The Globe and Mail reported on Thursday that the United States will ask Canada to keep as many as 500 to 600 soldiers in Afghanistan following the scheduled end of the mission in July 2011 (John Ibbitson, “U.S. to press for Canada to keep troops in Afghanistan,” Globe and Mail, 25 March 2010). According to the newspaper, the troops would be used as military trainers and would probably be based in Kabul.
No specific request has yet been made, the paper reports: “But officials in the departments of State and Defence have advised their Canadian counterparts that an ‘ask’ is coming.” The formal request is expected to come near the end of this year–i.e., probably after the next federal election in Canada–and to be made through NATO. (A similar NATO request recently caused the collapse of the Dutch government.)
The immediate response from the government to the report has been to insist that no formal request has yet been made (we already knew that, thanks) and to reiterate that our “military mission will end in 2011.” (Jane Taber, “Afghan withdrawal date puts Lawrence Cannon in hot seat,” Globe and Mail, 25 March 2010)
However, David Bercuson, for one, doesn’t believe that the Harper government should (or necessarily will) stand by that commitment (David Bercuson, “This U.S. plea is a Harper saver,” Globe and Mail, 26 March 2010):
A U.S. request to Canada to keep 600 or so troops in Kabul for training purposes fits both the wording and the intent of the 2008 parliamentary motion [that set an end date for Canada's mission]. If made, Mr. Harper would be entirely within the parameters of that motion to simply agree to the request. He could explain to Canadians that the U.S. wasn’t asking for more than Parliament had already agreed to, that Canada simply had to support an ally in the middle of a war to achieve a goal that so many Canadians had already died fighting for, and that 600 or so troops in a training role in Kabul was the least Canada could do for its allies.
Bercuson, Director of the DND-funded Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, goes on to argue that Prime Minister Harper would benefit politically by revisiting the issue, asserting that “in any such debate, Michael Ignatieff can only lose.” It is up to the Prime Minister, writes Bercuson, to decide whether or not to swing “the axe” at Mr. Ignatieff’s neck–not, of course, that he is presuming to provide partisan advice along those lines.
Update (30 March 2010)
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirms that the U.S. wants the Canadian Forces to remain in Afghanistan in some role after 2011 (Bruce Campion-Smith & Allan Woods, “Hillary Clinton courts Canada on Afghan role,” Toronto Star, 30 March 2010).
Photo by MCpl Robert Bottrill