TORONTO, Canada — The Canadian government has backed away from a decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan next year. Few are surprised, and many are outraged.
For months, U.S. officials applied discreet pressure on the Canadian government to keep troops in Afghanistan past 2011 — a deadline set two years ago by a parliamentary vote. Last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made clear he would bow to the pressure, despite polls indicating a majority of Canadians want their 2,500 soldiers back home.
Canadian troops have been fighting in Afghanistan since the start of the war, mostly in volatile Kandahar province. So far, 152 have been killed and more than 1,500 have been wounded.
Details of the new plan are expected to be formally announced at the summit of NATO heads of state in Lisbon on Friday and Saturday. But Harper’s officials have already made the gist clear.
Up to 1,000 Canadian soldiers are expected to remain for a “non-combat” mission — training Afghan National Army recruits. They’ll be there until 2014 — the year the United States reportedly plans to end its own combat mission.
The American timetable indicates how difficult it would have been for the Canadian government to pull out its troops. U.S. President Barack Obama has made Afghanistan “his” war. He plans to start handing over security duties to the Afghan army during the next 18 to 24 months — at about the time he’ll be facing re-election. A well-trained Afghan army is crucial to persuading American voters that his plan to end the combat mission is realistic.
Still, Harper faces a tough sell. On Monday, opposition members of Parliament threw his own words back at him, noting that in a January interview with the National Post, the prime minister stressed there would be no Canadian military presence in Afghanistan after 2011.
“We will not be undertaking any activities that require any kind of military presence, other than the odd guard guarding an embassy … . So, it will become a strictly civilian mission,” Harper said at the time.
Harper is also under fire for insisting that the change of plan does not require parliamentary approval. That’s only necessary for combat missions, he said.
“When we’re talking simply about technical or training missions, I think that is something the executive can do on its own,” he told reporters last week, referring to the prime minister and his cabinet.
Jack Layton, leader of the socialist New Democratic Party, has warned Canadians that Harper is trying to pull the wool over their eyes. He noted that Harper’s Conservative party came to power in 2006 partly on a promise to put any military deployment to a vote of Parliament. Canada’s Afghan mission was extended twice after such votes, in 2006 and 2008.
Assuring that Harper’s training plan will go ahead without a parliamentary vote is Michael Ignatieff, leader of the main opposition Liberal party, who has accepted Harper’s argument.
Harper’s cabinet ministers are hinting that a non-combat role will result in fewer casualties. But government statistics note that more than 900 of the 1,500 wounded Canadians in Afghanistan were injured while not taking part in combat. Many were hit by bombs hidden on public roads, the same roads Canadian soldiers will use when training and accompanying Afghan soldiers on patrols.
What also disturbs Canadians is growing evidence of shoddy treatment once wounded soldiers return home.
Canada hasn’t seen so many injured soldiers return since the Korean War. And rehab programs are having trouble keeping up.
The government-appointed ombudsman for veterans told the Toronto Star the wounded also faced an “insurance-company culture of denial” from government bureaucrats who put saving money ahead of helping soldiers.
Canadians are troubled by evidence that Canadian soldiers handed detainees over to the Afghan army, which promptly tortured them. They’re also concerned about the costs of the military operation, its ambiguous goals and the sacrifices being made for the increasingly corrupt and unstable government of Hamid Karzai.
More than anything, Canadians care about the well-being of their soldiers. Yet the two main political parties in the country — the governing Conservatives and the main opposition Liberals — have decided that extending their stay in Afghanistan doesn’t need to be debated and voted by the country’s elected representatives.
It suggests an attitude that may help explain why, for the past several years, both those parties have received barely 30 percent of support in opinion polls.