Wednesday, November 19, 2008

MacKay Expects Obama to Bolster Afghanistan Mission

Could the Canadian position on Afghanistan soften if it does?

When one considers the emerging phenomenon of "Conservatives for Obama", Peter MacKay's presence among this intriguing clique should be considered far short of surprising.

On numerous issues, MacKay has proven to be among the most progressive of his former Progresive Conservative colleagues.

Defense Minister MacKay is the most recent Conservative to greet Barack Obama's election to the Presidency with a great deal of optimism. In MacKay's specific case, he's optimistic that Obama's election will lead to a breakthrough in Afghanistan.

"It's fair to say the road out of Iraq leads through that, shall we say, that arc of instability; it will go through Afghanistan with specific concentration, we hope, on Kandahar province," MacKay announced. "I suspect one of his first orders of business, with his new secretary of state and defence, will be to knock on some doors and make some very direct appeals for other NATO countries and perhaps even non-NATO countries to step into the breach and share the burden."

Which, of course, will benefit Canadian forces in Afghanistan in the short term. In the long term, however, Canadian troops aren't expected to be in Afghanistan at all, with the Canadian withdrawal from Afghanistan scheduled for 2011.

But if Obama's election shores up additional international support for the mission, it could soften Canadian commitment to that withdrawal date, should Obama help public opinion turn in favour of the mission.

That is, if incidents such as the recent acid-throwing episode doesn't contribute to such an upturn.

MacKay seems wary of this possibility. "Targeting innocent children who want nothing more than to be able to go to school and get an education - it's pure intimidation of the most medieval kind," MacKay said.

"I hope that it will also cause our allies to step up our efforts," he added. "As if we needed further example of just how insidious and how deranged these people are when it comes to the level of violence to which they will stoop."

Obama -- and his incoming administration -- seem to understand the hefty cost that Canada has paid in Afghanistan.

"There have been a number of very public statements from senior Democrats, including president-elect Obama, that there is enormous respect and recognition that Canada has done a great deal, perhaps even more than some expected," MacKay noted.

MacKay insisted his government remains committed to the 2011 withdrawal date.

But if Obama manages to drum up additional support for the Afghanistan war, it may simply not do for Canada -- a country that so often boasts of an Internationalist foreign policy -- to abandon its role in Afghanistan.

Peter MacKay will meet with the Defense Ministers of the eight NATO countries who are currently engaged in Khandahar. While the Obama administration is still planning its transition and will not present at the summit, current Secretary of Defense Minister Robert Gates will be present.

One can't help but wonder what kind of pressure will be placed on Canada at that meeting.

The time will be ripe for Canada to leave when the job in Afghanistan is done. Hopefully, Obama's renewed commitment will accomplish this goal by 2011. But if it doesn't, it may be necessary for Canadians to stay, if only to honour Barack Obama's renewed commitment.

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