Is Canada ready to return to Afghanistan?
U.S. view of Canadian military is part of Ottawa’s NAFTA strategy
The pressure is on for Canada to return to Afghanistan. Can Prime Minister Justin Trudeau resist it?
So far Trudeau seems to be holding firm. “We have no troops in Afghanistan at this time,” he said last week. “But we are happy to be supportive in other ways.”
Canada’s problem, however, is that it is one of only two NATO countries that does not have troops in Afghanistan (the other is France). This is at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump wants NATO to do more in that country.
Technically, the NATO-led coalition in Afghan no longer engages in combat. Rather its role is to advise, assist and train local troops.
The biggest contributor to the 13,459 member force is the U.S., which has about 8,400 troops (including special forces outside of NATO’s command) operating in the country. The smallest is Luxembourg, with one. But the problem facing the NATO-led force is that it is losing. The Taliban poses a significant threat in at least 40 per cent of the country. The Afghan army on its own has been unable to defeat the insurgents.
Added to this is the growing presence in Afghanistan of the terrorist group Daesh, also known as the Islamic State.
To meet these problems, the American general in charge of the NATO-led forces wants Washington to send between 3,000 and 5,000 additional military “advisers.” The Trump White House is said to be split over the request. No matter how this is sorted out, Trump wants other NATO members to share any pain.
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, said Thursday that a decision on the exact number of troops to be deployed by the alliance will be made later this year.
Oddly enough, Trudeau’s rhetoric on NATO may make it more difficult for Canada to avoid contributing troops to any expanded Afghan mission.
Faced with a U.S. president determined to have other NATO members spend more on defence, Trudeau has argued eloquently that money isn’t everything.
“Canada has always been one of the go-to partners in NATO,” he said last week, “a country that consistently steps up and steps forward and delivers.”
His point is that while Canada may not meet NATO’s self-imposed requirement that each member spend two per cent of gross domestic product on defence, it is willing to put its soldiers’ lives in jeopardy for the alliance.
He shouldn’t be surprised if the Trump White House asks him to continue this brave tradition by once again committing Canadian soldiers to the Afghan mission.
Behind all of this is the spectre of the upcoming North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiation.
The Trudeau government is fixated on keeping the trade pact linking Canada, the U.S. and Mexico intact. Ottawa looks at everything, including defence, through a NAFTA lens.
The government strategy to date has been threefold. First, it is waging a public relations blitz to convince American lawmakers that it is in their own national interest to keep NAFTA more or less as is.
Second, it is waging a charm offensive to convince Trump that Trudeau is his, and America’s, best friend.
Third, it is hinting — more in sorrow than in anger — that, if forced, Canada can engage in trade practices of its own to make life difficult for American firms.
But of the three, the charm offensive is key. Faced with a president who takes perceived slights badly, Trudeau is going out of his way to stay on Trump’s good side.
He has postponed public release of Canada’s new defence strategy in order to give Trump and his aides a sneak peek. He has put off any decision on Canada’s role in UN peacekeeping until he can figure on how best to mesh it with Trump’s military desires.
Yes, Trudeau is standing up against Trump’s demand that Canada, in order to meet the NATO target, double its military spending.
But the prime minister is implicitly saying that Ottawa will meet its NATO obligations in other ways.
Perhaps sending 450 Canadian troops to Latvia to face down the Russians will suffice. Perhaps the roughly 200 Canadian special forces advising the Iraqis engaged in the battle for Mosul will be enough. Perhaps Trump’s attention will wander.
If not, prepare for a return to Afghanistan. No combat of course. Stoltenberg has ruled out a “return back to combat” for any NATO troops sent there.
Just training. And advising. And assisting.