Expect pressure from U.S. for more Afghan combat

Canadian armoured vehicles patrol the desert near the village of Hajji Baydollah in Kandahar Province, May 23, 2009. Photograph by: Jorge Silva, Reuters

Canadian armoured vehicles patrol the desert near the village of Hajji Baydollah in Kandahar Province, May 23, 2009. Photograph by: Jorge Silva, Reuters

Canada to face renewed call for Afghan military effort

By Mike Blanchfield, Canwest News Service
May 24, 2009

Canada and its allies are expected to face renewed pressure by the Obama administration, keen to show progress in Afghanistan, to maintain or add additional troops to the NATO-led military mission, Canwest News Service has learned.

The call by Washington for additional military resources would be part of a major push by U.S. President Barack Obama to reconfigure the stalled international effort in Afghanistan, to stamp out the anti-Western insurgency that has thwarted progress in the country seven and a half years after the defeat of its former Taliban rulers.

One option being considered is scrapping Provincial Reconstruction Teams, including the one operated by Canada in Kandahar City, Afghan sources have told Canwest News Service.

Obama has made the Afghanistan mission the cornerstone of U.S. military efforts, and has already instituted major high-profile policy changes. In addition to contributing 21,000 additional U.S. troops, Obama has released a comprehensive regional strategy to embrace problems in Pakistan, appointing a senior regional envoy in Richard Holbrooke, and replaced the U.S. general who commands the NATO-led, 42-country coalition under the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan.

But, behind the scenes in recent weeks, U.S. officials in Kabul have made it clear to the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, who faces re-election in August, that Obama wants to see measurable progress in the next two to three years – essentially before his four-year term expires and preferably by the U.S. congressional midterm elections in 2010.

The source said there would be more firm direction on the way forward by the year’s end, and stressed that no final decisions have been made. “There is a debate going on, and will at some stage involve the Afghans, who will have to express a view.”

The U.S. plans to renew calls to NATO partners in the coming months, likely this fall after the Afghan elections, to make bigger military contributions, Afghan sources say.

This will have serious implications for Canada and will likely lead to another round of national soul searching over the country’s military sacrifice in Afghanistan.

“It means there is a debate under way on what to do and how to do it within the next three- to five-year time frame, and how best to accomplish these tasks,” said the Afghan source.

“Countries such as Canada are going to be put in a situation to make some tough decisions about how they will realign and restructure their commitments and the most important part is the military component.”

The U.S. diplomatic push will have two specific effects on Canada’s future military contribution.

First, Canada could face renewed pressure to reconsider its decision to withdraw the vast majority of its 2,800 troops from Kandahar by 2011.

Right now, there is no consideration of asking countries to do something that they are uncomfortable with, or accept a mission in which they lack experience, said the Afghan source.

Nor would there be any major geographical shift, such as bringing countries serving in the more peaceful northern portion of the country to the more volatile South, where Canada, the U.S., Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Romania and Australia have faced major violence and casualties from the insurgency.

All of this possibly points to one unpopular outcome for Canada: maintaining its current military contribution in Kandahar.

Canada’s army chief, Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie, has said his ground forces have been so taxed by successive Afghan deployments that they will need a one-year operational pause by 2011.

There is also active debate in Kabul diplomatic circles about whether military-enabled Provincial Reconstruction Teams have been effective and should be scrapped.

Canada runs an 1,000-member PRT in Kandahar City, where the Canadian Forces, diplomats, aid workers and police help lead governance and development programs, while allies operate similar bases in other parts of the country under their national flags.

“All of that is being discussed, as part of a grand scheme to reconfigure the mission. It will affect all parties including Canada,” said the Afghan source.

“There are a lot of questions, pro and con, about the usefulness of PRTs.”

Some are arguing that there is too much inconsistency in the PRT model because each country runs them differently and puts their own national stamp on them.

One possibility for replacing them would be to funnel PRT activities through Afghan institutions, such as municipal and local government or through domestic non-governmental organizations.

That would put more of an Afghan face on the development effort while “washing out some of the military aspects and national branding that goes with it.”

For Canada, this would have dire implications because successive Liberal and Conservative governments have highlighted the PRT as a cornerstone of the country’s effort in Kandahar.

Scrapping the PRTs could remove one scenario for Canada’s continued military involvement beyond 2011: for the PRT to remain as part of a focus on development in a scaled-down military contribution.

The Americans are also taking a hard line with the Afghans on how they govern their country moving forward after the summer elections.

The new Democratic administration has made no secret of its frustration with what it sees as a corrupt and incompetent Afghan government.

Afghan sources said the Americans haven’t so much as read the riot act to Karzai as engaged in frank discussions about the problems, and that all parties acknowledge them.

“That is a good thing. I see this as an opportunity for Afghanistan to get its act together and for the international community to create more cohesiveness,” said the Afghan source.
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