Canada should look favourably at any NATO request to keep some soldiers in Afghanistan, in a training capacity, beyond the 2011 end to the mission in Kandahar. Conservative and past Liberal governments have shared a commitment to the process of nation-building in Afghanistan, as well as a complementary interest in preserving Canada's national security and that of our allies. Some continuing training role would adhere to those objectives and honour the enormous sacrifices made by Canada's servicemen and women in pursuit of them.
The Globe and Mail reported on Thursday that the size of the commitment sought by NATO, expected to be formalized later this year, would be in the order of 500 to 600 troops. That is a substantial reduction from the current strength of 2,300, but is a number high enough that it is expected to provoke opposition within Liberal ranks.
The Liberals, when in government, committed Canada to the Afghan campaign, and subsequently upgraded that commitment to involve front-line fighting in Kandahar, but the costs of the fighting in human terms and the intractability of the enemy have soured some in the party to any military involvement past 2011, even a low-risk training role in Kabul that appears tailor-made for Canada.
Such a failure of resolve would reflect poorly on the Liberal Party, but it also has the potential to hurt Canada, as it may be seen from abroad as a Canadian retreat, not a Liberal one. The timing - just when the benefits of the U.S. surge would start to become apparent - could erode the goodwill Canada has built up since 2002 with the U.S. and other NATO partners, international relief agencies, and the Afghan people.
In some small way, it could also undermine what Canada has achieved in the country. A well trained and equipped national army is critical to the future stability of Afghanistan and its fragile democracy. It is necessary to protect the advances made in human rights and the status of women. It is true that some other ally, perhaps once again the U.S., would move in to fulfill that role. But Canada has an ongoing stake in the country and the ultimate triumph over the Taliban, and should be on the ground in order to assert as much.
Once the expected formal request for a training mission after 2011 is received, Prime Minister Stephen Harper should seek parliamentary endorsement. His government should be able to anticipate the support of the Loyal Opposition.