As the date for withdrawal from Afghanistan by the Canadian forces approaches, pressure to remain in the battle mounts amid two high profile requests for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to reconsider his decision to abandon the Afghan mission.
On March 29, in an interview with CTV's Tom Clark, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the contribution of the Canadian forces, explaining why the Americans feel it's important that we continue our NATO commitment:
"We are very grateful for the Canadian Forces, the Canadian government, and most of all the Canadian people, with the support and solidarity they've shown with us in this mission in Afghanistan. We would obviously like to see some form of support to continue, because the Canadian forces have a great reputation. They work really well with the American troops and the other members of the coalition...There's a really close working relationship, and I think our militaries have become even closer because of this deployment...We believe, in the United States, with the new strategy that president Obama has set forth, we're making progress. It's been a long slog, trying to learn how to take on these insurgents, to have great militaries like our Countries do, but to have to go back to basically guerilla warfare, asymmetric warfare to take on the enemy...we've made a lot of progress and we would very much look forward to having Canada involved in any way you think appropriate."
"...The (Canadian) military could switch more into a training role, instead of a combat role; A logistics support role instead of the front line combat. Certainly the non military functions of working to encourage development, better governance, the rule of law, all the pieces of the strategy that have to be married with the military and Canada has a particular commitment to, and experience with, that kind of development work that would be very useful."
Just 24 hours after Clinton's remarks, U.K foreign secretary David Millband appeared on CTV, expressing the British position regarding Canada's proposed troop withdrawal:
"Of course we want you to be there. We went in together and the best thing would be if we stay together, and only go out together. I've seen for myself the remarkable bravery of Canadian officers and troops in the south of Afghanistan. I've talked to your soldiers and your officers, they made a remarkable contribution, they're making a real difference in that country, and they're making a real difference to the coalition effort...From my point of view it's absolutely clear; We're a 43 nation coalition, and we're strongly united. Canadians are very, very good at diplomacy, at aid, at development, and also at the military effect, and so wherever in that spectrum you can make a contribution, it will be welcome. But your military contribution, both in a combat role and in a training role, mentoring role, is very very important indeed."
"...we've all got a job to do, there's a new commander, General McChrystal, is doing an outstanding job in developing a strategy that protects the Afghan population, he's giving the space for the civilian effort to take effect."
Although Harper is holding firm to the 2011 pullout date, at least one senior Conservative caucus member has come forward in support of extending the mission. Conservative Senator Hugh Segal feels "we have lost too many people and we have made too much of a contribution and we've made some considerable progress that we do not, to quote the Prime Minister, 'cut and run'."
It does seem a little more than ironic that Harper, who in 2003 gave an impassioned speech* to the House of Commons imploring Canada to join George W. Bush in the United States' invasion of Iraq, has completely lost interest in Afghanistan. His lack of commitment happens to come as the United States finally has a president who possesses both a strategy, and firm commitment to, the Afghan war.
The desire for Canada to continue its presence in Afghanistan is not limited to our NATO coalition partners; Family members of soldiers killed in Afghanistan are also questioning Harper's arbitrary withdrawal date, fearing that not seeing the mission through to the end will mean their loved ones died in vain.
Myles Kennedy, the father of Pte. Kevin Kennedy who was killed in a roadside blast on Easter Sunday in 2007, believes "we came in to do a job, and our job will not be complete if (Harper) pulls out the whole group." Kennedy's faith in the success of the mission is strong, a CTV report noting "(Kennedy) was amazed at the scale of NATO's buildup for this spring's planned offensive in Kandahar, and for the first time since his son's death...he's optimistic that war can be turned around."
Canadians need an open, honest debate about the possibility of remaining in Afghanistan post 2011, and Parliament should revisit the 2008 motion for troop withdrawal to discuss the merits and drawbacks of either extending, or ending, the Afghan mission. It's clear that the expertise, tenacity, and effectiveness of the Canadian Forces has had a positive impact on our NATO allies; Their request for our continuance in Afghanistan demonstrates their belief in Canada's importance to the ultimate success of the mission.
Canadian men and women who have volunteered for combat on behalf of an entire nation deserve to have their future roles in Afghanistan mapped out through careful consultation between Parliament and leaders of the Canadian military; Not by a Prime Minister who'd sooner ignore the entire situation than definitively answer the urgent requests being levelled at his government.
*It's unclear as to whether Harper plagiarized the speech given by Australian Prime Minister John Howard two days prior to his own address to Parliament, or whether both men had received a pre-written argument straight from the Bush administration.
(This discussion is continues: Debating Afghanistan:The case for withdrawal)
UPDATE April 8: Conservative Senator Hugh Segal in the Toronto Star –There’s so much more to be done in Afghanistan
UPDATE April 11: Canada will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2011
UPDATE April 12: Afghan president Hamid Karzai threatens to block NATO offensive