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.

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