Beyond 2011: What will we be doing in Afghanistan? -

Beyond 2011: What will we be doing in Afghanistan?


What exactly will Canada’s role in Afghanistan be after July 2011?

That is, of course, the date by which our “military presence in Kandahar” must end, according to the wording of the key motion passed by Conservatives and Liberals voting together in the House of Commons back on March 13, 2008.

I listened carefully when three important Conservatives—the Prime Minister, Trade Minister Stockwell Day, and Chris Alexander, Canada’s former ambassador to Afghanistan—were all asked this week about what Canadians might be doing in Afghanistan two years from now.

In my opinion, the answer given by Alexander— who made news today by revealing that he plans to run for the Tories in an Ontario riding in the next election—doesn’t mesh with those offered by the two senior voices from the government he hopes to join.

Here’s are their comments:

—In his joint news conference in Washington with President Barack Obama, Stephen Harper said, in part, “Canada will be transitioning from a predominantly military mission to a mission that will be a civilian humanitarian development mission after 2011.”

—At a news conference in Ottawa, Day, who chairs the cabinet committee on Afghanistan, was asked if U.S. officials ever push for the Canadian government to reconsider the 2011 exit plan. “Any meetings that I’ve been involved in with the Americans there has been no pressure,” Day said, “no mention of ongoing troop involvement, and that’s what I have observed to date.”

—In a CBC interview, Alexander was asked about the deadline for ending the military mission. “A certain kind of military commitment will end in 2011,” he said. “One of the issues that President Obama will discuss, I’m sure, with all his allies, is how do we put in place the resources to train the Afghan army and police on a much larger scale?”

I take Alexander’s answer to mean that he foresees an ongoing and expanded role for the Canadian military in training Afghanistan’s security forces. I’m no expert, but that sounds to me like a reasonable idea, which no doubt deserves to be debated.

Still, I don’t see how it dovetails with the answers given by Harper and Day.

The Prime Minister did not tell us Canada would shift from one sort of military mission to another. He said the transition would be from a “predominantly military mission” to a “civilian humanitarian development mission.”

A plain reading of those words suggests pretty clearly that the army will no longer be the focus of Canadian activities. And this straightforward interpretation is supported by Day’s remark that the Americans make “no mention of ongoing troop involvement.”

So on one hand we have Harper and Day talking of a “civilian humanitarian” mission that doesn’t require any talk of “ongoing troop involvement.” And on the other we have Alexander suggesting that only a “certain kind” of military mission will end and a new one, emphasizing training, might well take its place.

Is there any way training Afghanistan’s army and police on a very large scale could be viewed as a civilian humanitarian job without much ongoing troop involvement?

From what I read on the government’s website about the sort of training Canadian troops are already doing in Afghanistan, I don’t see how.

For example, an article on the website describes how “kandaks,” units of the Afghan army that are like infantry battalions, with about 600 men, are taken by their Canadian trainers and mentors on “joint operations with the Canadian battle group.” Another piece tells of Canadian artillery experts who “live and work full-time with their Afghan counterparts,” training them at a “patrol base in Panjwayi District of Kandahar Province.”

In other words, this isn’t classroom stuff. It’s training in the field. It’s army work. It might be a very good thing if our soldiers keep doing it after 2011, and on a larger scale, but if that comes to pass, I don’t think we’ll be describing their mission as a civilian effort that doesn’t entail ongoing troop involvement.


Beyond 2011: What will we be doing in Afghanistan?

  1. Did anyone seriously think we'd be out by mid 2011?

  2. Did anyone seriously think we'd be out by mid 2011?

    • If we are not we will have very little company. Even Berlusconi (a clown most of the time but right this time) has publicly stated it is time to leave. The germans and the french publics are also unenthusiastic about the mission (whatever it may be at the moment). It is over and nato has lost. In the long run a Nato defeat is a good thing as it will discourage idiotic adventures of the same kind.

  3. A very nice accounting of where we're at. Well, not "nice" as in "happy" but rather sobering and very useful. Thank you.

  4. Fine. So after Canada pulls its troops out, a certain number of Canadian military and police trainers will be visiting the country on an ongoing basis to train the locals. It's probably not a big deal, but I suppose Harper and Day should address this issue directly, to answer questions like the ones raised by Geddes.

    • The Canadian army will be “just visting”? I don’t like the sounds of that. Next thing you know, they’ll be in it for themselves.

  5. No, Sean. Nobody really believes politicians anymore when they say something. Strangely, we're still upset when they go back on the word we didn't believe in the first place.

    But I just think its sad to see a new Conservative who hasn't had all truthiness eviscerated from his mind and soul. Because you know it won't last much longer.

    • I'm not even sure this is case of politicians being insincere. It's more the ramifications of entering the conflict in the first place that were overlooked by many – as much as I opposed this particular armed engagement, I don't think it's right to crash in on other countries and then leave on an arbitrary date determined more by emotional criteria than moral or rational sensibilities.

