Harper remains firm on date for leaving Afghanistan

CHICAGO — The Globe and Mail

An Afghan National Army offider speaks to Afghan soldiers during a counter-ambush exercise at a Canadian-staffed training facility in Kabul on Aug. 10, 2011. (MCpl Rory Wilson/Master Corporal Rory Wilson/DND)

Stephen Harper declared a “firm and final” end on Monday to Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan, saying no Canadian troops or trainers would remain beyond 2014.

The Prime Minister’s announcement came as he and other NATO leaders sealed an accelerated exit strategy and endorsed a plan for a smaller, cheaper Afghan army. But their two-day summit here left lingering questions, including whether more allies would step forward to share the cost of subsidizing that force and whether Afghan troops would be able to keep insurgents at bay when Western forces leave.

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As alliance leaders set timetables for leaving Afghanistan, Mr. Harper stuck to his own. NATO, focused on getting combat troops out in two years, but keen to send a message that Afghanistan will not be abandoned, had pressured Mr. Harper to extend the mission of 950 Canadian Forces trainers.

He refused. “There will be no Canadian military mission to Afghanistan after March, 2014,” he said, adding that his was a blanket “no” that applied to trainers, troops and special forces.

He did pledge $110-million a year to help Afghanistan pay for its own army and police between 2015 and 2018 – a sum in line with the contributions of allies like Britain. But Mr. Harper, once gung-ho on the war, has since 2009 grown increasingly skeptical about the potential for foreign troops to do much more. Now, he said he worries their presence might be counterproductive.

“My judgment is that a foreign presence, in the long term, cannot be the final resolution of the problems in Afghanistan. That the longer a foreign intervention stays, eventually the less likely its success becomes,” he told reporters, noting that 2014 was the date set for departure, and NATO has been in Afghanistan for years.

“And you know,” he added, “it’s an awful long time.”

Despite that skepticism, Mr. Harper had been expected to delay a final decision until after the NATO summit, according to a government source. But when NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen put public pressure on him over the last week, the Prime Minister decided to give his answer at the summit.

Mr. Harper pulled Canadian combat troops from Kandahar last July but, under pressure from allies and notably the U.S., he agreed to send 950 trainers to Kabul to build up Afghan forces. With a war-weary public at home, and after an Afghan mission that has claimed the lives of 158 soldiers, he was in no mood to extend the military presence again.

Stressing the need to leave was the theme of the NATO summit. U.S. President Barack Obama, campaigning for re-election, was clearly itching to show he has an exit plan and that the world supports it, arguing that the end of the Afghanistan war is in sight and even that Americans might soon see some of the “massive” investment in the war spent at home instead.

“I don’t think that there is ever going to be an optimal point where we say, this is all done, this is perfect, this is just the way we wanted it and now we can wrap up all our equipment and go home,” Mr. Obama said at a press conference as the close of the summit. “This is a process and it’s sometimes a messy process, just as it was in Iraq.”

But he, too, argued that foreign troops can only stay so long before it is “counterproductive,” wearing not only on Americans, but also on Afghans, and he asserted that it’s a “responsible” strategy to leave despite the risks.

The new NATO strategy relies on Afghan forces taking on the lead role in combat operations across the country by the middle of next year. And by the end of 2014, the 130,000 foreign troops in the country – 90,000 of them American – will leave, except for a smaller number there only to train and advise Afghan forces.

The Afghan National Security Forces, which the West has rushed to build into a bigger and better force, will be allowed to shrink soon after western forces leave – so the price tag, to be picked up by the U.S. and allies, shrinks too. Now almost at the target strength of 352,000, its numbers will drop after 2015 and fall to 228,500 by 2017.

Some experts have already criticized that as a risky plan leaving open real questions as to whether it will be large enough to handle counterinsurgency across the country, and U.S. officials said it will be reviewed as time goes on. But costs are key. The U.S. and NATO have been arm-twisting allies to make pledges to pay for the $4.1-billion annual cost of paying for the Afghan forces, but the pledges are still almost $1-billion short.

The United States will pay the lion’s share of $2.3-billion per year, and Afghanistan is expected to pay $500-million. NATO is still looking for donors after pledges from Canada and from Australia ($100-million per year), Britain ($110-million per year), and Germany ($195-million per year.) France’s François Hollande said he’ll decide later.

Mr. Harper called Canada’s contribution “generous” and said he wanted to spark other nations to follow suit. He insisted Ottawa will demand strict accountability to ensure the money goes to pay for Afghan forces, and nothing else – a reference to the corruption that is rife in Afghanistan.

He denied that the funds offered by allies are intended to paper over a retreat.

“No, I think the story is precisely the contrary,” he said, adding that “we are all determined that the Taliban receive the message that this is not an abandonment of Afghanistan. This is a transition to Afghan responsibility. But none of us will rest. We will make the contributions necessary to ensure that the Taliban does not reassert control over this country.”

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