War extension looms: Will the Liberals (again) help Harper stay in Afghanistan?

Yesterday’s Globe and Mail featured one of Ottawa’s worst kept secrets as its front page story: the United States will be officially requesting that hundreds of Canadian troops remain in Afghanistan after the 2011 pull-out from Kandahar. The article implies that such a continued military role would not contradict the 2008 parliamentary motion on the war:

“The U.S. government will ask Canada to keep as many as 500 to 600 troops in Afghanistan after this country’s military deployment in Kandahar ends in 2011. Sources inside and outside the government say the formal request is expected toward the end of this year through NATO. The troops would act as military trainers and would most likely be located in Kabul. The deployment would not involve putting Canadian troops in harm’s way, but could nonetheless set off a rancorous national debate among Canadians and especially within the Liberal Party…

"No specific request has been raised in meetings between Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Defence Minister Peter MacKay. But officials in the departments of State and Defence have advised their Canadian counterparts that an ‘ask’ is coming. To fulfill the terms of the parliamentary resolution that Canadian Forces leave Afghanistan, any troops would have to be outside the Kandahar region, and not engaged in military operations. Trainers stationed in Kabul would fulfill those requirements, and it is what Canadian officials are expecting.”

Military trainers? Like the U.S. trainers in Vietnam decades ago? It’s notable that the Globe runs with the government’s euphemism.

Even conservative pundit Norman Spector shot down this convenient reasoning:

“According to this report, our troops would serve as military trainers, would be located in Kabul and would not be ‘in harm’s way’. Pish. If our troops are serving as military trainers, sooner or later they will have to accompany the Afghan troops they are training into combat operations. Which means they will be in harm’s way. Some Canadians will support our continued military involvement in Afghanistan, others will oppose it. Which means that the U.S. request should be debated by Parliament, as Prime Minister Harper has committed.”

Stephen Harper has stated that 2011 would mark the end of Canada’s military role in Afghanistan, following the 2008 motion that saw the Conservatives and Liberals voting for the war together. Though the PM did allude to some troops remaining to "aid in some technical capacities," the proposal that appears to coming from the U.S. is of a different magnitude.

Ottawa’s politicians should not be allowed to wiggle out of this. Keeping hundreds of troops in Afghanistan in support of the occupation would require a new vote in Parliament. Harper and Ignatieff have stood ‘shoulder to shoulder’ in voting to extend the war twice before — in 2006 and 2008. We’ll see if this year sees the continuation of this Liberal-Conservative coalition of the willing.

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