Tighter U.S. grip binds Canadians

I contributed to this report in today’s Toronto Star. – Steve


Aug 09, 2008 04:30 AM

Tighter U.S. grip binds Canadians

Thomas Walkom
National Affairs Columnist

More shakeups in the Afghan war. The New York Times reports that the U.S. has decided to merge American and NATO troops under one command. Technically, NATO would run the combined mission. But a U.S. general is already in charge of NATO forces; according, to the Times, that command structure will continue indefinitely once the two operations are merged.

For countries like Germany that place explicit restrictions on how their troops are used, the change may not mean much. But for Canada, which has no so-called caveats on combat operations, the reorganization is a different matter. U.S. officials cited in the Times say the change is designed to allow British, Canadian, Dutch and U.S. soldiers to engage in a wider range of combat operations and support one another in a more seamless fashion.

With this decision, the U.S. will have effectively gone full circle on its Afghan war. Immediately after the 9/11 terror attacks, Washington was adamant that it run the invasion of Afghanistan. Other countries, including Canada, were invited to take part in what the Americans called Operation Enduring Freedom. But there was no question as to who was calling the shots.

By 2004, however, as America found itself drawn into the quagmire of Iraq, Washington lost interest in Afghanistan. Its aim then was to hand off that war to NATO allies like Canada.

In response, the Liberal government of former prime minister Paul Martin decided in 2005 to send roughly 2,500 Canadian combat troops to Afghanistan’s volatile Kandahar province.

Now, the Americans have switched gears again. Taliban insurgents have not been quashed by NATO or by the roughly 15,000 U.S. troops still fighting under separate command in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Indeed, the rebels are getting bolder. NATO and American casualties are rising. In the U.S., both Democrats and Republicans are calling on their administration to prosecute the Afghan war more vigorously.

Which is why Washington dispatched about 3,200 more troops there this year. Which is why, even before yesterday, it quietly assigned 19,000 of its troops to NATO (albeit under American overall command). Which is why U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates opted for the latest reorganization.

From a strictly military view, the new scheme makes sense. As University of British Columbia political scientist Michael Byers notes, co-ordination in war is generally a good thing. If nothing else, it minimizes the chance of allied troops firing on one another.

But for Canada, the decision to integrate U.S. and NATO fighting forces comes at an awkward time politically. The Afghan war is not popular in Canada, a fact even the ruling Conservatives recognize. Indeed, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has managed to set a 2010 end date to Canada’s combat mission – a decision he hopes will prevent Afghanistan from becoming a major issue in a federal election campaign that could come this fall.

Canadians forces inside Kandahar are already pulling back on combat missions and concentrating on training Afghan troops. If Harper is lucky, this will keep the Canadian death toll (currently 88 plus one diplomat) to less than the symbolically important number of 100 by the time the election is held.

But Gates’ reorganization could sabotage that political strategy. A merged NATO-U.S. effort would make it easier for American troops to help Canadians when they are in trouble. But it would also require Canada to reciprocate.

“There’s significantly less room for Canada to follow its own strategy,” says Steven Staples, head of the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute, a defence and foreign policy think tank. “We already differ with the Americans on certain matters, such as how to deal with opium production. This will give us no room at all to differ from Washington.”

Byers, who hopes to run for the New Democrats in the next federal election, says the reorganization may also pose legal problems for Canadian troops. Canada has signed international treaties that limit the amount of so-called collateral damage its troops may inflict on civilians in wartime. The U.S. has not. In particular, says Byers, Washington takes a looser view of aerial bombardment.

Staples notes Canada might balk at destroying a compound of Afghan villagers just to kill a handful of Taliban militants. But Washington is more tolerant

Canada also has a policy of not handing captured Taliban suspects to the U.S., which refuses to abide by the Geneva Conventions on prisoners of war.

But that too might change under the reorganization.

“When you’re engaged in a common operation, there is a tendency to follow the rules used by the more powerful actor,” Byers said in an interview from England yesterday. “In this case, that’s the U.S.”

Tags: Afghanistan, Michael Byers, Rideau Institute, Steven Staples