Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Canada Threatens to Leave Afghanistan

Some poor news for the battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan:

Canada will extend its military mission in Afghanistan only if another NATO country puts more soldiers in the dangerous south, the prime minister said Monday, echoing the recommendation of an independent panel to withdraw without additional forces.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government is under pressure to withdraw its 2,500 troops from Kandahar province, the former Taliban stronghold, after the deaths of 78 soldiers and a diplomat. The mission is set to expire in 2009 without an extension by Canadian lawmakers.

The panel, led by John Manley, a former Liberal deputy prime minister and foreign minister, recommended last week that Canada continue its mission only if another NATO country musters 1,000 troops for Kandahar.

NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the alliance had no immediate reaction to the comments from Harper, who said he would begin negotiating with allies prior to the next meeting of NATO leaders in early April.

"NATO's reputation is on the line here," Harper said. "NATO's efforts in Afghanistan as a whole are not adequate, but particularly in Kandahar province ... It is the focal point of the insurgency and of the Taliban's longer term plans to return to power."

Canada deploys the fourth-largest force in Afghanistan after the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, though Germany's forces operate largely in the more stable north. Because Canada has undertaken a large portion of the fighting against the Taliban in the south, they've suffered the third-greatest number of casualties after the United States and the United Kingdom. And they're entitled to complain about the unwillingness of other NATO allies to send forces to Afghanistan, who have deployed mostly token forces (with the notable exception of Germany as mentioned above, which has deployed 3500 troops to Afghanistan.) The coalition mission in Afghanistan is crucially dependent upon these contingents, given the number of US forces presently tied down in Iraq and our unwillingness to send more troops to Afghanistan. Unfortunately, our NATO allies do not appear to be willing to take Canada's threat to withdraw seriously, diminishing the possibility that they will accede to Canada's demand for more help in the south.

UPDATE: Also, this sort of thing doesn't help:

Some of America's closest NATO allies reacted with surprise and disbelief Wednesday to reported comments from Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggesting that their troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan are not up to the job.

The Dutch Defense Ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador for an explanation of a Los Angeles Times article that said Gates complained about soldiers from Canada, Britain and the Netherlands not knowing how to fight a guerrilla insurgency.

In Britain, Conservative lawmaker Patrick Mercer said Gates' reported comments were "bloody outrageous."

"I would beg the Americans to understand that we are their closest allies, and our men are bleeding and dying in large numbers," Mercer, a former British infantry officer, told The Associated Press.

"These sorts of things are just not helpful among allied nations."

The United States has regularly criticized Germany, France, Italy and other allies that refuse to allow their troops in Afghanistan to join U.S. forces on the front line against the Taliban in the insurgents' southern strongholds.

According to the LA Times, Gates raised doubts about countries that have sent significant numbers of combat troops to fight in the south, often in the face of widespread opposition at home.

"I'm worried we have some military forces that don't know how to do counterinsurgency operations," the paper quoted him as saying in an interview. "Most of the European forces, NATO forces, are not trained in counterinsurgency."

The original article from a couple of weeks back is here, and yes it appears largely that Gates is throwing the rest of NATO under the bus. It's true in the past that American officials have been short with the European members of NATO who've been unwilling to send their forces into the more hostile southern regions, but Gates is clearly referring to the forces who are already there...that is, the British and the Canadians, who also happen to be doing the most to aid us in Afghanistan. It's hard to understand why Gates felt the need to air such comments at this time, and without anymore context the most plausible explanation is that he really is trying to shift some of the blame for the deteriorating situation in the south to our allies. His comments provoked an unpleasant reaction from NATO allies, but the Canadian military was most especially outraged:

Canadian officers, familiar with the way in which the fiasco in Kandahar evolved, have called Gate’s comments the "height of hypocrisy." Even American Special Forces soldiers who participated in the battles that cleared the Taliban from Kandahar in early 2002 admit that the U.S. strategy was flawed from the outset.

When I visited Kabul last January, I was introduced to a U.S. Navy SEAL who had been assigned as an adviser to the Afghan Northern Alliance. When he learned that I was a Canadian, he had insisted on paying for my drinks. "We sold you guys a bucket of crap down in Kandahar, and for that I apologize," he said.

The SEAL explained that after the Taliban were chased out of the region, the U.S. left just one battalion stationed at the Kandahar airfield and fewer than 500 soldiers in all of Helmand province. The Pentagon had been completely focused on the invasion of Iraq and, as a result, from 2002 to 2005, the once scattered Taliban were able to regroup and rearm.

Supplies and recruits came in from the Pakistani side of Pashtunistan, but the small U.S. garrison in Kandahar was only concerned with self-protection at the airfield itself. Thus, when Canada accepted the change of location from Kabul to Kandahar, the Americans knew that the Canadians were walking into a veritable hornet’s nest of insurgents.

Via Mark from Ottawa, here's another Canadian military official's point of view:

Canadians know their soldiers were given the one area of Afghanistan that no one else wants. Even the Americans were relieved to get out, going to the relative safety of the eastern provinces. Kandahar, the ancestral home of the Taliban, was the first city to be captured when the Taliban took power, and the last to fall when they were removed from power in 2001. The city and the surrounding provinces remained quiet, for a time, only because the U.S. focus on the Iraq invasion of 2003 left the south of Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban, war lords and drug dealers.

Consequently, the first Canadian battle groups in Kandahar, based on the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry and the Royal Canadian Regiment, had to fight a Korean-style conventional campaign to break the huge Taliban force that, under previous (U.S.) management, had brazenly built Soviet-style fighting positions, almost encircling the city of Kandahar.

In that context, Gates' remarks are truly baffling. I simply can't understand why he'd say anything like he did at the very same time we are working to make sure our allies stick with us in Afghanistan.

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