"I do this with some reluctance but I think this is the best decision, when one looks at the options," he said. "Look, I'm not going to kid you. Down deep my preference would be, would have been to see a complete end to the military mission." Until now, Harper has insisted that Canadians will withdraw by July 2011. But NATO countries have been lobbying for months to persuade Harper to change his mind. Harper said Thursday he did not succumb to pressure, but decided to reconsider based on the fact that the Afghans aren't ready for Canada to leave. "I don't want to risk the gains that Canadian soldiers have fought for and have sacrificed in such significant numbers by pulling out too early, if we can avoid that." Harper acknowledged he has been under pressure by NATO allies to continue in a combat role, but a training role was the most he could agree to. Sources have told The Canadian Press the government is considering sending 600 to 1,000 soldiers to Kabul until 2014 to bolster NATO training efforts.A nice combination of honesty and deception. Yes, Harper has not been a big fan of the mission for some time. Why? He does not really say. Perhaps because he is a pacifist? Um, no. Because he has long been skeptical about the success of the mission? Well, that would contradict the rest of the stuff he says here. Because the mission cost him votes in the various elections? Maybe.
"I think if we can continue a smaller mission that involves just training, I think frankly that presents minimal risks to Canada, but it helps us to ensure that the gains that we've made," Harper said.
What is deceptive here? That he suddenly realized that "the Afghans are not ready for Canada to leave." Um, duh! The new 2014 date that Canada, NATO, and everyone else is setting for the Afghanization of the effort is perhaps unrealistic, but the 2011 deadline was never, never about Afghanistan being ready for the Canadians to leave. Something may have changed for Harper but a realization of the limits of the Afghans is not it.
The timing of the decision clearly is related to two things: that the Canadian military planners have to start working on anything that begins in 2011 now; and the NATO summit in Lisbon. During my time on the Joint Staff, I realized that the various big meetings (summits of the leaders of the members, the ministerials where the Foreign Ministers or Defence Ministers) would not really be the places where decisions were made, but forced countries to make decisions ahead of these events to announce at the meetings. Kind of the way conferences force academics to finally kick out the papers that they have been working on. So, NATO pressure clearly mattered, since Canada would not have kept returning to Afghanistan without some sort of desire to meet NATO obligations and perhaps even develop a leading role within the institution.
And that gets us to one of the real reasons for this new effort: to preserve some of the political capital gained through the sacrifices made by Canadians (152 soldiers, one civilian in terms of deaths, probably ten times that in seriously wounded). Just fleeing Afghanistan would have wasted their efforts, both in terms of leaving behind an Afghanistan that was not yet ready and likely to fall back and in terms of Canadian influence that would dissipate.
One last point: Canada has spent the past several years haranguing the Germans and other NATO members that have placed significant restrictions on what their militaries can do in Afghanistan (offensive operations? out of sector ops?), and this was after Canada had similar restrictions from 2002-2005 or so. Now, Canada, after all of that, will have perhaps the tightest constraints on their deployment, if the reports are correct--only trainers, no combat, only on military bases and not out in the field. I wonder if the Germans will become smug and start teasing the Canadians.