There has been renewed interest in recent months in Canada's decision to pull out of Afghanistan in 2011. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for instance, mentioned how valuable and valued the Canadian effort has been. The response: a quick statement that the mandate for the mission ends in 2011, and that Stephen Harper's government is bound by Parliament's decision.
Technically, this may be true. Yet the definition of the situation - where either Canada pulls out entirely or fully remains - is misleading. There are many choices between the present commitment and leaving only embassy guards. The government has realized that any effort in Afghanistan is unlikely to win votes at home. So, the claim that the mandate means reducing the Canadian military presence to zero is a political one.
Canada could significantly reduce the risks and costs of participating in the United Nations-sanctioned, North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led mission without departing entirely. Canadians are currently making several contributions to the mission.
The first is the battle group providing security and leadership in and around Kandahar. This is the most expensive part of the effort in terms of lives and dollars.
The second is the Provincial Reconstruction Team, based in the city of Kandahar, where many Canadian agencies are affecting Afghan lives. Development assistance, police training, improving governance - this and more emanates from the PRT. Mr. Harper has promised that the civilians will stay to continue their work, but it is not clear who will provide security, transport and the like. Yes, American forces are going to replace the Canadians, so there will be protection for these PRT civilians. However, their mobility will depend on the goodwill and wisdom of the American commanders. Not all of them will see the Canadian PRT as a priority, and so these Canadian civilians may find themselves spending a lot of time on the tarmac waiting for escorts.
The third contribution is in the training of the Afghan National Army. Canada has several observer, mentor and liaison teams embedded in Afghan Kandaks (battalions). These teams (known as OMLTs or Omelets) are playing a pivotal role in improving Afghan capability, providing the necessary expertise for air support, artillery co-ordination and communications with other units in the field. There is already a shortage of these units, so pulling out the Canadian ones will make a significant dent in the ANA's development and capacity.
While all three of these efforts build and depend on relationships that would be broken by a Canadian departure, the latter two are much more dependent on continuity. The PRT and the OMLTs are the best means by which Canada can try to make a difference and even impart some of Canada's values to those who are being trained and mentored. The costs of the mission would drop significantly even if Canada were to continue just the PRT and the training. There would still be significant risks, especially for the members of the Omelets, but overall, they would decline. There would be fewer Canadians out on patrol, so the likelihood of running into an ambush or over a mine would be much less.
Canada's government has chosen not to exert leadership. Like many NATO leaders, Mr. Harper has chosen to remain relatively quiet about the mission, which has made it difficult to make sense of the situation. The end of the mandate has been used as an excuse, rather than a moment of leadership.
The Prime Minister could ask Parliament for a revised mandate - a smaller force focused on training and development. Providing the military assets for a successful PRT and maintenance of the OMLTs could be defended as necessary for maintaining Canadian investments in Afghanistan, for contributing to NATO and for making a difference in a difficult environment. The costs would be lowered significantly. Not easy or without risk, but easier and less risky.
Of course, such an effort would not win Mr. Harper any votes. But surely his government is going to be around a while longer - the chances of either gaining a majority or the Liberals getting their act together are both pretty low. So, perhaps this is the time for Harper to exert some leadership and define a role for Canada in a place where many sacrifices have already been made. This role does not have to be at either end of the scale to make a difference.
Stephen M. Saideman is Canada Research Chair in international security and ethnic conflict at McGill University.