Is Canada ready to re­turn to Afghanistan?

U.S. view of Cana­dian mil­i­tary is part of Ot­tawa’s NAFTA strat­egy

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - Thomas Walkom’s com­men­tary ap­pears in Torstar news­pa­pers.

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.

THOMAS WALKOM

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