Count the cost

Master Corporal Serge St-Aubin (front) and Corporal Adam Valiquette (rear) are greeted by local Afghan children as they patrol through the village of Teymurian. (CF Combat Camera / Master Corporal Matthew McGregor, Image Tech, JTFK Afghanistan, Roto 8)

The Globe & Mail‘s Douglas Bland asks Canadians to consider all of the implications of withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2011:

Canada-U.S. relations: The maintenance of co-operative relations with the United States is Canada’s vital national interest. What are the likely security, defence and economic impacts of withdrawal in 2011?

Canada-NATO relations: Would a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan negatively effect Canada’s diplomatic and economic relations with the Atlantic alliance and the European Community generally?

The Taliban and other foes: Will a Canadian withdrawal embolden Taliban leaders and weaken the Afghan government, endangering subsequent humanitarian effort in the country?

The Canadian Forces: No one knows how much the Afghan mission will eventually cost Canada. But government officials do know that staying will cost many more billions, eating into budgets for other policies. Leaving will save something. Is the government actually willing to sacrifice the Afghan commitment (and its defence policy aimed at rebuilding the Canadian Forces) in order to reduce the deficit?

Canada and the UN: Will withdrawal from the UN mission in Afghanistan risk forfeiting our credibility as a leader of the “Responsibility to Protect” concept?

Canada’s place at the table: When Afghans eventually (and inevitably) decide to negotiate an accommodation among their country’s many factions, does Canada expect to have influence if we have abandoned the country?

— Bland, Douglas.  “Afghanistan: After 2011, then what?Globe & Mail, 7 January 2009.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the citizens of a nation generally do not have a realistic idea of how their nation is viewed by foreign policymakers.  One of the most interesting things revealed in General Rick Hillier’s recent book is that our long service in the Balkans under the UN flag inadvertently undermined NATO’s perception of our fighting worth.

Contrary to the popular perception at home—where we were seen as comforting the afflicted, boldly doing what others would not do, garnering respect around the world—allied political and military brass saw a Canadian Forces that was sclerotic, ill-equipped and micromanaged by Ottawa to the point where it could not be usefully employed in a fluid tactical environment.  When UN forces in-theatre needed troops to put into action on short notice, Canada rarely got the call.  NATO commanders in the Balkans (Hillier included) avoided tasking CF units because they knew that Ottawa’s approval would take weeks to obtain, when the fight would be over within days or even hours.  When we did get the requisite approvals in time and went into combat, our logistics train could not keep us supplied and armed, and we had to beg, borrow and steal from better-supplied UN outfits.  As we strove to make a difference in the world and increase Canada’s prestige and influence, and despite the ultimate sacrifice of dozens of good Canadians, we accomplished the opposite.  Not because UN missions are inherently unworthy, but because our allies got to see firsthand how our combat potential was paralysed by bureaucracy and lack of political will back home.  The Canadian public did not realise this (because the message traffic had obviously remained internal to DND and PMO), but Canada’s reputation at the policymaker level suffered; our allies saw that we meant well, but could not be counted on to deliver.

This had consequences for Canada in Afghanistan, too.  Some NATO allies (Britain is the only one I can remember offhand) were initially quite determined to keep Canadian forces out of the Afghan mission, because the perception was that we would once again field an ill-equipped contingent that would be hamstrung from taking part in operations by tortoise-like micromanagement from Ottawa.  This perception has been reversed due in part to the sacrifices of our men and women, naturally; but also due to hardworking CF brass like Generals Hillier and Natynczyk, and the willingness of our political leadership—and here I include Paul Martin, Bill Graham, Stephen Harper, Gordon O’Connor and Peter MacKay—to attack the bureaucratic sclerosis and allow our Canadian Forces to be more flexible and agile.

Whether one supports continued action in Afghanistan or not, the reality is that this fight has increased Canada’s visibility, influence and prestige at the top-tier political level; which is, on balance, a good thing.  Stronger influence helps a nation pursue its national interest and get results.  Withdrawing before the Afghan government is independently viable risks summoning the recently-dispelled impression that once again, Canada means well but can’t be counted on to deliver.  This would not be a positive development for our nation, and Canadians should be under no illusions about how such a move will be viewed by allied governments.

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