Forty-two minutes. The time reportedly allotted to Stephen Harper's meeting with Barack Obama in Washington on Wednesday is scarce, while the concerns and political distractions for both men are many. Issues such as the Buy American policy and international financial reform will come up, but Mr. Harper needs to bring a focus on the area of greatest mutual engagement: Afghanistan.
He should send two messages about the American role in the NATO mission there - support Canadians on the ground in Kandahar, but be ready to change tack with regard to Afghanistan as a whole. If he works to secure a U.S. troop commitment, Mr. Harper can help give Mr. Obama a measure of political cover as they both grapple with the larger challenges in the region.
Mr. Obama is facing considerable pressure from congressional Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to frown on an expected request from General Stanley McChrystal to send more soldiers to the region. The American military command recognizes the key role Kandahar plays. "It's at the top of the list," one senior official told The Washington Post earlier this week. Canada has done yeoman's service during its time there, but two tasks in particular - turning back a resurgent Taliban and cutting off its supply routes; and increasing the training for Afghan forces - need support from the Americans. Such assistance would help Canada while having a direct positive impact on the security of the country.
Although Kandahar is a bellwether, the situation in the rest of Afghanistan makes the current NATO strategy less tenable by the day. Last week, the International Council on Security and Development reported that provinces encompassing 80 per cent of the land mass of the country have "heavy" Taliban or insurgent activity (defined by provinces that average at least one insurgent attack a week), up from 54 per cent in November, 2007.
Respected voices in the U.S. such as former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski have joined politicians in questioning how much NATO can accomplish there. On Saturday, Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria wrote that "the focus must shift from nation building to dealmaking … Buying, renting or bribing Pashtun tribes should become the centerpiece of America's stabilization strategy."
The mood in the U.S. is shifting, reflecting changing facts on the ground. Canada must stake another claim about the need to make Kandahar more secure. Creating a mock Afghan village in the courtyard of the Canadian embassy is one way of trying to reach Congress; making the case for a secure Kandahar directly to the U.S. President is likely more effective.
At the same time, Mr. Harper can publicly join the call by European leaders for a new United Nations summit on the region. Making a tactical pitch on Kandahar while helping Mr. Obama prepare for a longer-term reorientation in strategy is something ideally suited to an honest broker like Canada - and the best possible use of 42 minutes.