Speculation as to what Canada’s role in Afghanistan will be beyond 2001 has been stirred up amid recent reports that Obama Democrats are quietly lobbying the Tory government to keep troops in Kandahar province after 2011. Steven Staples says that Although the role of Canadian ground troops in Afghanistan may diminish, the Canadian Air Force could be set to play a more prominent role in the war, and that “air strikes, which the Canucks haven’t used so far, could be a major component.”
In March DND announced it will be spending half a billion on new armed drones (unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs) to be available in 2012. Experts are in disagreement over what exactly this will mean for Canada’s post-2011 role, and whether or not the target will be Pakistan. Some maintain that the drones will primarily used for domestic coast and Arctic surveillance and in selective international military missions. Others, such as Yves Engler, take note that Pakistan is the only place on the planet where a military campaign using UAVs is being conducted, and there’s no end in sight for the “Af-Pak” war, making it all the more likely that Canadian UVAs may soon become involved. Confusion over the role of Canada’s air force has been further complicated by recent remarks over the deployment of CF-18 fighter jets. In April Major-General Duff Sullivan told reporters he favours deployment of CF-18 fighter planes and that the Ministry of Defence is considering the matter, which was quickly denied by Defence Minister Peter MacKay.
While the use of UVAs and CF-18s in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains speculative, concerns about their future use are well founded as NATO aircraft killed more than 500 Afghan civilians in 2008 alone, and U.S. drones used for assassination attempts in Pakistan are also responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths.
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Will Canada join the drone war in Pakistan?
By Paul Weinberg
Amid recent reports that Obama Democrats are quietly lobbying the Tory government to keep troops in Kandahar province beyond 2011, Stephen Harper is finding himself in an increasingly awkward dilemma.
His problem is how to appease a popular U.S. president who just last week deployed 4,000 Marines in a new Afghan offensive, and at the same time keep a war-weary electorate on side, especially in Tory-averse Quebec.
Sure enough, the Conservatives are looking pretty unsteady on this file. A few weeks back, Foreign Affairs made haste to contradict Defence Minister Peter MacKay when he suggested the government was considering lifting its arm sales embargo against Pakistan.
But Steven Staples, who works full-time reading between the lines of the Defence Department’s official pronouncements, warns us not to be fooled by a political hiccup.
It’s very possible, he says, that the feds already have a clear idea of their post-2011 mandate – and that air strikes, which the Canucks haven’t used so far, could be a major component.
Case in point, he says, is the March announcement that DND will be spending half a bil on new armed drones (unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs) to be available in 2012, similar to the Predators and Reapers used by the U.S. in its air strikes in Pakistan.
“While the role of ground troops may diminish simply because the army is exhausted from years of war, the air force could be called upon to support the U.S.-led combat mission through air strikes by CF-18 fighter bombers or armed drones,” says Staples.
He predicts that Canada is about to repeat the mistakes made by our NATO allies, whose aircraft killed more than 500 Afghan civilians in 2008 alone, and by the U.S., whose drones used for assassination attempts in Pakistan are also responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths.
Not all defence experts, however, worry that the target of the new craft (in departmental parlance called the Joint Unmanned Surveillance Target Acquisition System) will be Pakistan.
“If the concern is that we are going to use drones along the Afghan-Pakistani border, that’s unfounded,’’ says Lee Windsor, of the University of New Brunswick’s Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society.
Still, he admits there’s no reason to rule out their use. “There will be circumstances where they could be extremely useful in the way Canada applies deadly force in the mission in Afghanistan.”
A defence analyst who seeks anonymity says he can’t “see Canadian UAVs used in Pakistan, for the simple reason that the U.S. has more than enough drones and doesn’t want to share that highly classified intelligence it is gathering.”
His take is that Canadian drones will be primarily used for domestic coast and Arctic surveillance and in selective international military missions where they would be a cheaper alternative to troops in the field.
But Yves Engler, author of The Black Book Of Canadian Foreign Policy, counters that Pakistan is the only place on the planet where a military campaign using UAVs is being conducted. There’s no end in sight for an expanded “Af-Pak” war in which our country has a major stake, he says.
“It is all speculation, [but] the Canadian military is not buying JUSTAS drones to monitor playgrounds in Toronto,” says Engler. “Like most Canadian arms purchases, the drones are being acquired with interoperability – supporting U.S. war-making capacities – in mind.”
And certainly there’s evidence that unmanned bomb conveyors are the war machines of tomorrow. P.W. Singer, the American author of Wired For War, notes that pilots are an endangered species. He predicts that the future of warfare can be seen in Pakistan, where drone attacks are remotely controlled by military personnel on an air base near Las Vegas, Nevada.
Countries, he worries, might be tempted to launch attack drones for short-term strategic gains to avoid the sight of dead pilots in body bags. “If you aren’t thinking about the risks,” he says, “maybe you don’t weigh drone attacks the way warfare demands.”
But it’s not just the UAV decision that stirs air power speculation. There was also that mysterious little dust-up in April when Major-General Duff Sullivan told reporters he favours deployment of CF-18 fighter planes and that the Ministry of Defence is considering the matter.
MacKay’s office quickly declared Sullivan mistaken.
His denial is reinforced by DND’s Lieutenant Sébastien Monger, who tells NOW: “We have a fully operational air wing in Afghanistan [helicopters, unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles]. Canada has no plans to deploy CF-18 fighter aircraft.”
That should be the end of the story, right? And why would a shaky minority government entertain a political nightmare like a Canadian CF-18 misfire and the death of innocent Afghans?
Still, some experts think it’s plausible that DND could decide to join the air war. “The idea of sending a squadron of CF-18s over there has always been something floated within the academic community paying attention to this,” says James Fergusson, head of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.
“What does it mean when we say we’re going to end our combat mission? It doesn’t mean we can’t do other things out of Kandahar.”
The University of New Brunswick’s Windsor also thinks there’s a logic to sending CF-18s. “If Canada wants to maintain a commitment to the total NATO mission, planes might be the way to do it. You can buy some time for the army to recuperate,” he says.
Copyright 2009 NOW Communications