The perfect Canadian compromise

Keeping some of our troops in Afghanistan in a non-combat role would allow us to continue to do our part

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The Gazette, Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Well, of course Canada is going to stay on in Afghanistan in a training rather than combat role. It's the perfect Canadian compromise that our NATO partners have found for us -we can do our part in terms of burden sharing, having done more than our share in a mission that has cost 150 Canadian lives.

In relocating to Kabul from Kandahar, the Canadian contingent will downsize from 2,500 to about 1,000, including 700 trainers. While they won't be completely out of harm's way, they will be behind the wire and out the combat zone in the south. And their role, training Afghan forces, fits in with Canadians' perception of our military as the nice guys in the neighbourhood, peace keepers rather than war fighters. We haven't been in that business for quite some time, but the legend lives on.

The timing of this news is hardly accidental. Defence Minister Peter MacKay made the announcement at a NATO defence conference in Halifax during the weekend. The news also sets a policy frame around the weeklong parliamentary recess for Remembrance Day, where the sacrifices in Afghanistan are now part of a national mosaic of two world wars and Korea, the forgotten war. By happenstance, the prime minister will be in Korea for the G20 summit, and can observe Remembrance Day there tomorrow.

Looking ahead to the NATO summit in Lisbon later this month, it was inconceivable that Stephen Harper would go there empty-handed. Canada is a founding member of NATO, and closest friend of the United States, which has tripled its presence under Barack Obama to 100,000 troops. What began as a war of necessity might have evolved into a war of choice, but there is no doubt that it is now Obama's war. And for all the difficulties in securing and building a civil society, it might still be a good war, especially when the Taliban are considered as the alternative to the beleaguered regime of Hamid Karzai.

And in terms of building the infrastructure of a functional society, it's pretty hard to have aid programs and schools without security. Eventually the Afghans will have to provide that themselves, but it seems Canada will stay on for another three years, until 2014, to help train their soldiers and police.

In terms of this smaller and re-configured mission, the question is where the opposition parties will come out on it in the minority House.

Constitutionally, the government doesn't need parliamentary approval to extend the Afghan mission, a cabinet decision will suffice. But in practice the Harper government has twice sought and passed parliamentary resolutions, the first in 2006 extending the mission until 2009, and the second in 2008 extending it to 20ll. This followed on the recommendation of John Manley's bipartisan task force recommending Canada stay on provided others stepped up. Simple logic dictates, then, that as others have stepped up, we should stay on.

In the House, the Liberals will provide the only cover the government needs to sustain a motion to extend the mission. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has voted with the Conservatives before, and the party's foreign-affairs critic, Bob Rae, has called for a continued Canadian role in Afghanistan.

The NDP's position has always been that it would support the troops by bringing them home, and there's no reason to think Jack Layton has had a change of heart. He was also an early advocate of peace talks with the Taliban, which earned him the nickname Taliban Jack. But his position might be vindicated by events, as it has been reliably reported that the Americans, under General David Petraeus, are intensifying field operations with a view to forcing the Taliban to the table.

As for the Bloc Quebecois, they will predictably be opposed to extending the mission. Equally, they will just as predictably continue to demand Quebec's fair share of military procurement.

There are lots of reasons to leave the Afghans to fend for themselves, not least that the country is a graveyard of foreign occupiers, from the British in one century to the Soviets in the next. The country's economy is a basket case -the fourth-poorest country in the world, with the illegal poppy trade as its largest commodity, with warlords ruling many regions, and with a corrupt government in Kabul. Not to mention the open border with Pakistan, hiding place of al-Qaida and staging ground for the Taliban. But we should also consider that girls are attending school, which they weren't under the Taliban.

The obvious window for a parliamentary debate is next week, after Harper's return from Korea but before his departure for Lisbon. He should go there armed with a new resolution from the House. As a democracy, it's the least we can do for Canadians in uniform, especially in the season of the poppy, when we honour their service and sacrifice.

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