In early April, Germany sent six reconnaissance aircraft to Afghanistan to support its NATO allies in ground-based combat operations. This action was preceded by heated domestic debate. Most of the German public was not aware that Canadians, too, were heavily debating Afghanistan engagement while the North American alliance partner was facing this year’s spring insurgency by the Taliban. Especially debated in the Canadian press was that important countries like Germany and France were not willing to put their soldiers in harm’s way in order to help stabilize Afghanistan’s south, and at times had even openly criticized NATO allies for their robust stance in the more volatile regions of the country. As a matter of fact, at about the same time that Germany suffered its first loss of a development aid worker in the relatively safe north of Afghanistan, Canada bemoaned the heaviest troop loss in 50 years. The Canadian Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence raised the question in its February report of what would happen if Canada decided to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, should it conclude that the mission can not be accomplished. The report recommended that Canada’s government continue urging its allies to increase their military efforts in Afghanistan, and that Canada should consider threatening to reevaluate its own commitment if more robust support in the south does not materialize within a year.
With the G8 summit at Heiligendamm approaching, it is likely that the transatlantic nature of the Afghanistan challenge will once again be highlighted by both sides, especially the ones currently carrying the heaviest burden. This may spur renewed debate in Europe on its own commitments to a conflict that has been termed key for NATO’s future relevance by the US.
Evolution of Canada’s Military Engagement
Although Canada was not directly affected by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it felt their aftermath, when the US imposed strict conditions on trans-border traffic and trade. In order to avoid risking its vital bilateral relationship with the US, Canada’s government followed its southern neighbor in the war on terrorism. Canada first participated in late 2001 with merely symbolic contributions to the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). When the US decided to invade Iraq in early 2003, however, the liberal government of then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien—just like the German and French governments at that time—refused to join the “coalition of the willing.” This is one of the main reasons why later, when the US encountered major difficulties in post-war Iraq and needed additional troops, Canada too felt obliged to shoulder its share in Afghanistan.
From August 2003 to November 2005, Canadian forces served as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in the Kabul area, protecting the new government of Hamid Karzai. This relatively safe mission attracted little attention in Canada. All changed in 2004 when NATO allies, at US urging, agreed to send troops to some of the secure provinces, while Canada volunteered to take over responsibility for the far more dangerous province of Kandahar. From February to July 2006, Canadian forces took a leading combat role in Afghanistan’s south, supported by troops from the UK and the Netherlands, under general guidance of OEF. They were reassigned to ISAF in August 2006, when NATO assumed command of the south. At present, there are approximately 2,500 persons (soldiers as well as army instructors, liaison officers, political advisors) assigned to Operation Athena.
Canada is also contributing to the buildup and training of the Afghan National Army (ANA) as well as the National Police (ANP), and advising the Karzai administration on development and governance issues. Canada’s government has just decided to deploy additional law enforcement officers to Afghanistan. Since August 2005, a Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team has been operating from beyond Kandahar City. It brings together elements from the Canadian Forces (CF), the Canadian Foreign Ministry, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and the police led by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in an integrated approach that Canada is proud of.
Although the new Canadian government led by conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper questioned the country’s military engagements, it honored the Afghanistsan commitments made by the previous government. Given Harper’s earlier criticism, however, and the fact that only one year remained on the mandate for Canada’s forces in Afghanistan, his government has sought new support for the armed forces there. In May 2006 Parliament voted in favor of extending the mandate until February 2009, two years longer than previously planned.
Domestic Debate on Canada’s Engagement to Afghanistan
Official government policy notwithstanding, there has also been a lot of criticism regarding Canada’s military engagement in Afghanistan. This debate peaked in late summer 2006, when the country’s death toll rose and public support for the operation was constantly shrinking. Since Canada is responsible for establishing peace in one of the most heavily fraught regions of the country, Canadian forces were most affected by last year’s Taliban insurgency: 36 Canadians were killed in 2006 alone, 20 percent of all casualties suffered by NATO that year. Although the debate has quieted since, it has never stopped entirely. The killing of six soldiers on April 9 raised the toll to 51 and reminded Canadians of the dangers that its forces still face in Afghanistan. Polls indicate that the next federal election may essentially become a referendum on the future of Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan.
The idea of New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton to include the Taliban resistance in a political solution has gained increasing momentum in Ottawa recently. German Social Democratic Party chairman Kurt Beck suggested the same after a field trip to Afghanistan. One of Canada’s most distinguished foreign policy experts, Gordon Smith, former ambassador to NATO and ex-deputy minister of foreign affairs, concluded in a recent think tank paper that the war against the Taliban cannot be won and that Canada and its allies should reconsider their overall strategy. Smith anticipated a likely failure by NATO if this solution was not implemented. Along these lines, the first Report to Parliament on progress in Afghanistan, suggests that it remains to be seen whether the recent improvement in the security situation can be sustained to allow Canada to achieve its reconstruction and development efforts. Incorporating domestic criticism and honoring an integrated 3D-approach of “Defense, Democracy and Development,” this report was preceded by an announcement that Canada would increase its budget for reconstruction and development efforts by up to 200 million Canadian Dollars, making Afghanistan the single largest recipient of Canadian bilateral aid.