Harper is slowly backing away from war in Afghanistan

Canada is shouldering an unfair burden, and, he hints, we might rotate out in 2009

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The Gazette, Friday, July 20, 2007

Burden-sharing is a term that came into use during the Cold War, as Washington's polite way of telling its NATO allies to spend more on defence and troop deployments to face down the Soviet threat in Europe. The country that the Americans often had in mind for not doing its share of the heavy lifting was Canada, which in the 1980s had the second-lowest defence spending per capita in NATO, ahead of only Luxembourg.

Burden-sharing is becoming a popular expression again, only this time it is the Canadians who are invoking it to suggest our NATO allies need to do more - in Afghanistan.

Stephen Harper, in a radio interview in Calgary last week, called for more "burden-sharing" by some NATO countries that refuse to deploy troops on dangerous missions such as the one undertaken by Canada in Kandahar.

And Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay, responding to a British parliamentary report expressing concern over "the reluctance of some NATO members to provide troops," said he was "glad the Brits have added their voice to this clarion call for other NATO countries to step up and help with the burden sharing that's going on in the south."

Of the 37,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, only 2,500 are Canadians, compared with 7,700 British and about 20,000 American soldiers. Don't look for the French, Germans or Italians in the neighourhood. They're not there.

It's precisely the heavy duty Canada is pulling in Kandahar, home ground of the Taliban, that is prompting calls for burden-sharing.

Mind you, we asked for this difficult and dangerous assignment, or rather Rick Hillier asked for it, in 2005. General Hillier wanted boots on the ground in a combat mission, and Paul Martin, as prime minister, approved the redeployment of Canadian troops from the relative safety of street patrols in the capital, Kabul, to a theatre of operations in Kandahar. Martin then failed to show for a 2006 vote on extending a mission he authorized, a truly shameful moment.

If Canada is doing a disproportionate share of combat duty, it is also suffering casualties in numbers that are becoming increasingly contentious at home.

Harper, on his Latin American swing this week, pointedly referred to it: "What I see is a growing concern of Canadians, and of the burden we are carrying and the level of Canadian casualties."

He added: "I understand the pain and I understand the difficulties that this causes the Canadian population, and that's the real controversy."

In other words, he is feeling the political heat. A Strategic Counsel poll yesterday shows the Tories sliding into a dead heat with the Liberals at 31 per cent, and falling to a distant third place behind the Bloc QuEbEcois and Liberals in Quebec, where the Afghan mission is highly unpopular. The deployment of 2,000 Quebec troops in the middle of the summer will only call more attention to the mission.

Harper is now clearly saying while Canada will fulfill its commitment to February 2009, the government will not extend the mission in Kandahar without the support of other parties in the House.

Since the Liberals are calling for an end to the mission in 2009, and the NDP oppose it altogether, that's simply not going to happen.

In essence, although Harper hasn't said so, he is giving notice to NATO that Canada wants to be relieved in Kandahar in 2009.

But Canada can hardly pack up and walk away from Afghanistan. Our forces could rotate out of Kandahar but remain in another, less dangerous, part of the country. There's also Canada's role in the reconstruction of a broken country.

Harper has said he is constantly benchmarking progress in Afghanistan, both in military and civilian terms. Problems include the open border to Pakistan, the flourishing poppy trade, feuding warlords and a discouraging degree of official corruption in both Kabul and the provinces. The last is documented in a disturbing Policy Options article by Arthur Kent, whose experience in Afghanistan goes back to 1980.

Harper has also said privately that the hardest part of his job is making phone calls to the families who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan.

As long as we are in Kandahar, he is going to be making more of those calls he dreads. That's a prime minister's lonely burden, and not one he can share.

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