The United States, according to The Globe and Mail, is going to ask Canada to retain some 600 soldiers in Kabul to help train Afghan National Army troops after the Canadian mission in Kandahar ends next year. If this comes to pass, it will give Stephen Harper a way out of his rash promise - made during the 2008 election - to leave Afghanistan completely.
It also will force Parliament to have a very significant debate over Canada's role in Afghanistan. And it will force the Liberal Party - Canada's other national governing party - to choose between a foreign and defence policy made primarily by former NDP premiers and one that puts the Liberals back where they belong, in the political centre.
In the midst of this country's last federal election, Mr. Harper saw his government's polling numbers crater in Quebec. With that collapse went the fate of his majority. These are facts. It seems, then, it was no coincidence that the Tory demise in Quebec came just ahead of the Prime Minister's sudden declaration that Canada would leave Afghanistan lock, stock and barrel in 2011. Mr. Harper said he was merely reiterating the essence of the 2008 parliamentary motion that extended Canada's mission to 2011 but that also called for an end to combat operations in Kandahar at that time.
In fact, he was fudging both the wording and intent of the 2008 parliamentary motion. It literally called for Canada to deploy out of Kandahar but left other options wide open. But having declared an absolute end to the mission during the 2008 election - for whatever reasons - Mr. Harper's word became holy government writ.
The Prime Minister is now in a box of his own making because the Americans are not happy with Canada's intent. A complete Canadian withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2011 will be read in Washington as abandonment of the U.S. in the midst of a war and abandonment of NATO. If Canada pulls out of Afghanistan entirely next year, it won't matter how many Canadians have been killed there. In Washington, history is nothing more than a rationale to be used to make or break policy; history does not substitute for politics.
A Canadian government that leaves Afghanistan in the middle of a fight will find very few friends in the State Department, the Defence Department, the White House or on Capitol Hill.
A U.S. request to Canada to keep 600 or so troops in Kabul for training purposes fits both the wording and the intent of the 2008 parliamentary motion. If made, Mr. Harper would be entirely within the parameters of that motion to simply agree to the request. He could explain to Canadians that the U.S. wasn't asking for more than Parliament had already agreed to, that Canada simply had to support an ally in the middle of a war to achieve a goal that so many Canadians had already died fighting for, and that 600 or so troops in a training role in Kabul was the least Canada could do for its allies.
If Mr. Harper has a majority by the end of this year, that would be a likely option perfectly within his mandate. If he still has a minority when such a U.S. request is made, he probably would seek a new parliamentary mandate. He could tell Canadians he is merely asking Parliament to decide, as Mackenzie King would have done.
After all, few Canadians can have much of an argument about one last parliamentary debate on Afghanistan. In fact, many might believe it would be right and proper to have such a discussion before Canada quits the fifth most costly military mission in our history.
As things stand now, there are loose ends that really ought to be debated. Who, for example, will protect Canadian aid and reconstruction workers after Canadian soldiers leave? In any such debate, Michael Ignatieff can only lose. He has effectively allowed the Liberals' foreign and defence policy to be captured by Bob Rae and Ujjal Dosanjh. These two men - and the small but highly vocal left wing of the Liberal Party - simply don't see the world the way Liberal centrists such as Paul Martin, Bill Graham and John Manley do. Thus Mr. Ignatieff would have to cope with a nasty split in Liberal ranks.
Washington may well have weighed the political importance of keeping Canada involved in Afghanistan against Mr. Ignatieff's neck and decided to sharpen the axe. But it will be up to Mr. Harper to swing it or not.
David Bercuson is director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, and director of programs at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.
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