The United States has scrapped pretence and is publicly calling for Canadian troops to stay in Afghanistan past next year, sparking questions over what Canada's role will be after the 2011 deadline for military withdrawal.
Though it is no secret that the U.S. would like to see Canadian troops stay, Washington had previously papered over the differences by not specifically asking.
Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton changed course, saying the U.S. believes it has made progress with a new strategy and hopes Canada will provide "visible" support. She said that Canadian troops might take on a non-combat role.
"We would obviously like to see some form of support continue, because the Canadian Forces have a great reputation. They've worked really well with our American troops and the other members of our coalition," Ms. Clinton said in interview with CTV News before a meeting of foreign ministers from G8 countries.
"There's all kinds of things that are possible. The military could slip more into a training role instead of a combat role, a logistics-support role instead of front-line combat," she said, stressing that it is up to Canada to decided its way forward.
Last night, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon insisted there will be no Canadian military mission in Afghanistan after next year's deadline, but said the government is examining what kind of roles civilian officials will play in delivering aid and development programs.
"Canada's military mission will end in 2011," he said. "Officials, of course, are examining Canada's potential non-military role post-2011. But let me be clear again: our military role will end in 2011."
He said Washington has long known the Canadian government's position, and insisted the difference will not affect relations with the U.S.: "I don't think it will create tensions between Ottawa and Washington."
Before the request for help, Ms. Clinton delivered an unusual diplomatic snub to her Canadian hosts. She criticized Canada's handling of a meeting of Arctic countries, held yesterday, and skipped a joint press conference. In the end, instead of five foreign ministers fielding questions, Mr. Cannon stood at a podium to answer questions alone.
Both incidents indicated that ties between the Obama administration and the Harper government - which has made tight relations with Washington a cornerstone of its foreign policy - are facing tensions.
Though Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his ministers have insisted that Canada's military mission will completely end in 2011, Ms. Clinton chose to make a public call for an extended commitment.
The Conservatives and opposition Liberals struck a parliamentary compromise in 2008 that would see Canadian troops leave Kandahar in July, 2011 - in a deal that gave Mr. Harper the support of reluctant Liberals, but with a deadline.
Yesterday, however, it was the Liberals who indicated a willingness to consider some form of non-combat military mission after 2011, while Mr. Harper's Conservatives ruled it out.
"The military mission ends in 2011, and we will move towards a civilian mission," said Mr. Harper's press secretary, Dimitri Soudas.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said the renewal of the combat mission is "just out of the question," but his party would consider some form of non-combat mission for the military after 2011.
"We think there is a justification for some continued mission in Afghanistan after 2011," he said. "It's time for the government to come to Parliament with a proposition we can evaluate."
The Conservatives have yet to describe what Canada's post-2011 work in Afghanistan will look like - and with the Liberals offering to consider a future military role, questions about Canada's future Afghanistan strategy will be revived.
Questions about how a withdrawal will affect Canada's relations with Washington could also be renewed.
Earlier, Ms. Clinton exposed tensions at a meeting of foreign ministers from five countries with coastlines on the Arctic Ocean - Canada, the U.S, Russia, Denmark, and Norway.
The meeting excluded other members of a formal group, the Arctic Council - Finland, Sweden, and Iceland, as well as aboriginal groups. They complained they were being left out of a meeting on the future of the Arctic as nations increasingly squabble over a resource-rich region whose frozen waterways are being thawed by global warming.
Ms. Clinton - in prepared remarks that were leaked to the press - criticized Canada for leaving them out.
"Significant international discussions on Arctic issues should include those who have legitimate interests in the region. And I hope the Arctic will always showcase our ability to work together, not create new divisions," she said.
She also skipped a joint press conference after the meeting - prompting the other foreign ministers to decide it was better for the host to handle questions alone, rather than underline the absence of the American. Reporters bused to a Meech Lake meeting site for a joint press conference found Mr. Cannon fielding queries by himself.
Diplomats from other Arctic countries said the U.S. had made its objection to the exclusive meeting known long before it took place, but Canada chose to go ahead.
But Mr. Cannon twice ignored questions about Ms. Clinton's criticisms, instead insisting that those who attended thought it useful to discuss issues like search-and-rescue missions in the Arctic Ocean - and that it was never intended to undermine the larger Arctic Council.Report Typo/Error