and over an equal number (23 percent) who replied it has no impact at all.
There were interesting regional attitudinal differ- ences on this question. The largest percentage of respon- dents who thought the mission enhanced Canada’s reputation (56 percent) was in the Atlantic, while the smallest percentage was in Quebec (38.4 percent). In Ontario and in the West, about 50 percent thought the mission enhanced our standing in the world. In the Atlantic, only 20 percent thought the mission diminished our international reputation, while 31.2 percent thought so in Quebec. Still, a plurality of respondents, even in Quebec, thought the mission enhanced Canada’s stature in the world.
The poll was conducted after the deaths of six Canadian soldiers, five from Camp Gagetown in New Brunswick, who were killed when a roadside bomb blew up their vehicle on patrol in the dangerous Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan.
The other questions in our poll indicate that Canadians understand the enormity of the mission, and what we are trying to accomplish in Afghanistan, but they also clearly see how difficult it is.
It’s also interesting how Canadians see the priorities of the mission and the degree of difficulty in achieving them. When we asked Canadians to rank the most important among three stated objectives for the Canadian mission (question 2), a plurality chose ”œpromoting the rule of law and human rights” (37.9 percent) over ”œproviding security and stability (33.3 percent), while only 19.7 percent said ”œsupporting economic and social development” was the most important aspect of our mission in Afghanistan.
In all regions of the country except Quebec ”” where a plurality (40.8 per- cent) who chose security trumped those who selected law/human rights (36.8 percent) ”” more Canadians thought the humanitarian aspects of the mission were more important than providing security.
This may well have to do with Canadians’ enduring self-perception of our country as a nation of peace- keepers, even though we are not real- ly in that business anymore. Many Canadians are still using the 1950s and 1960s Pearsonian peacekeeping model as a lens to view Canada’s role in the world.
In any event, and within the mar- gin of error, Canadians see law and human rights, one of the less publi- cized roles of Canada in Afghanistan, as no less important than the security role which dominates news coverage to the virtual exclusion of other ele- ments of the mission.
When we asked Canadians about the likelihood of success of thethree elements of Canada’s role in Afghanistan, what came back was a strong sense of the degree of difficul- ty involved in the mission.
When we asked about our role in promoting the rule of law and human rights (question 3), 24 per- cent said the likelihood of success was high, as opposed to 40.4 percent who saw it as average, and another 31.2 percent who saw the likelihood of success as low. When we asked about the likelihood of success in providing security and sta- bility (question 4), 22.5 per- cent of Canadians said it was high, 41.1 percent saw it as average and 32.1 percent saw it as low. Stated bluntly, only 1 Canadian in 4 sees the likelihood of a successful security mission as high, while one Canadian in 3 sees the prospects of success as low, while fully 4 Canadians in 10 see the chances of success as only average.
The security aspect of the mission is clearly the most crucial and most volatile in terms of shaping and driv- ing public opinion, and the most sus- ceptible of being influenced by negative news stories on the frequency and scale of Canadian casualties.
Once again, there is a significant cleavage on this question between Quebec and the rest of Canada. While 34 percent of respondents in the Atlantic and 26.7 percent in Ontario thought the prospects for security suc- cess were high, only 16.4 percent in Quebec thought so, while 31.2 percent of Quebecers thought the chances for success were low and 48.8 percent thought them only average. Stated another way, twice as many Quebecers think the security mission is more like- ly to fail than succeed (one in three versus one in six), while nearly half of Quebecers rate the likelihood of suc- cess as only average.
But while Quebecers are the group of Canadians who are the least likely to think the mission is capable of success, or that it enhances our rep- utation, it is clear that committed Conservative Party voters think so on both counts. While the issue of Afghanistan is somewhat divisive on a regional basis, and certainly in lin- guistic terms, it also tends to mobilize core Conservative support, in all regions and among all language groups in the country.
But even committed Conserva- tives think the degree of difficulty is high.
Afghanistan is one of the most ambitious and complex missions Canada has ever undertaken. With our Afghan and NATO partners, we are trying to provide security in a country the size of Texas, one with a history not unlike the Wild West; we are trying to build infrastructure in a country where roads, wells, schools and the rule of law cannot be taken for granted because they barely exist; we are trying to help build the institutions of democracy in a nation broken by decades of Soviet occupation and civil war.
Canadians understand the daunt- ing nature of these challenges. But they wonder whether we can succeed, whether we’ve devoted enough resources to success, and how long it’s going to take.
It’s up to the government, and principally the Prime Minister, to make the case, one that, clearly, hasn’t yet been made.