Obama and Afghanistan: a Canadian conundrum

Afghanistan will surely be the first test of the relationship between Harper and the new President


A narrow focus on the upcoming budget over the past few days has temporarily drawn media attention away from other political stories. Maybe that’s why Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comments this past week on Afghanistan got so little attention.

Before his interview with Sun Media’s Kathleen Harris seems too stale to warrant close attention, take this last pre-Throne Speech, pre-budget moment to consider it in context. To my eye, his answers look like the beginning of bid by Harper to put in the play the supposedly inviolable 2011 date for withdrawing Canadians troops from Afghanistan.

A bit of background. Last November, not long after Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election, I sat down with Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon for an interview on one subject: how the Canadian government was planning for the new Obama administration.

Clearly, the key question was our position on Afghanistan. After all, Obama had campaigned on ramping up the U.S. military force in Afghanistan, as he drew troops away from Iraq. Obama would be pushing for NATO members to make bigger commitments to the fighting. What would the Conservative government do when the popular new president asked Canada to reconsider its plan to pull all troops out of Afghanistan in three short years.

Cannon could not have been more definitive: the 2011 withdrawal plan was carved in stone. “The new U.S. position will not change our position. We’ve made that clear,” he told me. “The message that we’re sending to the new administration is we’ve said that we’re going this and we’re going to do it.”

Fast forward to this past week. Here’s what Harper told Sun Media when asked what he would do if Obama asked for Canada to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2011: “We went to the Parliament, we got our extension to 2011, and that’s what we will do. I will certainly not be making any commitments without the consent of the Parliament of Canada.”

Now, that doesn’t sound like a firm, “We’re out of there.” It reads more like a promise to have a vote in the House on the matter before extending the troop commitment. “I’m not going to speculate on what President Obama may or may not ask me,” Harper added. “I know he’s committed to putting a great deal more effort into Afghanistan, a great deal more troops, and he’s committed to the success of the mission and working with Canada. Beyond that, I don’t want to speculate.”

Pressed further, Harper seemed to leave the door open more than a crack. Q: “If he did ask, your answer would be No?” A: “I don’t have any plans to make any change. But obviously we’ll see how things unfold.”

We sure will. Obama’s first trip abroad will be to Canada. No date has been announced, but it’s expected within a few weeks. The Afghanistan conundrum will surely be a key test of the relationship between the Harper government and the Obama administration. What else of prime importance could the new President possibly ask of Canada?

It sounds like Harper wants to leave himself room to maneuver. I wonder how the Liberals, who are so smitten with Obama, would react if a plea came from his White House for a longer Canadian stay in Afghanistan? For Michael Ignatieff, whose personal history of supporting the American war in Iraq still dogs him, handling this issue will be particularly delicate.

Filed under:

Obama and Afghanistan: a Canadian conundrum

  1. Maybe Obama has already asked Harper/Canada to stay longer or send more troops now before they pull out in a few years. Stories in UK papers today suggest Obama has asked PM Brown privately to increase Brit troop numbers in Afghan, maybe Obama has asked us as well and that explains Harper’s obfuscation.

  2. Ok, here we go again. The Harper government never said that all troops will be out of Afghanistan in 2011. What the government has said since the fall is that the ‘mission as we know it will end’, meaning that the CF battle group in Kandahar will be withdrawn in 2011. That doesn’t mean that Canada couldn’t keep support or air force units in Afghanistan. Nor does it mean that the CF couldn’t keep a PRT in Afghanistan or perhaps continue to train the ANA in some capacity. And it doesn’t mean that the battle group couldn’t be redeployed to Afghanistan in 2013 or 2014.

    Point is, if the Harper government decides to keep some forces in Afghanistan after 2011, that does not mean that its policies have changed. It one looks at what the government has actually been saying (a difficult task, I know).

    • It’s true that the March 13, 2008, motion in the House spoke of ending Canada’s “presence in Kandahar.” That would have left open the possibility of some significant redeployment elsewhere in Afghanistan. But on Sept. 10, 2008, at a breakfast meeting with reporters in Toronto, Prime Minister Harper said more flatly “we intend to end” the mission. And he was clear, at least on that occasion, that he meant very few troops could remain in Afghanistan after 2011. “I don’t want to say we won’t have a single troop there,” he said, “because obviously we would aid in some technical capacities.” I guess reasonable people could debate about what “some technical capacities” might encompass, but I think all would agree it sounds like small and constrained role.

      • I agree that according to what the government’s been saying any role the CF has in Afghanistan should be small and constrained. But we shouldn’t be too surprised if the actual number runs up to 700 or even 1000. Depending on the types of roles they perform, the government could argue that they aren’t continuing the existing mission.

        All this to say, we shouldn’t conclude that the Harper government is caving to American pressure or breaking its word if 1000 CF personnel and some equipment stays in Afghanistan post-2011. Canada won’t want to completely take its flag off of the ISAF contributors list after all the effort that has been put in. I think that’s understandable.

        If, however, the Harper government continues with a battle group in the south or east after 2011, then we can legitimately say that the policy changed and that the PM felt pressured by the US administration.

  3. Not really sure Canada’s presence as a fighting force is going to matter much longer anyway. At some point during this calendar year the USA is moving into Kandahar and according the usual ” sources ” , Scott Taylor , Graeme Smith , they show no interest in anything Canada has to say.

    • Has no one told them Canda’s back? How much backier do we have to get, damnit?

  4. I think at this stage we can accept it as a given that our government, be it red, blue or red-orange-et-bleu, is going to pretty well constantly lie to us. So let’s at least hope that it what it actually does is ethical and helpful, if only by coincidence. I think staying in Afghanistan, if only to help save it from the consequences of what we’ve already done to it, is morally right. So I’m potentially pleased although I won’t know for sure until January 1, 2012.

    (The twenty-first century belongs to Canada, baby!)

    • Aww, man! Canada keeps hogging all the good centuries…

  5. Wow Phil, you’re snipping and parsing has almost made it viable that Harper’s commitment/statement was only a fishing line from the shore. Apparently, as we’ve come to know this man, all promises/commitments are written on rice paper – the easier to digest. I’m sure you got more than enough dance-step lessons trying to make his ‘election date law’ into a ‘hey, it was the governor general who called it, not me!’ rationale…

  6. That bridge will have to crossed when it happens, speculation is just that.

    What is not speculation is that Obama intends to make permanent the Bush tax cuts for individuals.

  7. You say:

    “What is not speculation is that Obama intends to make permanent the Bush tax cuts for individuals.”

    The Canadian Press says:


    Start quote ->

    McCain, the Republican nominee who lost to Obama in the November presidential election, also says he will push to make permanent the Bush administration tax cuts, which helped high-earning people.

    Those cuts expire next year and Obama has said he will not seek to renew them.

    <- end quote.

    Should I believe you Bruce? Or the CP?

  8. The CP is a joke. The corporate tax cuts are going to expire, the tax cuts for the middle and lower income brackets are to be made permanent. Try google, you might learn something.

  9. Of course Obama said that – he was running for office. Once he sees the bank book and admits that he can’t accomplish all the Lexus budgetary decisions needed/he wants on a Geo revenue roll, he’ll admit the folly. Unlike the double-talking* CON-trollers, who could care less about balancing the needs of the general populace and maintaining a healthy budgetary balance.
    *Stephen Harper, the biggest spender of Confederation.

    • What are you smoking in that pipe? The “O” just said that yesterday, so he must be campaigning still?

      • The “O” intends to make permanent broad based tax cuts for the low and middle income brackets for individuals, read it slowly it just might sink in. No, stop smoking whatever it is you’re putting in that pipe.