The behind-the-scenes role that U.S. ambassador David Jacobson played in convincing the Harper government not to quit Afghanistan remains a point of pride for the American envoy as he prepares to leave his post.
His intervention came in 2010, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper was preparing to pull Canadian combat troops out of Kandahar. Mr. Jacobson played a major role in convincing the Harper government to send 950 troops to Afghanistan as trainers so that the end of the Canadian combat mission would not mark an abrupt Canadian exit – one which might be followed by other allies.
“That is one of the things that I am very proud of,” Mr. Jacobson said in an interview at the Ottawa residence he is leaving this month. “It wasn’t just me, but I did have a role.”
Mr. Jacobson said that it was important to Canadians who “kind of drew the short straw” in taking on operations in the southern Afghanistan province of Kandahar and suffered heavy casualties, not to “give that all away.”
“But it was important to the future of the generalized mission in Afghanistan that Canada, which had played such an important role, did not leave. It would have been harder for others to justify staying,” Mr. Jacobson said. “And so it was one of those things that was important.”
Canadian Forces troops ended their combat mission in Kandahar in July, 2011, but the contingent of trainers, mostly based in Kabul, is to continue through next year.
But while the Canadian training mission in Afghanistan has proven largely non-controversial, Mr. Harper’s government wrestled with it for months – as Mr. Jacobson and others prodded the prime minister. Canada wasn’t the only country looking to withdraw, but the NATO plan was an orderly exit -- to gradually hand more control to Afghan forces, who would take the lead role in 2014.
Mr. Harper had already extended the Canadian combat mission before, and by 2010, he was skeptical of the potential results, and knew that the public in Canada was growing weary of the Afghan mission.
But Defence Minister Peter MacKay was keen on having the Canadian Forces remain in a non-combat role, and Liberal MP Bob Rae played a key role in convincing the government it would have support from what was then the main opposition party. In the end, the government agreed to send a large training mission of 950 troops for three years, until 2014.
“I don’t think anybody was rushing to stay in Afghanistan. But I wouldn’t say that they were reluctant,” Mr. Jacobson said of the Harper government. “They understood the importance of it. There was significant discussion over the extent to which they would stay, the period of time that they would commit to stay.”
“But I think ultimately when we talked it through and they understood the importance of it to Canada, to the United States, and to Afghanistan, we came to terms, and I think it was a very, very positive result.”
The U.S. Ambassador said he believes that Canada’s role in Afghanistan did a lot to make Canadians feel good about their role in the world, and bolstered the country’s reputation on the world stage. “I think Canada earned a lot of credit around the world, not just I the United States but around the world, for their work in Afghanistan,” he said.