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Monday, August 07, 2006

Afghanistan a Lightning-rod Issue for Tories

OTTAWA -- Afghanistan has become a lightning rod for thousands of ordinary Canadians who write or call Stephen Harper, newly released documents show.

Records of telephone calls, letters and e-mails to the prime minister in the four months since he took office Feb. 6 suggest the military mission is turning into a political quagmire for the minority government.

In May, for example, Harper's office received 1,453 letters and e-mails about Canada's Afghan deployment, two-thirds calling on the government to pull out and get the troops home. Another 114 telephone callers said the same.

The mission in Kandahar by far eclipsed any other issue that month, according to an internal analysis obtained under the Access to Information Act.

It was similar in April, when 1,805 pieces of correspondence and another 422 telephone calls dealt with Afghanistan-related issues.

Most criticized the government's decision not to lower flags on Parliament Hill to honour fallen soldiers, and there was vocal opposition to the mission itself. Almost 200 callers said the media should not be banned from reporting the return of the bodies of soldiers.

Again, Afghanistan dominated as the top issue that month when measured by the volume of correspondence.

The released analyses paint a picture of deepening concern about Canada's increasingly bloody engagement on the other side of the world, where at least 24 soldiers have died, including five in the last week.

In the month after Harper was sworn in, Afghanistan was barely on the radar of Canadians who tried to contact the prime minister, according to the analysis provided by the Privy Council Office.

In February, there was a slew of congratulatory messages for the new prime minister, and a smattering of correspondence on child care, the seal hunt, gun control and other matters.

The hottest topic among telephone callers was David Emerson, who defected from the Liberals to become Harper's trade minister.

"Callers would like him to resign and run in a byelection," says a report, citing 73 such calls.

But by March, Afghanistan had become the second most frequently mentioned subject, after the seal hunt, with 848 letters and e-mails.

"The large majority of writers criticiz(ed) the deployment of Canadian Forces to the region, and call(ed) for their return to Canada."

Another 121 people who picked up the telephone in March mentioned Afghanistan. "Callers were generally opposed to the sending of Canadian soldiers to Afghanistan."

The prime minister's mailbag and phone logs are decidedly unscientific samples of opinion, though three dozen bureaucrats are employed full time to wade through some two million items each year and categorize them by subject.

Their analyses carefully exclude so-called write-in campaigns, which use form letters and e-mail templates to flood politicians with standardized messages.

Instead, staff focus on e-mails, letters and telephone calls that appear to be spontaneous and individual.

The emphasis on Afghanistan contrasts sharply with former prime minister Paul Martin's mailbag in 2005, where the subject was hardly mentioned. Instead, same-sex marriage was last year's hottest topic.

The new concern about Afghanistan is also reflected in recent polls. A survey last month by Strategic Counsel suggested 56 per cent of Canadians opposed the Kandahar mission, up 15 percentage points from March.

Harper's office did not respond when asked whether the prime minister read any of this correspondence or is briefed on it regularly.

Canada has about 2,200 soldiers in and around Kandahar, where Taliban resistance is strong.

Pollster Bruce Anderson of Decima Research said the prime minister's correspondence does seem to mirror a growing anxiety among Canadians about the Afghanistan mission and foreign policy generally.

"People thought it was important to join with America and do our part to fight terrorism, but they have lost faith that the U.S. administration is conducting this war effectively," he said.

"The new conflict in Lebanon raises fears that the future holds more instability, not less, and that the U.S. may be more of the problem than the solution."

Canadians also worry about safeguarding an independent foreign policy, and about the rising casualties in Afghanistan with no clear milestones of success in the troubled country, he added.

Canadian Press
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