The United States is asking Canada to take on a more robust - and risky - role after the planned 2011 pullout of combat troops from Afghanistan, including risking enemy fire outside of bases to mentor Afghan security forces in the field.
The push comes as Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to announce next week the government's new plan for Afghanistan - a plan that will likely keep Canada "inside the wire."
But the United States wants more. The Americans are seeking greater Canadian participation - a role "outside the wire" - and are hoping for such an announcement before next week's NATO summit in Lisbon.
This poses a dilemma for the Harper government: A greater role could set off the tripwire in Canadian politics, but refusing it would mean rejecting a call for help from our biggest ally.
Ottawa is now considering a post-2011 training mission, and it could be a big one - almost 1,000 troops, including 700 to 750 troops as trainers and another 200 in support roles, a government official said this week.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay insisted Sunday the training would be "inside the wire" - on training bases, rather than in the field. But some Liberals say they're watching to see whether the plan slides toward involvement in combat operations.
The Liberals, who have for months called for a Canadian training mission after combat troops withdraw next July, would probably oppose that mentoring.
That's exactly what the United States would like Canada to do. In an interview, Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, stressed that it's up to Canadians how they might want to be involved after the 2011 deadline, but he said the United States would like Canada to take on a training mission that includes mentoring in the field.
Canada has decided to end its combat mission next July, so it can't send battalions that "partner" with Afghan battalions in combat, but that doesn't mean that Canadians could only do training in classrooms and training bases, Mr. Daalder said.
"I think when we talk about training, the kinds of missions you are talking about [are]classroom training, which is vital, and the mentoring," Mr. Daalder said in an interview.
In Afghanistan's military parlance, the small units that mentor Afghan troops in the field are called OMLTs (pronounced omelettes) and the police-mentoring units are called POMLTs (pomelettes). Mr. Daalder argues the Afghan mission vitally needs police mentors, and Canadians are well-placed to do it.
"Be part of POMLTs," Mr. Daalder said, adding: "Yes. They go outside the wire, and depending on where they are, they may face an environment that's less than safe. But also, there are lots of POMLTs in places in Afghanistan where it is relatively calm. Yet it is critical that we do this in order to strengthen the capability of the [Afghan National Security Forces]to provide for security."
The United States is working to ensure that next week's NATO summit will send a signal of allies' commitment to stay in Afghanistan until that country's own army and police can take over security in 2014. Mr. Daalder wants two countries scheduled to withdraw combat troops, the Netherlands and Canada, to send trainers instead.
"The argument that I made when I was in the Netherlands and the argument that I'd make to the people of Canada, is that Canada was first in combat. It can now be first in training, rather than first to leave," he said.
NATO commanders say they need trainers in classrooms, too - they identified a shortfall of about 900 a month ago, and officials say the shortfall is now about 750. They're trying to increase the Afghan army to 170,000 troops from 135,000 in a year, and the police to 134,000 from 119,000.
Police mentoring is far from risk-free. The Afghan National Police have a reputation for corruption and are poorly equipped; insurgents view them as soft targets. Their casualty rates are higher than the Afghan National Army.
But the police are also widely seen as the most in need of mentoring. The POMLTs, Mr. Daalder noted, usually have a small group of three to five expert trainers that work in a police district and a small force of troops for protection.
Canada now has about 200 trainers doing army and police mentoring. The deputy commander of NATO's training mission in charge of police training is a Canadian Forces general, Major-General Stuart Beare. For many of our NATO allies, a role in training the Afghan army and police is tailor-made for Canadians.
Mr. Daalder argues that Canadians debating the post-2011 mission will have to consider how past sacrifices in Afghanistan can bear fruit and ask themselves: "How do we maintain that investment, how do we make sure that that investment will, in fact, pan out?"