As President Barack Obama struggles to nail down an exit strategy from Afghanistan – frustrated by vacillation and last-minute demands from Kabul – Canada is already close to packing up and getting out. Canadian soldiers, currently involved only in training the Afghan police and army, will be gone by March.
About one-third of the remaining Canadians troops in Kabul – now down to about 600 – will be home by the end of the year, with another group to leave Kabul in January. The last 150 will hand over their training jobs and vacate headquarters posts while a few pack up or dispose of the last Canadian materiel. “In March, we will have a flag-lowering ceremony and that will mark the last re-deployment [home],” said Lt.-Col. Christian Lemay, spokesman for Canada’s Joint Operations Command.
“The only people who are being sent [to Afghanistan now] are short-term, mission-close-out teams” said Lt.-Col. Lemay.
More than, 30,000 Canadian military personnel have served in Afghanistan since 2001 – roughly equivalent to half the current total strength of the military. Many individuals have done two or more tours, some as many as three or four.
Canada’s departure will mean that – for the first time in 60 years – since Canada deployed troops and tanks and to Europe in the early 1950s as part of NATO’s forces ranged against the Soviet Union, it won’t have a significant ground force abroad.
NATO’s ongoing role remains cloudy and in dispute, in particular the post-2014 commitment of U.S. troops that is perhaps most critical to propping up the still-shaky regime in Kabul .
The future of foreign forces in Afghanistan now hangs on the quirky calculus of whether President Hamid Karzai is bluffing over his refusal to sign a deal to keep U.S. forces in the country past 2014, despite the evident risk of his nation collapsing into a new round of internal violence if they leave.
As for U.S. forces, Mr. Karzai now wants to wait until after Afghan presidential elections next April before agreeing to a deal that Washington believed had been negotiated last week. Mr. Obama says the deal needs to be signed now.
Waiting “would not provide the United States and NATO allies the clarity necessary to plan for a potential post-2014 military presence,” the White House said in a blunt rejection of Mr. Karzai’s manoeuvring.
Canada’s long-planned exit is all but completed and seems unlikely to be affected, regardless of whether Mr. Karzai is bluffing in his last-minute demands or whether Mr. Obama – as he did in Iraq when a deal unravelled – simply pulls all U.S. troops out.
The pullout from Afghanistan will end an era stretching back six decades of NATO deployments in Europe and UN operations in the Middle East, the Balkans, Somalia, Haiti, Cyprus and East Timor.And the withdrawal from the still-unfinished counter-insurgency operation in Afghanistan will also mark the first time Canada has ever quit combat before a war was over.
Still, the military believes it has done the job, which has evolved over time, given it by the government.
“Ninety per cent of all security operations are planned, led and executed by Afghan police and army units,” Lt.-Col Lemay said, calling it clear evidence of the success of the training programs intended to ready Afghanistan to handle its own internal security once all foreign forces have left.
“Canada has indicated that it will not be part of the next NATO mission,” said Lt.-Col. Lemay. However, he added: “Canada’s military role in Afghanistan may be ending but Canada’s commitment remains.”
There will be no boots on the ground – and no more casualties – but Canadian taxpayers will send $100-million in weapons, munitions and pay to Afghanistan’s army and police.
Meanwhile, Canada’s aid programs, far smaller than the peak years when Afghanistan was the largest recipient of Canada development assistance and Ottawa’s top priority, will continue.
Delivered almost entirely through non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, and international organizations, Canadian aid spending will continue at the rate of $75-million annually for the next three years.
Most of it will be targeted at four key areas: basic education, maternal and newborn health, humanitarian relief and human rights.Typical of the Canadian aid effort is a $9-million program in Heart and Ghor provinces delivered by World Vision Canada and intended to improve maternal and infant health and nutrition.