OTTAWA — The political ground beneath the Harper government’s feet is set to shift in 2011 when Canada’s military boots on the ground end their combat mission in Kandahar mid year.
Switching to a non-combat training mission in Kabul may make the political terrain relatively safer for Canada’s minority Conservative government.
But like any IED-wary military convoy that lumbers into the Kandahar outback, the potential for explosive political surprises always lurks beneath the surface.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already deftly navigated one political minefield by deciding to extend Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan for three more years beyond the 2011 withdrawal deadline set by Parliament.
That decision generated political victories at home and south of the border with Canada’s closest ally, the United States.
In a rare show of non-partisanship, the Conservative government reached out behind the scenes to the opposition Liberals last month to gain their support for a three-year training mission that will require up to 950 military personnel.
The gesture was necessary, even if it was not necessarily bold. It was Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff who declared several months earlier that a military training option was a good one for the Canadian Forces when their parliamentary-approved combat mandate expired in July 2011.
“The only opposition is the NDP and Bloc. Michael is in bed with Stephen on this thing,” said Douglas Bland, chair of the Defence Management Studies Program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
“The issue has probably drifted back down to where defence policy normally is in Canadian politics, and that’s quite close to the bottom of issues that matter to people.”
Bland said Harper and Ignatieff have managed to manoeuvre Canada into the best place possible given the international pressure they faced to keep fighting in Kandahar.
The foreign secretaries of the both the United States and Britain publicly urged Canada to stay on in Kandahar, while other NATO allies turned the screws on the Harper government.
That came after the prime minister told allies late last year that Canada wouldn’t even consider leaving military trainers in Afghanistan after 2011.
He later declared Canada wouldn’t leave much more than an embassy guard in Afghanistan.
Canada is now earning praise from NATO and the Obama Administration for staying in Afghanistan, even though the Canadian Forces are getting out of the direct line of fire.
The Kabul extension salvaged Ottawa’s relations with Washington on a broader scale.
“Afghanistan is Obama’s biggest foreign policy challenge and headache right now,” said Fen Hampson, director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.
“Had we pulled up stakes and simply left, we would have simply fallen off the radar in Washington, including on those issues that matter to us at the border.”
Harper didn’t have any illusions about the success of the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
“Nor was there much enthusiasm about staying one minute more than we had too around the cabinet table,” Hampson said.
“The PM’s own instincts were to cut our losses and run.
“However, we would have paid a huge price politically with the U.S. if we had. It would likely have meant that the White House would not take our calls — at least not right away — and we would have reduced ourselves to a position of irrelevance in the eyes of some.”
By staying, Canada helped slow the steady race for the door of other NATO and coalition members after the Netherlands ended its combat mission in southern Afghanistan this past summer.
The real challenge for the Harper government is going to be defining the new training mission and keeping Canadian troops out of combat — and harm’s way, said Hampson.
“If it is a drill sergeant, chalk and blackboard mission, it will be relatively uncontroversial, especially on opposition benches.
“But if it is a training mission of the kind where our trainers accompany Afghan soldiers into the field on combat missions, we may well find ourselves taking casualties and this could become a hot political potato.”
Roland Paris, director of the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies, said the Conservatives and Liberals remain politically vulnerable because they rely on describing the future mission as “non-combat.”
“We know that most of the NATO soldiers that have been killed in Afghanistan have been killed not by gunfire but by bombs. And we know that bombs go off everywhere in the country, including in Kabul,” said Paris.
“The distinction between combat and non-combat doesn’t make a lot of sense …
“They’re still going to be in Afghanistan, which means they can be killed.
“If there are significant fatalities among Canadian troops then people might ask the question: wasn’t this supposed to be non-combat mission?”
Canada and its NATO allies will now be running the same race to 2014 to ensure that enough Afghan army and police are adequately trained to assume security duties and allow Western troops to begin going home.
But there are no guarantees that the reality on the ground will conform to Canada’s three-year timeline — the same one the United States and NATO have set for ending large-scale military involvement.
“Our objective ought to be an Afghanistan with an Afghanistan security apparatus and infrastructure strong enough that it can deal with a hopefully degraded Taliban insurgency without American and NATO combat troops,”
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution think-tank and a former CIA analyst and counter-terrorism specialist, told a panel discussion in Washington last week.
“That means that over the course of 2011 to 2014 we’re going to see parts of Afghanistan declared ’good enough’ that the American-NATO forces become backups and the Afghans go first.”
Riedel said many parts of Afghanistan have very little Taliban presence, and will likely be the scene of scaled-back Western military involvement sooner, rather than later.
He predicted good news for the Kabul region, where Canada’s training mission is expected to be based.
Kabul hasn’t seen a significant act of Taliban-related violence for several months, he noted.
Bland said its’ foolish to make predictions about the Afghanistan’s future security landscape.
He cited several factors that will influence the situation on the ground six months from now: the stability of President Hamid Karzai’s government, the influence of the Taliban, what Pakistan does and the Americans do.
“We might wake up some morning and find Karzai and the Taliban all sitting around smoking a peace pipe.”