NATO presses Canada on forces in Afghanistan
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA - The United States and other NATO allies are trying to persuade Canada, whose troops are due to withdraw from Afghanistan next year, to leave a hundreds-strong residual force as trainers for Afghan security forces.
The buildup of Afghan forces is a crucial component of President Obama's plans to begin a gradual U.S. withdrawal next summer. But while coalition leaders have cited significant recent improvements in Afghan recruitment and capabilities, NATO members consistently have fallen short on pledges to provide more trainers.
NATO hopes to obtain firm training commitments before its Lisbon summit later this month.
Canada's 3,000 troops, which long have operated in and around Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, have suffered the highest per capita casualties, including more than 150 deaths, of any coalition member. Their complete withdrawal next year was ordered by parliamentary vote, and Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has not publicly indicated whether it will seek approval to extend the mission.
The issue is politically sensitive in Canada, as it is in Europe. The Netherlands already has withdrawn its forces, and other governments are under public pressure to do the same. But the administration has argued that training is a key to an exit strategy that would allow them eventually to claim that the overall Afghanistan mission has succeeded.
The hope is that Canada will agree to contribute up to 500 of the 850 trainers needed, said one European defense official on the margins of a security conference here sponsored by the German Marshall Fund and the Canadian government. Senior NATO member officials, including U.S. Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy, met behind the scenes over the weekend to iron out agreements for the upcoming summit.
"The United States, France and Britain have said to the Canadians 'Don't waste your experience' in Afghanistan" by leaving before the mission is completed, said the European official, one of several who discussed the private meetings on condition of anonymity.
"If the Canadians agree," he said, "maybe the Dutch will come back with trainers."
In a visit to Ottawa in March, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States would "obviously like to see some form of support continue" from Canada.
Ending the Canadian combat role is "non-negotiable," according to a senior Canadian government official quoted Friday by the Toronto Star. Harper, who heads a minority government, likely faces an election campaign in the spring.
While Canadian public approval of the Afghan mission is low, some opposition figures have indicated that an ongoing training or development role is not out of the question.
Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said here Sunday that Obama's Afghanistan strategy was "showing signs of success," but that his withdrawal pledge had caused "serious, serious problems, not only in Afghanistan but in the region about whether the United States is going to stay or leave."
In on-the-record remarks to the conference, McCain also said Obama should "do something dramatically different" in his policy toward Iran by publicly "advocating regime change" there and assisting the Iranian opposition. While the administration has toughened its stance toward Iran with sanctions and warned of further consequences if it does not abandon its alleged plans to build nuclear weapons and stop support for terrorist organizations, Republicans have criticized what they see as Obama's lack of resolve.
Obama is "entirely suited" to assume a world leadership role by virtue of his unique personal history and up-by-his-bootstraps rise to the White House, said McCain, who lost the presidential election to him in 2008. "Whether he will do that or not is something that is not clear to me."