Canada would find it hard to turn down Obama

If U.S. president wanted our troops to stay in Afghanistan, could we say no?

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The Gazette, Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Barack Obama and Stephen Harper have a new policy on Afghanistan - don't ask, don't tell.

Obama isn't asking Canada to extend its mission there, and Harper isn't telling whether we will stay beyond 2011.

Seriously, that's where it is right now. On his visit to Ottawa last month, President Obama went out of his way to say "I certainly did not press the prime minister on any commitments beyond the ones that have already been made."

Harper, for his part, was carefully calibrated, noting that Canada's troops in Kandahar are "operating within a parliamentary resolution" and that he hoped "all strategies that come forward have the idea of an end date, of a transition to Afghan responsibility for security, and to greater Western partnership for economic development."

Don't ask, don't tell.

But here's the thing: Following the recommendation of the Manley report last January, the Harper government agreed to extend the mission from 2009 to 2011, provided another NATO country stepped up to support the Canadian presence in Kandahar. The previous Bush administration responded positively, and Obama, in his first decision as U.S. commander-in-chief, ordered another 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, to support the 30,000 already there. That's a first step, pending a 60-day policy review by Richard Holbrooke, Obama's high-profile special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

From the beginning of the presidential primaries, Obama's position was that Iraq was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that the U.S. had taken its eye off the ball in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan, staging ground for the Taliban insurgents and hideout for Osama and the gang.

Of course, now that he's in the White House, it isn't quite so simple. The insurgency has been emboldened, not just in Kandahar and the south, but increasingly with strikes in and around the capital, Kabul. Pakistan is certainly a sanctuary for terrorists, but it has own volatile political mix, and it also has nuclear weapons. The Afghan government of Hamid Karzai is increasingly ineffective due to its own corruption. The largest cash crop, accounting for two-thirds of the country's GDP, is illegal, with regional warlords jostling for revenues from the poppy trade. There has been progress in building a civil society - millions of kids, including girls, are in school. Women sit in parliament. Roads are being built, and medical facilities.

But the insurgency is ever present, and ever more deadly, as we saw in the roadside bombing that killed three more Canadian soldiers in one incident last week. With the end of winter, a spring offensive looms.

Pending Holbrooke's recommendations, which he will then take to the NATO summit in April, Obama is in a holding pattern. But his campaign rhetoric, and his deployment of the 17,000 additional troops, make Afghanistan Obama's war. If in the end, a popular new U.S. president, and a liberal Democrat at that, asks Canada to stay on along with the U.S. past 2011, it would be very difficult for either Harper or Michael Ignatieff to turn him down.

Since their declarations in Ottawa three weeks ago, both Obama and Harper have been giving interviews in which their comments on Afghanistan have made significant headlines. In a conversation with PBS, Obama observed the U.S. needed a strategy in Afghanistan before it could develop an exit strategy. Harper, in his interview with Fareed Zakaria of CNN, declared the Taliban insurgents would be not be defeated, adding the Afghans ultimately had to be responsible for their own security.

Then in a interview with the New York Times aboard Air Force One last week, Obama frankly said: "You've seen conditions deteriorate over the last couple of the southern regions of the country, you're seeing them attack in ways that we have not seen previously."

Asked about reaching out to more moderate elements of the Taliban, Obama referred to the success of the troop surge in Iraq under General David Petraeus, and noted that while Afghanistan was not necessarily comparable, some of those tactics, of peeling away moderate elements from hard-line insurgencies, might be applicable in Afghanistan. And Harper was quick to agree.

Talking to the Taliban? Wasn't that Jack Layton's thought, back in 2006, when he got tagged as Taliban Jack? Well, in Brussels yesterday, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden suggested that only five per cent of the Taliban were hard-line "incorrigibles," and the most of the rest were in it for the money. This is true, with their cash flow from the drug trade, the Taliban can pay $5 a day, twice what a newly trained policeman gets, and five times the average subsistence of $1 a day (it is the fourth-poorest country on Earth).

Sounds like a policy of divide and conquer, with cash. It would be a lot cheaper, than rescuing the American banking industry.

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