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We never discussed the real Afghan option

Eugene Lang, Globe & Mail, 19 May 06


Parliament has just narrowly passed a motion approving a two-year extension to Canada's military operation in Afghanistan. The government framed the issue as a stark choice between extending the current mission in Kandahar or withdrawing the Canadian Forces entirely from Afghanistan.


In reality, the choice is not black and white at all. To grasp the real options for Canada in Afghanistan, you need to understand the complex nature of the current mission and the history behind it.


In 2003, Jean Chretien decided that Canada would offer to command and contribute 2,000 troops to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a multinational NATO mission in Kabul. Its mandate fell somewhere between combat and peacekeeping and was designed to provide security and stability to the nascent Afghan government.


Canada's then military leadership was concerned that the Canadian Forces would get bogged down in ISAF, unable to extricate themselves for several years. As a result, an exit strategy was developed.


It was decided that, after a year of commanding and contributing a large number of troops to ISAF, Canada would deploy a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Afghanistan. The PRT would be made up of 200 to 300 soldiers, plus other civilian government officials, and would allow Canada to gracefully bow out of ISAF, yet remain committed to Afghanistan and carry out important reconstruction tasks -- such as training police and advising on governance -- elsewhere in the country.


Officials in the Department of National Defence and the Department of Foreign Affairs, frequently at odds with one another, dithered and bickered for about a year and a half over where Canada's PRT should be located. During that crucial period, other NATO countries deployed PRTs throughout Afghanistan. Hence, by early 2005, the only part of the country that lacked a sufficient number of PRTs was the Kandahar region, the birthplace of the Taliban, the locus of the resistance and the most dangerous and unstable part of Afghanistan.


As a result, Canada's PRT decision became academic; we had won the Kandahar sweepstakes by default.


At this point, Paul Martin had replaced Mr. Chretien as prime minister and had appointed a new chief of the defence staff, General Rick Hillier, who had headed the ISAF mission. Gen. Hillier advised Mr. Martin that, in addition to the PRT, Canada should deploy a 1,000-troop combat task force, plus special forces that, together, would carry out essential counterinsurgency operations in Kandahar, in part to relieve the Americans.


Mr. Martin, who was never keen on Canada's presence in Afghanistan, reluctantly approved this expanded mission, principally because he was told it would not preclude a second significant Canadian Forces deployment to Darfur or Haiti, both of which were preoccupying him. There was also an understanding at that time that the combat part of the Kandahar mission would be in place for one year only, but that the PRT would likely stay beyond that point. I was in the room in the spring of 2005 when those decisions and commitments were made.


For reasons that are not yet clear, the Harper government is equivocal on whether a significant second mission elsewhere in the world can be mounted in tandem with the extension of the Afghanistan mission.


That brief history explains how and why the Canadian Forces ended up with a combined combat and reconstruction mission in Kandahar.


And when put in this context, it is obvious that the Harper government had another option, aside from the false choice of total withdrawal or extension of the existing mission.


Parliament could have been asked to approve an extension -- and perhaps even an increase in the size -- of the reconstruction force.


The reconstruction force, by the way, is not a group of namby-pamby soldiers running around with hearts on their sleeves and flowers in their hair. While having a robust mix of soft skills, this unit is made up of highly trained, well-armed, combat-ready soldiers, housed in a virtual fortress, very capable of defending itself against any likely conventional foe in Afghanistan.


With a firm and long-term commitment to a PRT in Kandahar, Canada could have withdrawn our combat forces as was originally planned, having done our bit in the more offensive side of the operation.


Another NATO country could then fill in for Canada in the combat role we had vacated, continuing the burden sharing that is the hallmark of the alliance. The choice of focusing on reconstruction and development would have been acceptable within NATO and much more in keeping with what Canadians like to see their military doing abroad.


Yet, that option was never discussed publicly.


The decision to extend Canada's Afghan mission is no trivial matter.


This is a huge issue for Canada, with appreciable human and financial costs. Forcing a sudden and premature parliamentary vote on it is one thing, but framing it as a simplistic choice to either stay in Afghanistan or abandon this struggling country is the real sin.

Eugene Lang was chief of staff to Liberal defence ministers John Mc Callum and Bill Graham.

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