Tories, Grits talking post-2011 role in Afghanistan; no combat

The future of the Afghan mission is quietly being shaped in the corridors and backrooms of Parliament Hill.

OTTAWA — The future of the Afghan mission is quietly being shaped in the corridors and backrooms of Parliament Hill.

Here, some Conservatives and Liberals are having hushed talks about Canada’s role in Afghanistan beyond next year, The Canadian Press has learned.

As MPs from all sides try to resolve a long-simmering dispute over access to uncensored Afghanistan detainee documents, parallel albeit passing discussions about the mission are underway in Ottawa.

The overtures aren’t formal. People interviewed for this story stressed the talks are more like feelers going out than anything else.

But what arises from these casual chats could have profound implications on Canada’s military and civilian functions in Afghanistan.

Parliament passed a motion two years ago to end combat operations in Kandahar by July 2011. But the motion says nothing about staying in other parts of the country. Prime Minister Stephen Harper added the rider that every Canadian soldier would leave Afghanistan.

Harper is believed to be privately skeptical and worried that Canada has been mired in an endless conflict.

Others see it differently.

A senior member of the Conservative caucus said “two or three” top Liberals approached him recently about the Afghanistan quandary.

Tory Senator Hugh Segal, a one-time adviser to Harper who also served as chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney, said the overtures started a few months ago.

“I’ve had at least two or three senior people (from) the Liberal party say that they are more than open-minded to a discussion about a military training presence,” he said.

Segal said he has not spoken about this to the prime minister, and he has no formal authority to broker a deal on the Afghan mission. But that hasn’t stopped him from having private chats with Grits.

“I’ve actually had them, off and on, for the last two-and-a-half to three months,” Segal said.

“The Liberal caucus people with whom I have spoken are all kind of front-bench people who noticed and asked many questions of the kind you’re asking, and who have indicated that they would be open if something were to come in the process,” he added.

“But they’re people who struck me as reasonably senior in the process.”

Both parties seem to be sussing each other out. Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh said some Tories have casually approached him to get a read on his party’s position on Afghanistan.

“(The) odd Conservative has asked me: ’Where are you guys?’ And my answer always has been” ’Look, come up with a proposal, give it to us,’“ he said in an interview.

Another senior Liberal told The Canadian Press the party has “tried to be constructive, trying to make it clear to the government we’re open to discussions on training.”

But so far the Grits have been “surprised by the rigidity of the Harper government.”

“It sounds like they want out, period.”

The prime minister’s spokesman, Dimitri Soudas sent an email to The Canadian Press on Sunday, leaving little room for doubt on where his boss stands:

“Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan will end in 2011. Full stop,” Soudas wrote.

However, the Liberal source doubted the majority of the Tory caucus wants to fully withdraw from Afghanistan — a view Segal echoed.

The Tory senator is on the Senate security and defence committee, which is mulling Canada’s post-2011 role in Afghanistan. Segal said the Prime Minister’s Office hasn’t objected to the committee’s work, which in his mind constitutes tacit support for at least exploring Canada’s options in Afghanistan.

“Normally the government is not subtle about these things. If they want something to stop, they tell you,” Segal said. “So that leads me to believe that large elements of the caucus who have thought about it are open to it.”

Pamela Wallin, a Conservative senator who chairs the defence committee, said she has seen a “real willingness on people from all sides of this debate … to look for some common ground” on where the Afghan mission is going.

“I do think there are people who are looking for a forum and a place to have that discussion, where we can do it without the heat,” Wallin said.

Which perhaps explains why Conservatives and Liberals have so far kept their talks discreet.

Bryon Wilfert, deputy chair of the special Commons committee on the Afghan mission, acknowledged there have been casual talks between Tories and Grits. He was loathe to put a label on those discussions.

“Certainly not formal. And I think anything even classified as informal would really be a bit of an overstatement,” he said.

“Obviously, from time to time, there are discussions in corridors, discussions in, you know, different places where people try to get a sense of what people are talking about.”

Added Wilfert: “Maybe we just say there are thoughts out there. The way those thoughts may or may not go, or whether they crystallize, will depend obviously on what happens over the next while.”

Neither the Conservatives nor Liberals want to keep troops in Kandahar to wage war on the insurgency. Polls indicate about half of Canadians support the mission and half oppose it.

But other, more politically palatable, options are on the table.

Chief among them seems to be moving Canadians up to Kabul to train Afghan security forces from behind the walls of military compounds.

Such a shift would take Canadian soldiers off the front lines of a nine-year mission that has claimed the lives of 141 troops and two civilians.

Beefed up police training is an option.

RCMP Commissioner William Elliot recently said the force has started looking at how to continue the police training mission in Afghanistan after the military pulls out.

Another idea is to focus more on development and reconstruction work, in Kandahar or elsewhere. Canadian officials also could be dispatched to clean up the corruption that runs deep in the Afghan government.

Both Liberals and Conservatives seem to agree an ongoing, non-combat role will give Canada some leverage with its NATO allies and some say in the future development of the region.

The Liberal source also acknowledged it’s better to get the Afghanistan issue out of the way before a federal election, lest any internal debate within the party comes to light. “There’s a common sense across the caucus that there’s not much benefit in having this unresolved during an election campaign.”