      Without denying the (potentailly) temporary benefit to lives of women in Afghanistan, it's hard to escape the feeling that a lot of blood has been shed in the name of "doing something," no matter how reactionary and poorly considered that "something" was. And for a war that was ostensibly about crushing terrorists and making the world safer, one could make the argument that the long term effects may simply create new generations who see "the west" as infiltrators and destroyers more than allies.

      It's too late now, but I sure wish we'd entered it with a calmer consideration of the moral responsibilities we were assuming.

      • I wasn't very clear there, as I reread it. I meant to say that I believe everyone when they pledge to get out in 2011, but that we're all being a bit self-delusional in ignoring the moral and practical issues raised by an arbitrary date being set. Which is perfectly in keeping with the way we got involved there in the first place – little to no consideration of possible outcomes, the potential to do as much or more harm than good, and a complete avoidance of the dynamics inherent in being an invading force (euphemistically thought of as a liberating force) in another land.

        • There are no moral or ethical issues beyond our willingness to continue wasting the lives of our troops. From media reports it would appear that Mr. Ignatieff has been very clear about the withdrawal date in 2011 being final. The future conservative candidate and former ambassador to Afghanistan seems to think canada has some kind of moral obligation to continue participating in the nato occupation beyond that date. Any moral obligation we may have had in Afghanistan has long ago been expiated by the tens of billions of dollars we have poured down that god forsaken hole and by the blood of the 131 canadians killed so far. were the choice mine to make I would order an immediate and complete withdrawal of all canadians from afghanistan. I realise that is not possible but to continue digging the hole deaper beyond 2011 would be complete idiocy which only fools like our former ambassador would be stupid enough to suggest. The fact that he is considered a "star" of the foreign service shows (if recent incidents in Kenya and Sudan were not enough) just how low the standards are in that particular branch of government.

          • Sorry mate, but if you think there are no moral / ethical issues than you must be living on Planet Canada where Canadian lives are more valuable than others.

            I have no issue with your position on the debate; there are many Canadians who agree with you.

            However, to dismiss the lives of the Afghan people that Canadian soldiers are working hard (and dying) to improve and safe, and to state that there are no moral or ethical issues as part of this debate is just not right.

          • Afghans are neither less valuable nor more so than canadian lives Your fundamental assumption is that our continued presence will make a difference. If anything it appears to be contributing to the increase in violence and collateral damage I.e. more afghan dead not less. Basically we have taken sides in a civil war between the southern Pashtun (we call them Taliban) and the northern alliance (Uzbek etc). Karzai is a token Pashtun but the rest of the state apparatus which we have built and continue to support. The Pashtun, more than 40% of the population, are understandably hostile to this state apparatus in which they are not represented. As near as I can tell the difference between pashtun and government is one of degree rather than of kind.

          • Perhaps you are right, although I am on the other side. But there are most certainly moral and ethical issues – they just aren't black and white.

          • I do not doubt that Canadian soldiers are working and dying to make things better. I was in the forces myself and my brother made a career of the service. What I doubt is the effectiveness and wisdom of their efforts: the mission has failed and probably could never succeed. This is not the fault of the soldiers who in all cases do the best they can. It is the fault of the fools like Harper and Martin who sent them there and Alexander who would keep them there for no good reason.

        • Well no, and that's why we didn't believe it. I think its fair to say we believed the sentiment behind the statement. But at the time the idea was give them a date by which they need to be up and running and they may ensure they are up and running by then. Of course that turns out to be overly optimistic or naive or something–and I think we worried it would be so at the time. Obviously, we can't put the Afghani people into this mess and then just abandon them, it would be soon worse than ever. But I'm still all for providing the Afghani's with the support and security they need through other means than militarily. I just don't think it can happen without some military presence, even if just to protect our "other than military" personnel.

  6. Let's take the body bags from the native reserves and mail them to Afghanistan.

  7. A few thoughts….
    1) The only statement that counts is that of the PMs – he's the government's lead spokesperson.
    2) While insightful and well informed from relevant experience, Mr. Alexander's statements as a FORMER ambassador and someone seeking the Conservative nomination are only opinion, with no impact on Canadian policy.
    3) You're right about the training mission – to train and mentor means to be with the forces that are trained when they're doing the job.
    4) How about this phrase from the March 2008 resolution of Parliament?
    "Canada should continue a military presence IN KANDAHAR beyond February 2009, to July 2011…. (and that) the government of Canada notify NATO that Canada will end its presence IN KANDAHAR as of July 2011, and, as of that date, the redeployment of Canadian Forces troops OUT OF KANDAHAR"
    Military leaving Kandahar may NOT mean military leaving Afghanistan?
    Lots of good grist for the tea leaf reading mill here…

  8. There was something very puzzling in the Globe article about Alexander this morning and I think John's post highlights the same puzzlement.

    Alexander made it clear to the Globe that the reason he is running for the Conservatives and not the Liberals is because he spoke to Harper and to Ignatieff and he liked Harper's plans for Afghanistan.

    Excuse me but, according to everything I've read about Harper's plans, they are no different than Ignatieff's: end military presence in 2011, beef up humanitarian presence. His comments as reported in John's post reveal a certain assumption by Alexander that a continued Canadian military presence will exist after 2011 despite what Harper and Day are saying.

