NATO may follow if Canada exits Afghanistan
by Michel Comte
Tue Feb 26, 2:02 AM ET
OTTAWA (AFP) – Canada’s defense minister urged parliament to keep its 2,500 troops in Afghanistan until 2011, warning that an earlier withdrawal could lead its NATO allies to abandon the shaky nation too.
“This is perhaps the most important debate facing our parliament and our nation today,” Defense Minister Peter MacKay said at the start of a parliamentary debate on whether to extend the military mission or exit.
“The consequences of pulling Canada’s military out of Afghanistan could have a far-reaching effect or a domino effect on others,” he said. “If we were to pack up and leave Afghanistan, why wouldn’t other nations follow suit?”
“How would history judge us if Canada walked away from Afghanistan?”
Previously, the main opposition Liberals agreed with the ruling Conservatives on the need to maintain troops in Afghanistan to 2011 only if NATO allies send reinforcements soon.
But they differed on whether Canadian soldiers should continue hunting insurgents beyond their current mandate of February 2009, or stick to a non-combat role in Kandahar province.
The stalemate could have led to snap elections in March if all three opposition parties united to topple the minority Conservatives over its motion to extend the mission.
Now, the Liberals seem onside with the Conservatives after the motion was tweaked, but still want clarification on some nuances in the government’s new plan that differ from their own.
Liberal leader Stephane Dion said he believed that helping Afghanistan rebuild after decades of war is in Canada’s “national interest” and “can be successful.”
But, he said, the government’s wish for NATO to contribute a mere 1,000 additional troops to bolster Canadian forces in Kandahar province by next year, and its proposed end date of December 2011, rather than sooner, must be vetted.
“If the explanation is reasonable and logical our party will not oppose it,” said Dion.
If both parties agree, the plan will be presented to parliament for ratification shortly, before a NATO summit in April, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said.
And if it is adopted, Canada would focus on training Afghan forces and providing security for reconstruction.
However, if NATO does not send reinforcements, medium lift helicopters and drones soon, as requested, Canada will pull out at the end of its current mandate of February 2009, the motion states.
Canada deployed 2,500 troops in Afghanistan’s volatile south as part of the 50,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) battling Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.
Like a dozen countries represented in the south, where opium cultivation is flourishing, Canada too is taking heavy casualties that are feeding public dissatisfaction at home.
Since 2002, 78 Canadian soldiers and a senior diplomat have died in roadside bombings and in fighting with the insurgents.
The main contributors to post-Taliban Afghanistan — notably Britain and the United States — have called for more “burden-sharing” in the grueling fight against the rebels.
NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said last week that ISAF has swollen by 8,700 soldiers over the past year and he was confident of more support in the coming year.
So far, only France and Poland have hinted to Ottawa they may send help.
“We do not want to abandon the Afghan people or turn our back on the international community,” said MacKay. “Staying in Afghanistan is not the easy thing to do. But staying there is the right thing to do.”
“The world is watching, including the people of Afghanistan and their oppressors.”