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norman spector

Last December, when President Barack Obama unveiled his plan to send additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, he made no mention of 2014 as the end-date for the mission. Instead, to mollify an anti-war base that presumably did not believe his campaign rhetoric about Afghanistan being the "good war," July 2011 was the President's target date for at least the beginning of the end: "After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home," he stated boldly at West Point.

That date must have been music to the ears of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who - referring to the parliamentary resolution - rode a similar end-date through the 2008 election campaign. A month after Mr. Obama spoke at West Point, Mr. Harper stated in an interview that all Canadian troops would be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2011, with the exception of the odd guard at the embassy.

Mr. Harper's problem began in July, when General David Petraeus agreed to save the President's face by assuming command in Afghanistan and, in the process, exacted his pound of flesh. Shortly thereafter, the end date of 2014 for the mission entered the scene at a UN-sponsored security conference. By early Fall, it began to show up in statements from NATO. Now, it's the only date you hear coming from Washington - accompanied by considerable propaganda about how the situation on the ground is improving.

As of last week, it was also the date that began to drive Canadian policy. The reason is simple. Mr. Harper was faced with an unenviable choice: if he kept his word to Canadians, he'd be out of sync with the U.S. and with NATO. That outcome was unacceptable to Mr. Harper - as it was to Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae.

We still don't know whether any of these gentlemen has bought the NATO and U.S. line about progress on the ground. Or whether the flip-flop is simply about keeping our heads high at NATO and, more important, our relationship with the U.S. intact.

To avoid having to come clean on this issue, Mr. Harper wants to dispense with a parliamentary debate - even though it contradicts his past statements on the need for parliamentary backing for the mission. With a divided caucus, the Liberals have an even greater incentive to avoid a vote in the House of Commons.

If the vacuum continues, it will continue to be filled by U.S./NATO propaganda.