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The U.S. and Canada: Lost in Ask-again-istan

Christopher Sands

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made news on her trip to Ottawa this week by making public the American hope that as Canadian troops are withdrawn from Kandahar, Afghanistan the Canadian Forces might continue to play a role in the NATO mission there. Predictably, the Canadian media and the opposition parties pounced on this as a revelation, and a sign that overbearing Uncle Sam planned to bully young Johnny Canuck to comply.

Does anyone in Canada ever tire of this narrative? It was mildly entertaining when we could imagine Emperor George W. Bush and Darth Cheney sithing about over poor little Anakin Canada in his pod racer; perhaps using a different cultural metaphor, it would be Lord Washington-DC-mort manipulating Harry Potterwa with the old black magic.

You’d think that in the era of Barack Obama and Stephen Harper we could do better than children’s story time versions of this bilateral relationship and its dynamics.

In the run up to the 2008 election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Canadian Forces would withdraw from combat in Afghanistan by 2011. Canada had undertaken a major combat role with the shift of Canadian troops to Kandahar from their previous position in and around Kabul, and Canadian casualties had been high there. At the time, the official U.S. response from the Bush administration was gratitude for Canada’s exemplary contribution to date, and for the courtesy of advance notice with regard to the expected end date fore the current deployment, allowing the United States time to find replacement forces for Kandahar from among its own military ranks or those of other NATO allies.

President Obama echoed this view, and his Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (who had been Bush’s Secretary of Defense when Harper announced his plans) has consistently said that the United States is appreciative of Canada’s sacrifice, and comfortable with Canada’s desire to end its combat commitment by 2011.

Yet it has never been the case—in plans or public pronouncements—that Canada would quit Afghanistan entirely in 2011. Canadian development assistance would continue to play a vital role in helping the country to rebuild (Afghanistan is the largest recipient of Canadian development assistance today, followed by Haïti). As a Commonwealth partner and leading member of NATO, Canada also would continue to make an important diplomatic contribution to seeking peace and stability in the volatile region—including Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as India and Iran.

Since joining the NATO mission, the Canadian Forces have been on a steep learning curve in Afghanistan. They arrived with inappropriate uniforms and equipment, but have since upgraded both—often by purchases made from the United States “in the field.” It took time for Canada to develop its logistical supply lines for a conflict that was quite literally on the opposite end of the earth from Canada itself.

Despite years of experience with peacekeeping, including in the Balkans, the Canadian Forces had to adapt to the U.S. counterinsurgency tactics that had been retooled in Iraq and were being imported to fight the Taliban, particularly with the appointments of General David Petreaus as head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and General Stanley McChrystal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Today, the Canadian Forces have been transformed by the experience in Afghanistan. Few militaries can match the organizational learning, familiarity with U.S. strategy and tactics as well as the on the ground realities of Afghanistan. Canada can play a unique role in training and providing logistical support for other NATO militaries.

The United States has always, and consistently, expressed its hope that Canada would consent to play such a role—which would involve far fewer troops and no direct combat—in support of a NATO mission from which the United States itself, following a lengthy review by the Obama administration, hopes to conclude before the next U.S. presidential election in 2012.

Canadians should be proud to have their sacrifices and, more importantly, their achievements recognized by the request from NATO allies (including, but not exclusively, the United States) for Canadian Forces to continue to contribute to the role in Afghanistan. It is a mark of the high regard for the Canadian Forces, hard-earned in Kandahar.

Instead of appreciation, Secretary Clinton is greeted by a reaction that is by terms squeamish and coquettish. Canadian critics hoping to begin again the familiar dance of not saying no, but not saying yes; delighting in being asked but getting the vapors over being propositioned at the same time. Oh my, Canada, what if you say yes? Indeed, what if you say no?

The Obama administration is new to this, but old hands in Washington have seen it before over past U.S. invitations to participate in missile defenses and the mission in Iraq. Secretary Clinton has enough experience to have treated the controversy as beneath her notice, at least for now.

What matters ultimately is how the Harper government responds to the United States. As a minority government that could face an election before the last Canadian combat soldier returns home, the Conservatives will have to be responsive to the public mood. The Obama team, like the Bush administration team before, appreciates the Harper government’s honesty and its political constraints at home. Should Canada decline the invitation to have Canadian Forces provide continued support for the NATO mission outside of its present combat role, no one in Washington or any other NATO capital will take umbrage or doubt Canada’s commitment to the alliance.

How will Canadians themselves react? Has the average Canadian’s view of the relationship with the United States matured to the point that the tired refrain being sung by the media and some in the opposition parties will be ignored?

My hope is that the Canadians who were roused to patriotism by the exploits of Canadian athletes at the Vancouver Olympics and who cheered the goal of “owning the podium” without embarrassment should have no trouble responding confidently to an allied request to continue to play a role, albeit a more modest one, in Afghanistan.

Then, perhaps, we can consign this tired refrain of Canadian weakness intimidated by U.S. strength to the same remainder bin as the gender-neutral version of “O Canada.”

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