OTTAWA – Ottawa is a place where plans are made.
There are always plans. And even plans to make plans.
Yet ask anyone in the corridors of power what the plan is for Canada and Afghanistan post-2011 and you’re greeted with silence.
The musing last week of NATO’s new secretary-general that he would “strongly regret” the exit of Canada’s combat forces from Kandahar served to underline the unpleasant truth that the federal Conservatives have articulated no clear strategy beyond the call to bring the troops home.
When government ministers do occasionally tip-toe into that political minefield it’s usually with the platitudes-laced generality that Canada will continue its important aid and reconstruction mission in Kandahar.
Canada does have its signature projects, which the government will be able to point to as accomplishments in the post-2011 time frame, but there is a growing consensus among experts that the government is closing its eyes and ears when it comes to Afghanistan.
It’s a dubious strategy, especially when an anxious public is faced with mounting casualties, as was the case in July, the bloodiest month for coalition troops since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban.
“You don’t go to war because you like to fight. You go to war for political purpose,” said Barry Cooper, of the University of Calgary’s political science department.
“The political purpose of having troops on the ground in Afghanistan has to be restated because people tend to forget.”
And that message needs to be driven home, regardless of whether Ottawa sticks to its pullout deadline or not.
It was easy to make the case in 2001 and 2002 following 9/11, but it’s a tougher argument today, Cooper added.
Whether Ottawa bows to the mounting international pressure to stay depends on what the situation is like on the ground and that is likely to become much clearer after this month’s Afghan presidential election, he said.
The provincial reconstruction base in Kandahar city, the showcase of Canada’s development efforts, is tentatively slated to operate until 2015. Yet questions about how it will stay open and who will take over security for a growing civilian presence are left unanswered.
Beyond nut and bolts queries, there are more hard-headed considerations, such as what effect the withdrawal would have on Canada’s relations with the United States, Britain and other allies who’ve also borne a major share of the fighting and dying in southern Afghanistan.
And then there is the tougher, more emotional reflection.
Families of hundreds of soldiers – killed or horribly wounded – will want to know what the sacrifice of their husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter, brother or sister was all about.
Many of them say privately that Canada should not leave an unfinished war, but they are in the minority because repeated public opinion polls show overwhelming support to end the mission on schedule.
Whether it’s because of political, emotional or institutional exhaustion, the Afghan question is one the Harper minority government would rather not have to face, especially now when its political survival is a week-to-week consideration.
Yet, the pressure is mounting.
Aside from NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s somewhat clumsy appeal, the Obama Administration has sought advice on ways to convince Ottawa to stay.
The response on each occasion – led by Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon – has been swift and unyielding: 2011 as the pullout date is final.
“You can say that because it postpones any serious discussion in public about the purpose of Canadian troops in Kandahar province. That may change,” said Cooper.
“I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that a year from now they will say: Yes, things have stabilized and our original timetable will be adhered to – or they say things have changed and we have to revisit the issue and so on. If you look at the way any democracy has fought these kind of wars, these non-existential wars, that’s what they all do.”
That is precisely the concern of NDP Leader Jack Layton, who’s party fought to end the current mission, and will oppose any further extension.
He called on the government to clearly outline what Canada’s role will be in Afghanistan after the existing mandate expires.
“Lay out some sort of plan,” he said. “You can’t just leave things in such a vague, undefined way.”