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.