National Column: Canada mulls return to unwinnable Afghan war

by Thomas Walkom

A return to the Afghan war is one step closer. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has confirmed that NATO has asked Canada to send police trainers to assist Afghanistan’s struggling government in the fight against Taliban insurgents. He said Ottawa is seriously considering the request.

The trainers, if sent, could be either soldiers or police officers.

The NATO request is part of an effort by the alliance to quietly beef up its role in the Afghan war without inflaming public opinion back home.

Technically, the roughly 13,000 troops under NATO command in Afghanistan do not engage in combat. Their role is to train, advise and assist local Afghan forces.

But the war in Afghanistan is going badly for the government in Kabul. It faces not only its traditional Taliban foes but the terrorist group Daesh, also known as ISIS.

High-profile suicide bombings have rocked Kabul. The Taliban effectively controls large swaths of the countryside. The central government is shaky.

American Gen. John Nicholson, who heads NATO operations in Afghanistan, says he needs at least 3,000 to 5,000 more “advisers” to meet his military needs there.

In Washington, President Donald Trump’s administration is mulling over the question of how many more American troops to commit to Afghanistan (it already has roughly 8,400 soldiers there).

But Trump has also made it clear that he expects other NATO countries to pick up part of the slack.

Currently, Canada and France are the only NATO countries without troops in Afghanistan.

Canadian troops entered the Afghan war in 2001 and stayed for just over 12 years. Over that period, 158 Canadian soldiers were killed and hundreds more wounded.

It was the longest-running war in Canadian history. By the end, it was also one of the most unpopular.

In 2014, with an election year looming, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government ordered the last Canadian troops home.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government is careful to couch any return to Afghanistan in minimalist terms.

Sajjan first raised the possibility in a CTV interview on Saturday, volunteering that NATO had made an “ask” for Canadian advisers to help train Afghan police and that Canada was actively considering the request.

He repeated this again Monday to reporters in Halifax. But he noted that Ottawa’s real military focus now is on the war against Daesh in Iraq and that, in any case, Canada’s military operations in Afghanistan ended three years ago.

Translation: Even if we accede to the NATO request, this will not be as bad as before.

But of course that’s the kind of optimistic thing governments always say at the outset of armed conflict.

When Canada first entered the Afghan war after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, the stated aim was to honour its NATO obligations to the U.S. When Canada upped its military commitment in 2006, the stated aim was to ensure that Afghan girls could go to school.

Throughout, the experts told us that we had to take part in this war to maintain our credibility in NATO
and to avoid irritating the U.S.

In fact, what we became involved in was a complicated, vicious and ultimately unwinnable conflict where the line between friend and enemy was too often blurred.

So we shall see what the Trudeau Liberals have in mind this time. They have already expanded Canada’s role in the ground war in Iraq. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland talks glowingly of using Canadian “muscle” to promote Canadian values,

They plan to increase defence spending overall.

Perhaps they will remember how difficult it was to extricate ourselves the last time we involved ourselves in the Afghan war. Sajjan should. He fought in it.

Or perhaps they will calculate that the political benefits of satisfying a U.S. and NATO request are worth the risk.

After all, they could say, it’s just training. What’s so dangerous about that?

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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