Stephen Harper is not the prime minister who first sent Canadian troops to Afghanistan. He is, however, the prime minister who is taking every last one of our soldiers out of that hot spot with an exit strategy that is equal parts good politics and good policy.
His announcement at the weekend NATO summit that Canada will leave Afghanistan permanently after its current training mission ends in early 2014 will be popular at home. People across Canada are weary of being involved in a faraway conflict that began in 2001 and will be remembered — for better or worse — as this country’s longest war.
Those people will approve of Harper’s decision, which came despite pressure from some NATO allies for him to keep Canadian troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Meanwhile, setting an expiry date for the Afghan military mission will spare him from opposition attacks in an area where he would be vulnerable.
But Harper would not be justified in withdrawing Canadian forces from Afghanistan if it was only to satisfy his own political agenda. If he was abandoning Canada’s NATO allies or leaving Afghanistan susceptible to takeover by the Taliban insurgents we have fought over the past 11 years, his decision would deserve severe criticism.
There are, after all, 158 Canadian soldiers who died trying to bring stability, the rule of law and, yes, democracy to the country that served as a base for the orchestrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida terrorist attacks on the U.S. The huge expenditure of Canadian money, energy — and lives — in Afghanistan would largely be in vain if the Taliban regained control of the country and opened its doors to the terrorists, inviting them back to plot whatever atrocity they wished.
No one can say today what will happen in Afghanistan two or three years from now, after Canada and some other NATO countries have pulled out entirely and when the Americans gradually reduce their troop commitment there. Even so, there are compelling reasons to believe the Afghan army, which Canada has helped, will be strong enough to withstand any Taliban comeback.
There has been method to Canada’s changing roles in Afghanistan. Between 2006 and 2011, 2,500 of our soldiers at a time served in combat. After that a much smaller group of 900 soldiers began training the Afghans. That commitment will end according the original schedule. When it does, Afghanistan should have an army with 352,000 capable soldiers who are more than a match for the Taliban. A sizable American military presence will remain, for a time, to back up those soldiers. Moreover, Canada will provide $330 million to the Afghan military over three years, our part of $4.1 billion in NATO funding.
The war in Afghanistan was unlike most of the other military conflicts that have involved Canada. There was never a conventional enemy in the field to take on in a conventional battle. There was never a conventional war to be ended with one or two decisive victories. This was a counter-insurgency campaign fought against people who wore no uniforms and who outwardly looked like the people we were trying to defend.
In its service to Afghanistan, Canada has acquitted itself with honour and distinction. In the early days, it helped deny terrorists a base in Afghanistan and thereby made all of North America more secure. In the many years since then, it has at great cost to itself helped build a more stable Afghanistan. But no military commitment can be forever. In 2014, Canada will have been involved in Afghanistan over a 13-year period. Unless there is a drastic reversal of fortune before that time, all the Canadian troops should leave. It was right for Harper to issue this order and time to focus on other foreign challenges.
An editorial from the Waterloo, Ont., Region Record.