Picking a new top soldier

How long will our troops stay in Afghanistan and who will lead them?

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The Gazette, Friday, September 7, 2007

Words are always important in Throne Speeches, and they will be of crucial importance in how the future of Canada's Afghan mission is worded in the Throne Speech on Oct. 16.

If the Throne Speech says Canada's military presence in Afghanistan will end in February 2009, that will be one thing. If it says Canada's role in Kandahar province will end then, that will be quite another.

If the former, Canada would be meeting its commitments until then, but then packing up and going home, leaving our NATO allies in the lurch and abandoning the Karzai government in Kabul.

If the latter, Canada would be fulfilling its obligations in Kandahar, but then rotating out to another assignment elsewhere in Afghanistan. In this scenario, Canada could say it is staying on in the country, but asking another country to step up and do the hard and dangerous work in the south, home ground of the Taliban. This is the burden-sharing scenario.

The latter scenario is much more likely, since cutting and running on NATO is not in our traditions. Moreover, there are 3Ds in Canada's foreign and defence policy - defence, diplomacy and development and Afghanistan is clearly in need of all three.

Since the 3Ds were adopted by the Martin government, of which Stéphane Dion was a member, he would be ill-placed, on behalf of the Liberals, to demand a complete withdrawal of Canadian forces. As for Jack Layton, his policy as NDP leader is that he would "support the troops by bringing them home."

The question, and it's a good one, is whether a deployment from Kandahar to another part of Afghanistan is acceptable to the Bloc Québécois, which reluctantly supports the military mission but strongly supports the humanitarian side of it.

Stephen Harper will need wording for the Throne Speech that is acceptable to Gilles Duceppe.

There's a related issue of command looming on the horizon, and that's the question of whether Rick Hillier's tenure as chief of defence staff will be extended beyond the usual three-year term.

In the normal course of events, Hillier would be retiring next February, exactly a year before the mission to Kandahar is scheduled to end.

So there are two questions, of equal importance, around this. On the one hand, is Hillier essential to the mission? On the other, if he is extended for another year, would that be an admission he is indispensable? One man bigger than the mission? That's not a good story line.

And further, what would be the implications of that for the normal path of succession, and promotions among general officers, who don't exactly come a dime a dozen? There is only one "four-star" general in the Canadian Forces, and only about a dozen "three-stars," lieutenant-generals, beneath him and only so many "two-stars," major-generals, below that, all them waiting to move up.

In particular, there are two three-stars waiting in line behind Hillier, Lt.-Gen. Walter Natynczyk, the vice-chief of staff, and Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie, the head of the army. Like Hillier, both are experienced field commanders. They are considered the two front-runners for the job, but Hillier is regarded as being in no hurry to retire, and hopeful of being extended.

That's entirely up to the prime minister. The chief of defence staff is appointed by the PM from the general staff, and serves at his pleasure. While a three-year tenure is normal, it is not a fixed term. However, only two generals in the modern era have served beyond a normal term, General Jacques Dextraze from 1972-77, and John de Chastelain from 1989-93, who in fact served a subsequent stint as chief when he was recalled from Washington, where he had been appointed ambassador by Brian Mulroney.

So extending Hillier's term would be exceptional, though not unprecedented. Other than Harper, that might also depend on how Hillier is getting along with his new boss, Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who while learning the ropes might be very reliant on Hillier's advice.

Afghanistan is the key, and Hillier is intimately familiar with all details of the mission. He commanded the NATO International Security Assistance Force there in 2004, and as chief lobbied hard for the redeployment from Kabul to Kandahar in 2005. He is heavily invested in the success of the mission, perhaps too heavily invested in it.

Nor is he the only general officer with experience on the ground in Afghanistan. Leslie has been a deputy ISAF commander and, like Hillier also is very good with the media - highly quotable, maybe too quotable. In 2005, he called Afghanistan a "a 20-year venture." Natynczyk served twice in UN commands in the former Yugoslavia, in such inhospitable places as Bosnia and Kosovo.

So Harper is on the verge of two important decisions: What to do about Afghanistan after February 2009, and whether Hillier is the man to lead the Canadian Forces until then.

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