    Did Harper tell Alexander behind closed doors something different about his plans for our military than he is telling us publicly?

    • Of course he did, Ted. He maybe didn't even tell him in words, just less emphatically repeated the "withdraw by 2011" plan. And I think, honestly, if Ignatieff were Prime Minister right now, he'd have done the exact same thing. Because I think the Prime Minister has more information than the leader of the Opposition and as so often happens, the party not in power doesn't realize what they don't know until they get into power and reverse something they may have even campaigned on. But that isn't a very partisan attitude, so my apologies to all.

      • It's got to be more than just "less emphatically". As John points out, Alexander seems to be under the impression that Canada will have a continued military presence in Afghanistan after 2011. That is at odds with what Harper is telling us voters and with what he told us during the last election when he was asking us for his vote.

        Where did Alexander get the impression that Canada will continue to have a military presence in Afghanistan after 2011? Did Harper tell him that?

        That is way more than just emphasis and way different from knowing more facts just because you are in government now.

    • What a shock!!!! Harper has a hidden agenda and he did not have to courtesy to lay out all the details in Sault Ste Marie. I guess we will have to wait for the second movie in the series to know the full extent of his true plans.

      • All I'm asking is what did Harper tell Alexander his real plans were for Afghanistan that has led Alexander to (1) think that his plans are vastly different from Ignatieff's because they appear to be the same and (2) think that Canada will continue to have a military presence in Afghanistan after 2011, despite public assurances from Harper to the contrary.

    • That is not at all what Chris says in the Globe article. It's what the Liberals claim Chris said. The article reports that Chris said "he at no time demanded the Liberal change their policy on ending Canada's combat role…He said he would not challenge a decision made by Parliament". says that he respects the Parliamentary resolution and never sought to change that deadline. I do agree with you that John's article reinforces the Liberal spin on this announcement. Partly this is by playing around with Chris' statements that an *international* military presence should continue and pretending this implies a continuing *Canadian* military presence. It might be a good idea to re=read the Parliamentary resolution and the Manley report to refresh your memory of why Canada is ending its specific military commitment – it's far from a call for an end to all foreign troops in Afghanistan…

      • The Globe article was updated about 20 minutes ago and is different than the print version I read at home. It now has more positioning from Alexander about why he chose not to go to the Liberals. Strange that he would continue to meet with them so many times if he was as determined to run for the Conservatives as he claims to be.

        Be that as it may, it still doesn't square the circle John draws. Alexander has claimed that Canada will only end a "certain kind of military commitment". This still seems quite at odds with what Harper has always tried to tell us quite emphatically: that the Canadian military would be coming home in 2011.

        Harper needs to clarify this.

        • I think, to be fair Ted, that you are assuming Alexander is talking like he knows something, rather than talking like he wants to change the thinking on something. I think it is very conceivable that the guy is planting an idea in the minds of Canadians to be visited periodically up to 2011, so that by the time of our withdrawal, we don't. It is also very possible that Harper repeated the withdraw the troops line with a wink.

          What I can't see is that Harper would tell a Conservative CANDIDATE his long-term military strategy. First because I frankly don't think Harper has a long-term strategy of any kind, including military, and secondly because what kind of security breach would that be?

        • I was quoting the print version, but it is very easy to misread it as it starts with the assertion that "disagreements over party policy on Afghanistan prompted (Chris) to reject the (Liberal) offer". Which Chris then denies throughout the article, and which is contradicted by the simple fact that Ignatieff and Harper have the same position on Afghanistan. Igy also keeps wriggle room on this: Asked what he would do if Obama persuaded Harper that Canada should prolong its military mission in Afghanistan, here's what Ignatieff said: “We cross that bridge when we come to it. We are bound by the parliamentary resolution.”(from a John Geddes post in January).

    • Well, I read that Mr. Alexander found that the Liberals were inconsistent: that Ignatieff was saying something different from what Bob Rae said, and that many in the party itself seemed to shy away from dealing with combat roles: much of this is ad odds, then, with the Liberals going into Kosovo and Afghanistan, in combat roles. Mr. Alexander said that he found the Conservatives clearer: more comfortable with Canada's history of combat missions, and understanding of of the fact that we all want peace, but the road to peace is rarely a smooth one.

  9. Now that we have (finally) a true leader of the opposition I think Harper will be called upon to clarify a good many things. It has been really bizarre the last couple of years with everyone attacking the Liberals, who are supposed to be the opposition, for not having policies rather than attacking the government who since it is running should have some but frequently do not.

    • He's been called upon lots of time and will continue to be called upon, but Harper and cohorts have been equally consistent in not answering questions in Parliament.

  10. Well, I read that Mr. Alexander found that the Liberals were inconsistent: that Ignatieff was saying something different from what Bob Rae said, and that many in the party itself seemed to shy away from dealing with combat roles: much of this is ad odds, then, with the Liberals going into Kosovo and Afghanistan, in combat roles. Mr. Alexander said that he found the Conservatives clearer: more comfortable with Canada's history of combat missions, and understanding of of the fact that we all want peace, but the road to peace is rarely a smooth one.