Saying No to Obama, Politely – an article by Steven Staples and Michael Byers

In the lead up to President Obama’s visit to Ottawa last week, Steven Staples wrote the following Oped with Michael Byers outlining how Canada can contribute in Afghanistan beyond 2011, while still withdrawing our troops. Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be meeting with her Canadian counterpart, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon. If the Harper government wants to build on Obama’s visit, Canada should not miss this opportunity to support Secretary Clinton’s ‘smart power diplomacy’ by conveying our willingness and capability to contribute diplomatically to a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan.

Saying no to Obama, politely; Canada should make the case that it cannot continue its combat role in Afghanistan past 2011, but it can help in a number of other important ways

Ottawa Citizen – Citizen Special

The Ottawa Citizen
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Michael Byers and Steven Staples

When U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Ottawa on Thursday, he might just ask for an extension of Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan past the current 2011 withdrawal date. And because the Canadian Forces are overstretched and worn out, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will have to say no.

The question — with Canada-U.S. relations on the line — is how best to do so?

Fortunately, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already provided the answer by placing the concept of “smart power” at the centre of U.S. foreign policy. According to this approach, influence is derived from many factors, including diplomacy, co-operation, a good reputation, economic vitality and military power.

Within this much broader conception of power, there is a great deal that Canada can contribute in Afghanistan — while still withdrawing its troops.

President Obama has already adopted the broader approach, emphasizing regional diplomacy and negotiations with insurgents. The appointment of the seasoned Richard Holbrooke as his envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan is a clear indication of just how important the diplomatic angle has become.

President Obama can see the war is not going well. As the insurgents grow stronger and NATO more combative, mounting civilian casualties have sapped Afghans’ support for the government and its western military backers.

More than 2,100 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2008, a 40-per-cent rise from the previous year, the United Nations said. A survey last year by the Asia Foundation found that the percentage of Afghans who felt the country was moving in the right direction had dropped from 64 per cent in 2004 to only 38 per cent in 2008.

The president’s campaign pledge to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan was designed to blunt criticism of his most important promise: withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

Now, the new administration is taking time to carefully assess the strategic terrain. It has already significantly lowered U.S. goals, with Secretary of Defence Robert Gates saying, “This is going to be a long slog, and frankly, my view is that we need to be very careful about the nature of goals we set for ourselves in Afghanistan.”

It’s already clear that President Obama is not going to try to fight his way to victory in Afghanistan; he’s going to focus on holding ground, making friends and training the Afghan army and police.

In the circumstances, Canadian combat troops are less needed than they might have been before. And thank goodness for that. They’ve suffered the highest casualty rate, per soldier, of all the allied troops in Afghanistan. Our men and women are tired and their equipment is wearing out.

As retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie observed, “The number of soldiers completing multiple tours in Afghanistan (some as many as four to date) and the one-year pretour training and temporary deployments on return to Canada to train recruits have broken parts of the army.”

This led him to conclude: “The painful truth is that Canada will not be capable of remaining in Afghanistan in a combat role beyond 2011.”

Nor is there any need to worry about holding up our share of the combat burden. Canada helped prop up the Afghan mission after the Bush administration became distracted; now that Mr. Obama is refocusing U.S. efforts, we can conduct a handover with our heads held high.

That said, and consistent with the concept of “smart power,” we can and should offer to contribute in other ways. Our diplomats could help negotiate with tribal and insurgent leaders in Afghanistan, as well as with regional actors such as Iran, India and Pakistan. The Canadian International Development Agency could provide more reconstruction assistance. The RCMP could do more to assist with the training of the Afghan police.

Gen. MacKenzie makes the same point: “There is a crying need for additional instructors for the understaffed NATO teams training the expanding Afghan National Army. The international police currently training the problematic Afghan National Police are short some 3,000 instructors!”

In short, Canada’s position on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan will cause no offence — if the prime minister expresses it clearly, provides credible reasoning, and makes specific, tangible commitments in other domains.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. Steven Staples is president of the Rideau Institute.

Tags: Afghanistan, Steven Staples