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Liberal MP Bob Rae in his office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (DAVE CHAN/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail.)
Liberal MP Bob Rae in his office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (DAVE CHAN/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail.)

Extension of Afghan mission result of rare bipartisan effort Add to ...

In a Parliament where bipartisan conversation on big issues is often toxic, Liberal MP Bob Rae played a key role in setting the stage for the Harper Conservatives to send a new military training mission to Afghanistan next year, serving behind the scenes as a sounding board as the government faced pressure to flip-flop.

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Quiet phone calls and meetings about a potential training mission took place over several months between government figures, opposition politicians and foreign governments.

The Liberals' foreign affairs critic, Mr. Rae, was at the centre of many of those talks, eventually providing a key ingredient for the government: the assurance that the Liberals really meant it when they said they wanted a post-2011 training mission.

The wily Mr. Rae, who was booted as Ontario's NDP premier in 1995 and returned to the political stage four years ago with Liberal leadership ambitions, is fond of saying that politics is more like hockey than ballet. But for months, behind the scenes, he has played a role that draws more from his other past lives as a labour lawyer and mediator.

Despite deep mistrust between Liberals and Conservatives, Mr. Rae and Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon - who knew each other a little when Mr. Rae was Ontario premier and a friend of Quebec premier Robert Bourassa, Mr. Cannon's political mentor - were able to hold private discussions about a post-2011 training mission.

Mr. Rae said he knew it might not play to the Liberals' political advantage, but was convinced that the importance of building Afghan capacity and making a contribution that would give Canada credibility in political talks on the region outweighed short-term tactical advantage - as it did when the Liberals supported extending the mission in 2008.

"If we had played this tactically, three years ago we would have done this differently," he said.

MPs on a Commons committee visited Afghanistan in June and heard military officers say Canada could play a valuable role in training, Mr. Rae said. Allies and UN officials were pressing for it: "In my view, it's pretty hard to say, 'go fly a kite.'"

Both Mr. Rae and the Conservatives insist they never cut a deal on launching a post-2011 training mission. But after Mr. Rae and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff publicly called for a post-2011 training mission in June, the talks allowed Mr. Cannon to sound out his opposite number on what kind of mission the Liberals wanted, and what might make them turn against it.

"This is not a government that says, 'we would like to work with you to craft a position,'" Mr. Rae said. "I think the government was looking for confirmation that this was what we actually thought."

Though both parties have publicly discussed a phone call from Mr. Cannon to Mr. Rae two weeks ago, there were other calls both before and after, and a face-to-face meeting between the two in late summer.

And Mr. Rae was also discussing a potential training mission with U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson, who was conducting a kind of shuttle diplomacy between Liberals and Conservatives, notably Defence Minister Peter Mackay, to gauge each side's views on a training mission, hoping to help bridge any gaps, according to sources.

Mr. Jacobson said in an e-mail that "it's no secret" he and other U.S. officials spoke to many Canadian counterparts: "However, this outcome can only be attributed to the Canadian government and key leaders in Canada. I wouldn't overstate our place in this process." Mr. Rae said that he and his wife have become close friends of the Jacobsons - and that foreign governments expressed their views.

At the same time, Mr. Cannon wanted Mr. Rae's views on what a training mission might entail, including whether it would include mentoring "outside the wire" of secure bases.

Mr. Rae said his answers were based on the Liberals' public statements, and called his role modest. But for the Harper Conservatives, it was a critical opportunity to sound out the Liberals on where their no-go zones might be, according to Conservatives familiar with the talks.

They wanted Liberal backing: Politically, it was an about-face for the Conservatives, and they wanted to avoid the precedent of a Commons vote for a non-combat mission. "And it wouldn't be good for the mission to have a gigantic fight in Parliament while the mission's still fighting," said one Conservative.

Conservative sources say Mr. Rae was not given information on what the government was considering until about two weeks ago, when Mr. Cannon laid out options in a phone call, including numbers for how many troops might be sent.

"He indicated where he thought the government would end up going, but he asked me not to say anything publicly, because the government hadn't made a decision yet," Mr. Rae said.

It was only after that the trust began to fray again: Mr. Rae worried about a set-up when Conservatives told reporters he had been given the details, insisting he didn't know the government's decision until it was announced on Tuesday; a Conservative source said Mr. Cannon did inform him of the decision in a phone call on Saturday, but Mr. Ignatieff continued to demand those details.

But even the behind-the-scenes talks did hold up long enough to smooth the way for the government to announce a training mission - and get a Liberal endorsement.

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