Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Canada is Left Out?

Last night, we learned that there is going to be a meeting about the future of the anti-ISIS effort by the significant contributors to the current effort, and Canada is apparently not invited.  The natural questions to ask are: why and so what?  It is easier to answer the second than the first, but I will try my hand at both.

Before starting out, one thing needs to be clear: this is not the first time Canada has been left out of a major meeting aimed at figuring out the future of an allied effort.  In 2002, there was a meeting of the "Quint" to set NATO's agenda about the future of the various Balkan missions (Bosnia/Kosovo/Macedonia).  The Quint included the five largest providers of troops--US, UK, France, Italy and Germany.  During Afghanistan, things had changed quite a bit as it was no longer about the size of the force but where the countries' troops were and what they were doing.  As a result of Canada's key commitment, Canada was at the table and some of the bigger contributors were either not invited or simply not that relevant (Italy, Germany).

With that caveat in mind--that this is nothing new, what is going on now?  My first question, when I heard the news, was were the Australians invited?  Why?  Because their force posture is not that different at the current moment.  While considered the second largest after the US, it is composed of 300 soldiers, Special Operations Forces, six F/A-18s, a tanker and an airborne warning and control aircraft.  Canada has a similar air package--six CF-18s, a tanker and two Aurora recon planes--69 or so SOF, and heaps of logistics people but no other soldiers.  Basically, if it is about current commitment, then the Canadians should be there.  And then I learned the Dutch were also going to this meeting, and they have 8 F-16s but not much else as far as I can tell.

So, yes, there is something going here besides the old Balkan rules about the size of the deployment.  Everyone is pointing to the US being upset about Trudeau's commitment to pull out the CF-18s, including Matthew Fisher who is citing highly placed sources in Europe.
I had not heard that the US was this miffed.  I don't remember similar upset when Canada pulled out of the much more significant contribution in Kandahar.  But if the US is this upset, I am still surprised that it would exclude Canada, since the Canadian commitment decision is still in the air.  Excluding Canada might lead to a much smaller, less helpful Canadian training mission.  Still, given that other similar players are included, it does seem likely that the exclusion here is about the Cf-18s and perhaps that the Canadian government has taken longer to figure out the next steps than its allies would like.

How significant is this exclusion?  Not much and very.  Not much since Canada was always going to be in the position of a strategy taker and not a strategy maker in this campaign--the contribution was always going to be small and risk averse, so either the old Balkan rules or the newer Afghanistan rules of who matters would limit how much the Canadians would be heard.  Very in that it is a sign that the US-Canadian relationship is strained, even if the Prime Minister is about to have a state dinner with the American President.  It will ramp up criticism of the government--that the honeymoon is over.  That latter part, of course, we knew already.

Given that this government promised to improve relations with the US after years of Harper hectoring about pipelines, this is not a good start.  Should the government have made a faster decision?  I am not sure, since calls for passion and impatience are just, um, dumb, and this government had to spend its first month running off to four summits.  Still, figuring out a training mission is on the low end of the complexity spectrum.  Harper announced one in 2010 with little of the homework actually being done--Kabul only became Kabul-centric ultimately.  So, this government could have made some kind of decision and figured out some of the details later.

In sum, this dynamic of excluding lesser players from the strategy sessions is not new, Canada has been excluded before, but this is still pretty strange and quite unfortunate.  Trudeau and his team have some explaining to do....

Oh, and I had been downplaying the significance of the CF-18 pullout on US-Canadian relations.  I am starting to think I was wrong about that.

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