2011/05/13 | Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press
File photo of a Canadian NATO soldier. GETTY IMAGES/AFP/Yuri Cortez.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper secretly promised NATO early last year that Canada would consider staying in Afghanistan to conduct army training, according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable.
It was an assurance the Conservative government kept under wraps for months until the new mission was announced — much to the surprise of the public and opposition parties — last November.
The government line almost right up to the training mission announcement was that the combat mission would end and the troops were coming home.
The army is now set to deploy up to 950 troops and support staff to bases in Kabul, Marzar-e-Sharif and Herat.
NATO’s secretary general pressed Harper and Defence Minister Peter MacKay in a series of meetings in Ottawa in January 2010 to join its newly established training mission command in Kabul.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen “sought Canadian commitment to a post-2011 role in training Afghan security forces as part of the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan,” said a cable released by WikiLeaks on Thursday.
The Jan. 20, 2010, summary of the discussion from the U.S. embassy in Ottawa noted that “Harper promised that the government would look at the possibility.”
Rasmussen, in his first visit to Ottawa as secretary general, assured his hosts he was not there to “cause problems” and respected that Parliament had mandated an end to the combat mission in 2011.
The document suggests Harper was worried the impending Canadian departure would be characterized as a “withdrawal” and that the optics surrounding the mission needed to managed.
Harper noted that the Obama administration’s plan to begin pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan was “not helpful politically to his government” because it would make the case for staying a more difficult sell to the Canadian public.
Rasmussen told the prime minister he was worried the Canadian withdrawal in 2011 could produce a “domino effect,” and increase domestic pressure on Germany and France to leave as well.
But Harper rejected the comparison and insisted Canada has “been there in a big way” and that Ottawa was in a unique position compared to other troop contributors.
Harper told the NATO chief that he saw three downsides to a continuing presence in Afghanistan, including the high number of combat deaths, which was “the most damaging” aspect. He also saw the perceived lack of progress as sapping the morale of the Canadian public.
The prime minister raised questions about the “legitimacy and effectiveness” of the “problematic” Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai, who at the time was just emerging from an election marred by fraud and corruption allegations.
Harper also signalled that he was eager to hand over governance and security responsibility to the Afghans “as much as possible, as soon as possible,” said the cable.
The cable is startling because it suggests that the final decision to embark on a training mission was something long under consideration in the Prime Minister’s Office but not shared over the wider government.
New Democrat Jack Harris accused Harper of not being straight with the Canadian public.
“The public obviously had no indication this was coming until they actually made the announcement,” he said. “Whether it’s totally duplicitous or not, I’m not sure, but it is saying one thing in public and another in private.”
Last spring, diplomats and development staff in Kandahar eager to hear about the future of their projects had been left in the dark. MacKay, in an April 2010 visit to Afghanistan, alluded to the possibility of a police training mission, even though the RCMP commissioner had no information.
As late as the fall, defence sources said, the Canadian military had made no plans for a follow-on mission whatsoever. When the announcement was made, it forced army planning staff to scramble to set up the deployment.