Canadian soldiers accompanied by Afghan National Army soldiers secure the area near Howz-e-Madad ahead of a 'shura' in the Panjwaii District of southern Afghanistan as Chinook helicopters hover overhead. Kevin Van Paassen The Globe and Mail
Even before yesterday's comments by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the new secretary-general of NATO, Canada's planned pullout from Afghanistan in 2011 was beginning to loom. Mr. Rasmussen's plea for the country's military commitment to be extended – “I would strongly regret if that became the final outcome of the Canadian considerations,” he said of the 2011 withdrawal – has underscored the need for Canada to begin seriously considering its options.
What Mr. Rasmussen appears to have in mind – an extension of the current combat operations in Kandahar province – is an unlikely option at best. Many troops have already served multiple rotations there, and Canada has borne a disproportionate share of casualties.
Military resources, improved though they have been by the current government, are too limited to continue this mission as if in perpetuity.
Nor is there any sign that the public is willing to support an extension of that kind. Canada did not make a commitment to Afghanistan because it was politically popular, and public opinion surveys do not constitute a verdict on the military's success there. But no government can afford to overlook the overwhelming opposition to any prolongation of the mission, as shown by recent polls.
At the same time, the stakes in Afghanistan are too high – and Canada has invested too much there already – to let us simply turn our backs, as if writing off losses. The shift of the United States' attention from Iraq to Afghanistan helps ease the Canadian burden, but it also represents an opportunity to finally make progress after years of struggling to avoid losing ground.
It may be that there is a role for Canadian troops to play in other, less volatile regions of Afghanistan than Kandahar, more akin to their operations in Kabul before 2006.
It may also be that small teams focused on local development, and on the training of Afghan soldiers and police, can maintain a presence in Kandahar to make sure the valuable experience accrued there does not go to waste – provided that this can be done reasonably safely, and does not require Canadian combat units to remain behind as well.
The challenge for Canada, as 2011 approaches, is to examine these and other options on how best the country can continue to make a valuable contribution, without continuing to make the sacrifices it will have endured for six years in Kandahar.
It is unlikely that Canada will be able to avoid disappointing Mr. Rasmussen, and American officials who would undoubtedly prefer as much support as possible now that they have refocused their efforts. But between their hopes and those of Canadians who would prefer to see Canada exit Afghanistan altogether, there must be some middle ground.
After 2011, a lighter burden
The stakes in Afghanistan are too high – and Canada has invested too much there already – to let us simply turn our backs