CanWest: Canada's ballooning Afghan war cost no longer national secret

Canada’s ballooning Afghan war cost no longer national secret

By Mike Blanchfield, Canwest News Service June 24, 2009
OTTAWA – The Defence Department admitted Wednesday that it was wrong to withhold the future cost of the war in Afghanistan on the basis that releasing it would violate national security.

Earlier this week, Canwest News Service revealed that the military had censored the projected costs in the coming three fiscal years in a recent Access to Information request by the federal NDP. The military withheld those costs even though they released them in an identical request by the NDP in April 2008.

“It was unnecessarily severed. It was a human error and we acknowledge that mistake,” military spokesman Jeremy Sales said in an interview.

When the military finally divulged the numbers on Wednesday, the cost to taxpayers turned out to be almost $2.6 billion higher than the figures provided in 2008.

The figures released Wednesday show that cost of the war for 2009-10 is estimated at $1.513 billion, while for 2010-11 the cost is pegged at $1.468 billion.

Those 2008 figures showed a $261-million price tag for 2009-10 and $150 million projection for 2010-11.

“It seems to me, unbeknownst to Canadians, the costs and projections for this mission in Afghanistan are spiralling out of control without any public disclosure or opportunity for public debate on this,” said NDP defence critic Jack Harris.

A military official, who requested not to be quoted by name, explained the rise in cost by saying that the Canadian combat mission had not been extended to 2011 when those original estimates were made.

Originally the military cited Section 15 of the Access to Information Act, which states “the defence of Canada or any state allied” with it, in justifying the right to censor the figures.

Yet, with the military’s decision to back away from that position and release figures, other questions were raised that defence officials were unable to explain.

Despite the fact the military chose to invoke the national security exemption and withhold its Afghanistan projections, they were actually already available through the Treasury Board website.

Military figures on the Treasury Board website estimated that the military mission would cost $822 million in the fiscal year 2009-10 and another $943 million for 2010-11.

“The Treasury Board numbers were released and they seem off by 85 per cent in 2009-10 and 55 per cent higher in 2010-11 and over 300 per cent higher in 2011-12 and after that a half a billion dollars,” said Harris, after learning of the revised estimates on Wednesday.

“They’re not coming clean with the people of Canada,” he added.

Harris said he is still not satisfied with the military’s initial refusal to “make information available to a political party, why the numbers are so astoundingly different from those from Treasury Board.”

On Wednesday, the military also released the future costs of the military operation in Afghanistan beyond 2011, the deadline for the withdrawal of Canadian Forces troops from the current combat operation in Kandahar.

Once again, the figures were higher than contained on the Treasury Board website.

The Treasury Board site estimated that the mission would cost $178 million in the fiscal year of 2011-12; on Wednesday, the military said the cost would be $779 million.

For the first time Wednesday, the military also offered up costs for “future years” – a column also censored in this most recent NDP request – pegging those at $540 million.

Asked about those numbers, given that the mission is to formally have ended by 2011, the defence official explained that was because of costs associated with closing out the mission, such as bringing equipment back to Canada and restoring it to its pre-war state.

But Harris rejected that explanation, saying the military “obviously has significant plans for the military in Afghanistan beyond the mission end date of July 2011″ because the post-2011 costs are $1.2 billion.

“That’s not keeping the engines turning while you’re bringing the equipment back home,” Harris said.

“They obviously have some plans, so lay it on the table and let the Canadian people decide whether we want to be involved in this or not.”

In all, these new figures peg the incremental costs of the war in Afghanistan to the Canadian Forces from the period from 2001-11 at just over $9 billion.

A defence official, again speaking on background, said that $9-billion figure was consistent with what the military released on another government website in February.

That February disclosure did not contain yearly breakdowns.

© Copyright (c) Canwest News Service

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