Harper resolute on end of Afghanistan mission
Published Thursday, July 1, 2010 7:48AM EDT
OTTAWA - When talk in Ottawa's halls of power turns to Afghanistan, he's known as the immovable object.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, once considered a hawk in the mould of George W. Bush, appears more and more like a dove as Canada enters what could be its last summer of war in southwest Asia.
Publicly, Harper's Conservative government stands firm in its determination to end the country's combat mission in Kandahar on July 1, 2011, despite a growing chorus of voices at home and abroad urging it to reconsider -- or redefine and renew its commitment.
The message privately is the same: The army comes home from war-wasted Afghanistan, to be replaced by development and diplomacy.
In a city that's accustomed to political back-room deals and obfuscation, the clarity and consistency of the refrain is startling, unnerving and even a little weird.
Many have a hard time believing Harper, who once famously declared Canada would never "cut and run" from Afghanistan, actually means what he says. They keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Last spring, the parlour-talk speculation suggested the prime minister, known as a masterful political tactician, was shrewdly allowing the opposition to manoeuvre him to the precise spot he wanted to be by pushing for some kind of renewed military commitment to Afghanistan.
The way the story spins out, the opposition and interested Canadians, worried about the country's already-steep investment in blood and treasure in Afghanistan, would push for a new mandate, and Harper gives in, extending the mission without having to suffer the political consequences.
It sounds calculated and disingenuous, and ignores one vital, fundamental fact: insiders say Harper himself is determined to end Canada's role in the fighting.
"If Parliament hadn't imposed a deadline, I would have done it myself," the prime minister reportedly told insiders last year.
That was before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointedly asked Ottawa last winter to extend its time in Kandahar, and before Michael Ignatieff decided to make a post-2011 training mission in Afghanistan the centrepiece of Liberal party policy.
During a visit to Kandahar Airfield earlier this month, Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae expressed the Liberal belief that Canada should linger in some capacity to help train Afghan security forces. Both the House of Commons and Senate defence committees also piled on in the days before Parliament's summer recess.
In a report last week, the Senate warned Canada's "standing" among its allies could suffer if Ottawa were indeed to walk away from Afghanistan lock, stock and smoking barrels. The subtext of the admonition -- often repeated openly around the capital -- is that leaving in the middle of the fight endangers relations with Washington.
Hogwash, says a defence analyst.
Rob Huebert, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, said Canada has more important interests in Afghanistan beyond appeasing the Americans.
"I'm not sure how much the U.S. has even paid attention to what an important role we've played up until this point in time," Huebert said.
"Do we get any credit for being there when the U.S. wasn't there? And the answer is: absolutely not. The U.S. is so focused on what the U.S. does, it often doesn't notice for good and bad what its closest friends and allies are doing."
Almost a decade after 9/11, Canada is still on al-Qaida's hit list, and that should be a bigger security concern than whether we've annoyed Washington, Huebert added. After all, he said, the stated purpose of having troops on the ground in the first place was to counter the terrorist threat.
The Americans may not realize we're there, but when the ramp goes up on the last Canadian military transport in Afghanistan, they'll know that we've left, said retired major general Lewis MacKenzie.
Federal cabinet ministers routinely duck or soft-pedal when the questions come about the inevitable political fallout of the self-imposed July 2011 deadline.
They often use, as Defence Minister Peter MacKay did last week, the well-worn line: "We have to respect Parliament and the motion is clear. We can't be fighting for democracy in Afghanistan and ignore it at home."
But while the motion passed by the House of Commons in March 2008 commits Canada to end combat operations and withdraw from Kandahar by 2011, it does not require that the country leave Afghanistan entirely -- a rider added by Harper himself during the last election campaign.
Canada's not the only one planning an exit, MacKay noted: U.S. President Barack Obama has also set July 2011 as a deadline to begin drawing down American forces.
"The expressions of interest in a role for Canada beyond 2011 from Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Rae and others are of great interest," MacKay said.
"But until such time as that motion reads differently, we will respect that motion."