Canada must step back in Afghanistan, but the suggestion that Canadian troops are to be safe "inside the wire" in Kabul is at best a clumsy bit of political subterfuge.
The need for a continued presence by Canadian Forces in Afghanistan beyond the 2011 end of the Kandahar mission is compelling. As Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday, "I don't want to risk the gains that Canadian soldiers have fought for and that they have sacrificed in such significant numbers for by pulling out too early."
Canada has already spent more time in Afghanistan than it did fighting the First World War. Canadians are growing tired, understandably, of the seeming intractability of the conflict. There is a widespread sentiment that this is an Afghan War, that should be fought by Afghans. But to withdraw Canadian and NATO soldiers in 2011 would be tantamount to handing victory to the Taliban. It is, as Mr. Harper says, "too early."
The Afghan National Security Forces are rapidly gaining strength, numerically and in terms of their professionalism. In the past year alone, the ANSF have grown by 33 per cent, to 255,506 soldiers and police. A national poll last month showed an overwhelming majority of Afghans had a favourable impression of the security forces. The Afghan National Police today are the most trusted public institution in the country. Increasingly, Afghans are in a position to fight their own war, but they are not there yet. President Hamid Karzai has said Afghan troops could provide for their security by 2014, and that year should mark the true end of Canada's mission.
To achieve that, however, coalition forces must meet their commitment to training the ANSF, and that responsibility cannot be constrained by soldier-in-a-bubble-type promises aimed at calming anxieties at home. An extension of Canada's military commitment to the country, in the form of a less-dangerous training role in Kabul, is necessary. Canadian casualties will be reduced, perhaps dramatically so. But to pretend that Canada can play a critical training role while remaining safely cocooned is an artifice. So long as there are Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan there will be a risk of casualties. Conservative and Liberal politicians owe it to Canadians to be clear on this point.