Canada needs to define mission beyond 2009
Many opponents of Canada's mission in Afghanistan must feel as if they have won some sort of victory today, as Liberal Leader Stephane Dion has denied that the parliamentary consensus necessary for the mission to continue will never exist.
"The prime minister has said that he needs to have a consensus in order to extend the mission beyond February of 2009," Dion said. "This consensus will never exist."
While Dion may be forgetting the May 17, 2006 vote in which 24 Liberal MPs (led by Dion's deputy leader Michael Ignatieff) voted in favour of extending the mission to 2009, that lack of consensus may not be the end of the world -- or the mission.
In fact, it could serve as an opportunity to have an important debate about the definition of Canada's involvement in Afghanistan beyond 2009.
While the Afghanistan mission is pivotally important to the security of Canada and virtually all of its NATO allies, it is also important to continue to plan the mission for the future.
Stephen Harper's conceded "end of the mission in 2009" in the absence of parliamentary consensus may seem like an abandonment of the mission, and Canada's security interests in the region -- an abandonment perpetrated out of political motives. Fortunately, however, it is ambiguous enough to support continued Canadian involvement in the larger mission, even if Canada withdraws from the combat mission in Khandahar.
From a pragmatic sense, this is a sound move. Currently, Canadian and British troops are fighting the most dangerous mission in Khandahar and Helmand provinces. 2,500 Canadians have reportedly been charged with patrolling a 54,000 kilometer area. According to Major General (ret) Lewis Mackenzie, this has enabled a relatively small group of Taliban insurgents to stalk Canadian troops, largely at their leisure, due to the lack of ability to secure the countryside. According to McKenzie, NATO needs to increase its presence in Khandahar four-fold -- a far cry from immitation of George Bush's "surge" in Iraq.
Ideally, NATO countries should be taking turns alternating between combat engagements in the unsecured south, and relatively safe rebuilding efforts in the north. Unfortunately, it seems all too few countries are willing to pay the necessary price in terms of casualties.
"I'm really getting upset with an alliance that's supposed to be one for all and all for one. It doesn't look that way," fumed McKenzie.
NATO, and all the countries involved in it, need to make important decisions regarding the reconstruction and stabilization of Afghanistan. Canada, Britain and the United States cannot go it alone in southern Afghanistan.
Canada, for one, once had a reputation as a country that doesn't pull its weight in international missions. With its involvement in Afghanistan, Canada has boldly returned to prominence on the global stage. Whether or not our so-called allies will live up to their responsibilities in Afghanistan, or accept replacing Canada as the world's alleged social loafer has yet to be seen.
Canada has been pulling its weight in Afghanistan. But no country can remain on the offensive forever. Canadian troops need to withdraw from Khandahar in 2009, and return to the north. Canada needs the time to rearm, reequip and rest its soldiers. Afghans in the North need the extra help rebuilding.
For all of this to happen, NATO needs to step up to the plate.
Even if Canadian troops do withdraw into northern Afghanistan, a return to the south in case of an emergency should not be ruled out. In the absence of such an emergency, however, Canadian troops should be refocused on rebuilding efforts for a period of at least three years -- even the NDP would support that.
After that, however, Canada should be prepared to return to the combat mission for another three years, if necessary.
In the meantime, even a limited embrace of Jack Layton's diplomatic measures couldn't hurt. While this insistence that "a comprehensive peace process must include all combatants, all elements, all countries involved in the region with international leadership," falls well short of being an acceptable solution -- no talks should include the terrorist-harbouring Taliban regime -- making a greater effort to bring non-Taliban insurgents in from the metaphorical cold can only make important steps toward the success of the mission.
Canada cannot afford to withdraw from Afghanistan and allow the aforementioned terrorist-harbouring Taliban regime to return to power.
As such, victory in Afghanistan is still a long time -- and a lot of hard work -- away. Hopefully, victory for the "Canada out of Afghanistan now" crowd will be at least as far.