Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

What was NATO's secretary-general thinking?

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, newly minted NATO secretary-general, seems to have a hearing problem with Canada, or just isn't listening.

Last Thursday, he made a direct appeal to Canada to stay in Afghanistan in a combat role after its announced withdrawal date of 2011. "Seen from an alliance point of view, I would strongly regret if that became the final outcome of the Canadian considerations," Mr. Rasmussen said.

Canada's "considerations" on a post-2011 role for the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan reached a "final outcome" well over a year ago. The government has been clear. Parliament passed a resolution in March, 2008, stating that Canada will withdraw its combat forces from Kandahar in 2011. There has been no backsliding on this position, and that was underlined in the response from Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Rasmussen either does not know the Canadian position, or he is trying to influence a change in it by putting public pressure on the government. The first is unlikely; the second should not be acceptable to Canada. At least Mr. Rasmussen should have noted that not only we, but the Dutch, are departing active combat - the Dutch earlier, in 2010. Why no such remonstrance for them?

For months now, there has been speculation that the Obama administration might pressure Canada to extend its Kandahar mission. To date, there is no sign of this occurring. For years, many in this country have been in the grip of a post-9/11 myth that Washington has put immense pressure on Canada at the highest political levels to commit forces in Afghanistan - and Iraq. This was never true during the Bush administration, and there is no evidence it is true in the early days of the Obama era. The U.S. knows Canada's position on Afghanistan, and evidently respects it.

It is too bad the same cannot be said of Mr. Rasmussen. He is speaking as a brand new secretary-general of an alliance that at worst is suffering an existential crisis - or at least is in a period of self-doubt. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been trying to agree on a clear raison d'ĂȘtre. The old one of "keeping the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down" lost its relevance 20 years ago.

NATO reinvented itself as an international - or at least Western - peacemaking force, absent any plausible UN alternative. It began operating "out of area" first in the Balkans in the 1990s and then in Afghanistan, beginning in 2003. Ever since, there has been talk of Afghanistan being the "defining moment" of post-Cold War NATO, with variations on the theme that "if Afghanistan fails, NATO fails." The future of the Alliance allegedly hangs in the balance.

All of which is likely the motivation behind Mr. Rasmussen's comments. Nevertheless, Canada's remaining in Kandahar beyond 2011 will have little bearing on the ultimate outcome in Afghanistan or the future of NATO. Developments in Pakistan (for which NATO has no remit), the American "surge," the outcome of the Afghan presidential elections this month, are much more crucial variables for Afghanistan.

Whatever its current difficulties, the U.S. is still the greatest military power on Earth, by several multiples. When it decides to commit its full strength to a military effort, the involvement of its allies becomes less than decisive (they have been almost irrelevant in Iraq, for example). In an alliance of 27 small-to-middle military powers, plus one that is bigger than all the rest combined, nobody is irreplaceable.

Finally, Canada's army is at the end of its tether, something the secretary-general is also evidently ill-attuned to. In March, army chief Andrew Leslie said the Canadian Forces may need an "operational break" of at least one year to regroup and refit. When the politicians and generals committed the Forces to Kandahar in 2005, they never anticipated a five-year commitment, and an out-of-control insurgency, that would see both people and equipment used up in combat to the point that we have reached now.

Story continues below advertisement

There is one final lesson to be drawn from Mr. Rasmussen's comments. They blow a hole in the conventional wisdom that, as a result of Canada's commitment to and sacrifices in Afghanistan, our standing in NATO is at an all-time high - that we have real clout again in Brussels.

It is hard to imagine a secretary-general of NATO failing to understand, or respect, the American or British positions on Afghanistan - or even, for that matter, that of the obstreperous French.

Eugene Lang is co-author of The Unexpected War - Canada in Kandahar, and former chief of staff to two Liberal ministers of national defence. Eric Morse is a former Canadian diplomat, now vice-chair of defence studies at the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto.

Report an error
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to