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Canadian troops in Afghanistan? Liberals hold the key

On Sunday, a gusher of leaks rained down on various news organizations across the land, all to the effect that the Harper government was considering leaving troops in Afghanistan beyond 2011 to train Afghan forces. While PMO spin assured us that this would be consistent with previous statements that Canada's combat mission would end in 2011, it's clear to anyone who can read that it would be a major reversal in the position stated by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in an interview at the beginning of the year: "We will not be undertaking any kind of activity that requires a significant military force protection, so it will become a strictly civilian mission .. we will not be undertaking any activities that require any kind of military presence, other than the odd guard guarding an embassy."

Though the PMO leaks presented this new training mission as an option being considered, the Defense Editor of the Times of London, Michael Evans, was already reporting it on Monday as a fait accompli (behind the paper's pay-wall): "At the NATO summit on November 19 alliance countries may have to agree to retain some troops for a training role right up to 2014. The Netherlands has already withdrawn its troops but there will be pressure on the Dutch to send trainers. Canada, whose combat troops are to leave next year, will also be expected to commit to the training mission."

Over at the Washington Post, on the other hand, no decision has yet been taken but the pressure on Canada was said to be intense:

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"The United States, France and Britain have said to the Canadians 'Don't waste your experience' in Afghanistan" by leaving before the mission is completed, said the European official, one of several who discussed the private meetings on condition of anonymity.

"If the Canadians agree," he said, "maybe the Dutch will come back with trainers."

Though the Sunday leaks suggested that the Liberals were on-side - based on previous statements by Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff - Mr. Rae was far more equivocal yesterday, according to the report in today's Globe and Mail: "It's important for the government to tell what exactly it has in mind," Mr. Rae told CTV. "It's important for Canadians to know." Without Liberal support, however, it would be impossible to secure a parliamentary mandate for the new mission. Though some might argue that no new parliamentary authorization is legally required, the politics are another matter - particularly in light of the Prime Minister's previous statements.

Also on Monday, according to a report behind the pay-wall of the Wall Street Journal, NATO will release a report showing that "Significant progress has been made in building up the Afghan security forces, but continuing attrition among police officers and a dearth of midlevel military leaders pose major challenges … Enthusiasm within NATO for long-term mentoring of Afghan security forces appears to be eroding, and military leaders hope to persuade alliance leaders to continue their training commitment….According to the report, NATO needs 900 more trainers to build up such specialized training."

Interestingly, the Wall Street Journal's sister publication, the Times of London, is also reporting this behind its pay-wall:

The U.S. commander in Afghanistan has drawn up a colour-coded timetable to hand back control to local security forces, The Times has learnt.

A handful of areas in Afghanistan have been stamped "green", signalling that they have been earmarked for a handover in the spring. The plan, which was drawn up by General David Petraeus, is to be presented to NATO leaders at the summit of alliance leaders in Lisbon on November 19.

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The colours range from green to grey, the latter being the most problematic, indicating that the handover is more than two years away. Provinces such as Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan in the south, and Kunar in the east, fall into this category. … The plan, which is expected to be given full support at the summit, will allow President Obama to fulfil his pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan from July next year.

Most of the U.S. combat troops are in areas where there is continuous confrontation with the Taleban and other insurgents. None of the U.S. Marines in Helmand will be going home next July. They, and the British troops in Helmand, expect to be part of the campaign for another three or four years.

In today's National Post, Senator Pamela Wallin writes:

The man who has twice commanded Canadian troops in Afghanistan says the war is "winnable." He should know - he's recently back from the heat of combat where he saw the combined effect of the NATO-U. S. troop surge and a more able Afghan Army. … General Vance's optimism echoes that of Canada's current commander on the ground in Afghanistan, Brigadier-General Dean Milner, and General David Petraeus, the top NATO commander there, who has said that operations are proceeding "more rapidly than was anticipated." The Canadian Forces' unique combination of warrior and humanitarian skills is also bringing - and keeping - Afghans onside. General Vance says that as a population becomes hopeful, it has a "galvanizing effect."

In Washington, however, the New York Times reports considerable skepticism and an "intense debate" concerning reports by the military of progress in Afghanistan:

In Kandahar, NATO officials say that American and Afghan forces continue to rout the Taliban. In new statistics offered by American commanders in Kabul, Special Operations units have killed 339 midlevel Taliban commanders and 949 of the group's foot soldiers in the past three months alone. At the Pentagon, the draft of a war assessment to be submitted to Congress this month cites a shift in momentum in some areas of the country away from the insurgency.

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But as a new White House review of President Obama's strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan gets under way, the rosy signs have opened an intense debate at the Defense Department, the White House, the State Department and the intelligence agencies over what they really mean. Are they indications of future success, are they fleeting and not replicable, or are they evidence that Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top United States and NATO commander in Afghanistan, is simply more masterful than his predecessor at shaping opinion? …"The fundamental question is how deep is their bench," said Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. official and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who led last year's extended White House review of Afghan strategy that resulted in Mr. Obama's ordering 30,000 additional United States forces to the country. "By next summer we should have a pretty good idea. If they're having trouble replacing people that we're killing on the battlefield, then we're on the right track. But if by next summer they're producing new cadres that are on the same order of quality, then we're in deep trouble."

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