Why Harper’s Afghanistan Shift Makes Sense

Prime Minister Stephen Harper made it clear last week that it is likely there will be an extension of Canadian military involvment in Afghanistan. The government had previously committed to having all Canadian soldiers out of Afghanistan by the end of next July (2011).

Has the government been misleading Canadians?

Some media are interpreting this as a deceptive move in which Harper is trying to mislead Canadians. For example, an article by Norman Spector in the Globe and Mail, is titled Will Harper get away with misleading Canadians? His point is that the Conservatives have been quite firm for more than a year about their position. As Peter Kent (Minister of State for Foreign Affiars) put it, “Canada’s combat mission will end in 2011 and it will become a civilian and a development mission.”

The Conservatives have held to this position in spite of Liberal suggestions that some Canadian troops might remain in an advisory and training role. So it’s an interesting case of the Conservatives adopting a position promoted by the Liberals (mostly Bob Rae), and effectively boxing in the Liberals in the process.

The only wiggle room here for the Libs is that they were in favour of a role “within the wire” – i.e., not in combat situations – whereas there is a good possibility the new policy will involve Canadian soldiers training Afghanis in the field, “outside the wire”.

Why an extension makes sense

Apart from the relatively trivial question of which party can use this to their political advantage, the real issue here is whether an extended training mission makes sense. And I think the clear answer is that it does. Here are some reasons:

  • The July 2011 date was arbitrary when it was set and had no obvious military or strategic justification. It was more a question of mollifying the Canadian public who are tired of seeing Canadians being killed in Afghanistan in a battle that seems unlikely to be won.
  • Now that the Americans are actively engaged in Afghanistan (and in Kandahar province) with large numbers of troops, the chances of real progress being made on the ground have increased. It seems that Canadians can play an important role in moving Afghanistan towards self-reliance by staying a while longer. It seems like a fitting way to honour the contribution that Canadian troops have made to the rebuilding of Afghanistan.
  • Canadians will be engaged in fewer numbers and in a much less dangerous role.
  • Canadian troops have extensive hands-on combat experience in Afghanistan that will help Afghani security forces get up to speed more quickly than if they are forced to do it on their own.
  • Our U.S. and NATO allies want continued Canadian participation and this should have a significant positive impact on trade negotiations with these countries.

The fact is, things have changed both in Afghanistan and in the rest of the world. And far from “misleading” the Canadian public on this issue it seems to me that the Canadian government is demonstrating that it is prepared to change its course in light of changing world conditions.

That is what our government should be doing, isn’t it?

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