The Toronto Star seems to think that Stephen Harper is lying to us about the non-combat-ness of the new training mission (see here and here).
The former says: "it’s just plain hooey to pretend that our battle-smartened soldiers — should Ottawa agree to leave a thousand-or-so in situ for the purpose of training and mentoring Afghan troops — will stay safely inside-the-wire at KAF."
The latter says: "Among the most rock solid is that the difference between training and combat is mostly a matter of convenient labelling in conflicts without distinct front lines or easily identified enemies."
Actually, no. They are both wrong. It is quite possible to order troops to stay behind the wire. And there is work to do behind the wire. Sure, I think it is a weenie move, but it is possible and not just possible but now politically necessary. And Afghanistan is not quite Vietnam, as many of the bases face a very low risk of being over-run. Some may get shelled, some may face suicide attacks, but, except for small bases close to the border in high risk areas, the bases are likely to be safe. The roads may not be entirely so, so the big question really is where the Canadians will serve and whether they will be driving the supplies. Even so, the risks will be much, much lower than the current ones. The training will not involve mentoring--the Canadians will not be accompanying the Afghans in the field. Which is too bad, in my view, because that is where the Canadians bring the most added value.
But it is clear that this government will impose caveats and other restrictions that will limit what the Canadian soldiers can and cannot do. It is not clear from the government backgrounder that is entirely devoid of content, but caveats are not new to the Canadian military. They used to have significant restrictions in Bosnia and then in the early days of the Afghanistan mission. So, they will not be doing combat, although I imagine that they will be allowed to fire back if fired upon (otherwise the Rules of Engagement would lack legitimacy).
So, you can call Harper a weenie, you can say that the decision process here was bad (where is the chief of the defence staff, what role did the Minister of National Defence play, the NATO summit next week is not a surprise party so why not work out the decision over months rather than a weekend), but the non-combat line is not a lie.
Update: We finally have a bit of clarity about the civilian side. Despite various assurances about doing heaps of development and governance, Canada is pulling its civilian side of its Kandahar effort--the Provincial Reconstruction Team. I was uncertain about this until a recent conversation with some on the civilian side of this effort. It was always a puzzle--how are you going to do the development stuff without Canadian troops transporting and protecting the civilians? One answer would be the Canadians would rely on the Americans. But the real answer is not that--the real answer is that the Canadians handing over the entire effort to the Americans. Unfortunately, this is one area where the Americans do not have a surplus--trained diplomatic and aid types with experience in Kandahar.