What will Canada’s contribution to the NATO operation in Afghanistan look like when the current mandate ends in February, 2009? This paper considers some scenarios. With approximately 2,500 soldiers in-theatre, Canada currently provides one of the largest contingents in Afghanistan and operates in one of the most unstable areas of the country. The size of its future contributions is therefore likely to impact the overall Western strategic equation in the country. Policy-makers in NATO capitals will be watching Ottawa’s Afghanistan policy debate closely.
Scenario #1: The status quo
One course of action that may be popular in the ruling Conservative Party caucus will be to maintain the basic scope, character, and location of the current operation. Pressure to pursue this direction is likely to come from within and from outside of the country. Within Canada, debate will be shaped by the perception that security and reconstruction in southern Afghanistan remain ‘unfinished business’, and that Canadian aid efforts there would go to waste if Ottawa were to pare down its military role.
Washington and Brussels are likely to call on Ottawa to maintain personnel at current levels for fear that other member country contingents may not be able to take Canada’s place, be it for political or military reasons, or both. Officials and pundits alike will warn that a major reduction in the military dimension of Ottawa’s policy in Afghanistan will mean diminished influence in multilateral fora. Indeed, both Liberal and Conservative governments' statements on Afghanistan have highlighted how major military contributions in Afghanistan have raised Ottawa’s international profile and influence.
Scenario #2: Withdrawal
The domestic political climate may make the status quo untenable, however. In light of the perception that Canadian Forces and a handful other NATO militaries are bearing the brunt of the combat, it will be difficult for Canadian policy-makers to convince the public that a force ought to be maintained at current levels in the name of Alliance solidarity. Prime Minister Harper now states that there will be no extension of the Canadian commitment after 2009 without the imprimatur of Parliament – and already there are signs that parliamentary consensus may not be forthcoming. The opposition party with the most seats in the House of Commons, the Liberal Party, has made clear that it will not support an extension of the current Kandahar deployment after 2009. The leftish New Democratic Party is calling for an immediate withdrawal of Canadian personnel. The Bloc Québecois is adhering to the current mandate but with the deployment of the Quebec-based Royal 22nd Regiment this month the Bloc will face increasing pressure to change course. Footage of the regiment’s personnel returning to the most anti-war Canadian province maimed or dead would not help the fortunes of the federal parties, all of which recognise the political imperative of securing votes in Quebec.
Although the chances of a complete military withdrawal are remote, such an eventuality cannot be ruled out. The ruling Conservatives are, after all, subject to the vicissitudes of the minority government status in which they find themselves. Clinging to the status quo might become increasingly costly for a party looking to secure majority government status in the next general election. The NDP is urging the other two opposition parties to adopt its call for immediate withdrawal – even without NATO consultation – and is calling on voters to send the government an anti-war message by electing NDP candidates in summer by-elections. It is conceivable that an anti-war vote could gain momentum, a phenomenon a minority government cannot isolate itself from. A survey conducted by the Strategic Counsel between May 14-17, 2007 found that 73% of Quebeckers polled oppose the decision to send Canadian military personnel to Afghanistan. The numbers in the rest of Canada do not augur well either: opposition to the deployment at the time of polling sat at 50%. A July 12-15 poll put Canada-wide opposition to deployments at 59%.
Scenario #3: A reduced commitment
The most likely outcome, one that strikes a balance between policy-makers hoping to ‘stay-the-course’ and disillusionment with the status quo would be a reduced commitment. Harper’s recent talk of adopting a ‘new mission’ after February, 2009 may signal an attempt to break from past commitments whilst building non-partisan support for continued involvement in Afghanistan.
Such a scenario would unfold in a manner similar to the scaled down Canadian Forces contribution to the Kabul-based ISAF in 2004. After two battalion group rotations Ottawa decided, in consultation with NATO Headquarters, to deploy an armoured reconnaissance squadron and an infantry company to serve in Kabul and its environs. One possibility for 2009 might be the maintenance of a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in Kandahar or elsewhere, a role that would appeal to opposition parties and a significant segment of public opinion because of the putative ‘soft power’ focus of PRTs.
Key to this or any other future commitment will be the willingness of member countries make contingents available to fill the void left if the Canadian battle group is repatriated after February, 2009. For reasons related to security and diplomatic imperatives, a combat element, even a more modest one, will likely remain a feature of Canada’s contribution in addition to any future PRT military deployment.
Kristian A. Kennedy
London School of Economics and Political Science
These views are the author's own and do not reflect the corporate view of RUSI.