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PM gets little help at NATO

Minor additions to force in Afghanistan 'baby steps,' Canadian defence chief says

Paul Koring (With a report from Alex Dobrota in Ottawa), Globe & Mail, 30 Nov 06

Article Link

 

Embattled Canadian soldiers fighting the Taliban in Kandahar won't be reinforced after NATO leaders failed yesterday to offer additional combat troops.

 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who came to Riga looking to prod some major European allies into fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Canadians and other countries deployed in southern Afghanistan, goes home almost empty-handed.

 

"Our desire is to see more engagement by everyone," Mr. Harper said, although he insisted some progress "had been made on Canadian objectives."

 

For Canadians and others bearing the brunt of the fighting and dying in southern Afghanistan, no help can be expected in the short term, said Canada's Chief of the Defence Staff General Rick Hillier.

 

"There were some small baby steps," he said, referring to minor force additions, adding that he had expected no more at the summit but remained hopeful of more in the mid-term. There was "lots of talk about various countries offering up some more troops," he said on the plane bringing Mr. Harper and his entourage back to Ottawa.

 

Gen. Hillier, who commanded NATO's forces in Afghanistan in 2002, said "we still feel that we are doing the heavy lifting in the south, that's not a whine, that's the reality of life . . . it would be nice to have the feeling that the entire NATO mission was focused that way too."

 

Mr. Harper's message going home wasn't much different from the one on the road to Riga. "We still need more," he said.

 

NATO leaders offered a renewal of vows rather than any newfound willingness to send forces into combat. "Contributing to peace and stability in Afghanistan is NATO's key priority," the 26 leaders of the world's most powerful military bloc said.

 

Polish President Lech Kaczynski, whose government announced earlier this fall that it was sending a battle group to fight alongside the Americans, was blunter.

 

"Not all countries showed the same level of determination," he said.

 

In Ottawa, Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh accused Mr. Harper of hastily joining the fighting without first getting guarantees of reinforcements. "That was rushed in a very irresponsible way without getting all the guarantees in place . . . and now we're playing catch-up," Mr. Dosanjh said. He was a member of the former Liberal government that ordered Canadian forces to Kandahar.

 

In Question Period yesterday, the Bloc Québécois also asked the government not to extend the mission past 2009. Most military analysts believe crushing the Taliban insurgency will take a decade or more.

 

Only weeks before the summit, Foreign Minister Peter MacKay bluntly warned that Canada needed reinforcements. "We cannot continue to do this without further support," he said.

 

Some analysts suggested NATO's failure to send more troops south exposed a lack of political will that could doom the alliance as it struggles to transform itself from a Cold War bulwark against Soviet communism into a nimble, global enforcer.

 

"The political leadership of NATO clearly does not believe that this mission is important enough to commit the resources necessary for success," said David Bercuson, a military analyst at the University of Calgary.

 

"NATO is failing the test in Afghanistan," he said. "And if it fails the test in Afghanistan, I don't think there can be any consideration for NATO doing anything else."

 

In Riga, UN Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer tried to end the summit on a positive note but said only "several infantry companies" -- meaning perhaps 500 additional soldiers -- had been promised for Afghanistan.

 

For the 2,300 Canadian soldiers in Kandahar, the steps by NATO leaders in Riga mean they will keep fighting and dying without reinforcements in the province that is the Taliban's heartland.

 

Canadian combat casualties this year in Afghanistan are running at five times the rate of other foreign forces, and two more Canadians were killed this week by a suicide bomber.

 

Even the few hundred additional troops pledged by NATO seemed ephemeral. No one was prepared to identify which country had offered them or where they would be deployed.

 

However, several major European NATO leaders, under intense pressure, agreed to lift so-called caveats, or restrictions that prevented their forces being sent south. France, Spain, Italy and Germany, all with substantial numbers of troops deployed in Afghanistan but all in the relatively safe north, agreed that -- in dire emergencies -- they could be sent south.

 

"In an emergency, . . .they will support each other. That is the most fundamental demonstration of NATO's solidarity," Mr. Scheffer said.

 

But Germany, Italy and Spain made it clear that their troops would remain in the north, far from the fighting. The value in lifting the caveats may be mostly symbolic.

 

In the south, "we're there with the United States, we're there with the United Kingdom and, if we ever needed help in a serious manner to contain a Taliban surge, we're confident it would come," Gen. Hillier said.

 

Despite the paltry additional troop commitments and the uncertainty over whether lifting caveats would meaningfully change the war-fighting capacity of NATO in the south, leaders remained determined to paint the summit in a positive light.

 

"There is not the slightest reason to voice gloom and doom over Afghanistan," Mr. Scheffer said. The war there "is winnable, it is being won, but not yet won," he added.

 

A French suggestion for an Afghanistan "contact group," modelled on one used in the mid-1990s to try to find a peaceful solution to the war in Bosnia, was also endorsed. However, it remained unclear whether it was intended to provide a framework for including the Taliban in a political solution.

 

NATO leaders also declared "fully operational" the alliance's long-delayed, rapid-reaction, multinational force of 25,000 troops, which is supposed to be able to deploy within five days to deal with crises.


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