The Harper government is considering keeping almost 1,000 troops in Afghanistan in a post-2011 training mission after the White House mounted a concerted campaign to convince allies to rethink plans to leave.
If approved, the large training mission would see Canada almost completely fill a NATO shortage of trainers in the country, jumping in to fill a needed gap as the Canadian Forces withdraw combat troops next July.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is now considering a request to send 700 to 750 troops as military trainers, plus about 200 Canadian Forces support staff, a government official said.
The United States and Britain are lobbying allies to send a message that Western nations are not rushing to withdraw next year, fearing a sense of imminent departure will embolden Taliban leaders and hamper efforts to force insurgents to negotiate. With NATO leaders to meet in Lisbon late next week, they want to signal that Afghan forces will gradually take over security over four years.
Canada and the Netherlands, which both announced a withdrawal of combat troops, are now mulling plans to send trainers in their stead. And in capitals around the world, the message that troops aren't leaving soon is being reinforced, with British Prime Minister David Cameron's newly-appointed defence chief, General Sir David Richards, saying Britain will not start withdrawing its 9,500 troops next year as Mr. Cameron had previously indicated.
"The worst of all things would be to get out before we finish the job properly, for want of 1,000 trainers to keep them going for another couple years," Gen. Richards told the Sun newspaper. "I'm absolutely clear. We really mean it when we say we will be there for as long as it takes."
According to officials from all three countries and NATO, this is the result of a concerted White House campaign to keep foreign troops with the International Stabilization and Assistance Force in Afghanistan beyond 2011. U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder is making the rounds to lobby allies, and in the Netherlands, where the previous government fell over a proposal to extend the mission past August of 2010, he pushed for Dutch troops to return to Afghanistan as trainers.
"He is trying to convince partners that it is necessary to continue, that force requirements mean that soldiers are needed - but the Americans and NATO understand that we are not able to continue our combat mission, so we are discussing a training and transition mission," said Rob de Wijk, a military strategist based in The Hague who is advising the Dutch coalition government on plans to send hundreds of troops to a training mission.
In Ottawa, American and British diplomats have pressed the message that allies must send a unified signal, a person familiar with the talks said: "Politically, it's really important for the next three years for ISAF and NATO to hang together." A Canadian training mission, the source said, "would plug a very serious gap in the strategy."
NATO generals said recently they need another 900 trainers to build up the Afghan army and police; one official said that with the Dutch expected to provide trainers, the shortfall is now about 750.
For Canada, as with Holland, there are heavy political risks in any kind of re-upping of commitment to Afghanistan. A Nanos Research poll conducted for The Globe and Mail last month showed many Canadians feel the Afghan mission's goals have not been achieved, and 66 per cent would oppose another mission like it.
A government official stressed that most of the pressure from the allies has been aimed at getting Canada to extend its combat mission, but that the government will not agree to extend combat.
But there is likely more political wiggle room to take on a training mission. The 2008 parliamentary motion that set a 2011 deadline only called for withdrawing troops from combat in Kandahar. In June, the Liberals called for the Conservative government to consider a post-2011 training mission, though they envisioned a smaller scale, with perhaps 200 trainers.
Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon telephoned him to outline options for a post-2011 role, but didn't provide enough detail for the proposal to be judged. "We still wanted to get more detail as to what was being planned," Mr. Rae said.
U.S. military commanders would like Canadian trainers to continue in-field training, in which they accompany Afghan troops on combat missions, but Defence Minister Peter MacKay signalled Sunday that the government is only considering "inside the wire" training of Afghan troops and police in staff schools and similar places.
In the Netherlands and Britain, the reversals of policy have surprised opposition parties and some in government. Polls in both countries show public opposition to extending the missions.
NATO officials said yesterday they are not officially involved in pressing countries to extend their commitments, but NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has made it clear there is a need for trainers, and the United States has been using its diplomats to press the case.
"The deputy supreme allied commander has been in touch with all 48 countries to let them know what they need to know for the mission - and he's been focusing on trainers," said James Appathurai, a spokesman for Mr. Rasmussen.