Canada reconsidered Afghan combat end date: WikiLeaks

Stephen Harper's minority Conservative government in 2009 was reconsidering its planned 2011 end date for the Afghanistan combat mission, a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks to CBC News reveals.

U.S. requested Canada to consider extending mission

A Canadian soldier prepares to head out on a foot patrol at sunrise from a small Canadian outpost south of the Afghan town of Bazar-e Panjwaii in April 2011. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

Stephen Harper's minority Conservative government in 2009 was reconsidering its planned 2011 end date for the Afghanistan combat mission, a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks to CBC News reveals.

At a cabinet meeting in March, ministers "agreed that 'all options are back on the table' with respect to Canada's military role in Afghanistan after 2011," the March 17 cable marked secret says.

The cable — among a batch of Canada-related U.S. diplomatic cables released to CBC News from whistleblower website WikiLeaks — quotes extensively from conversations held with a senior adviser from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

"It will take time for the government's public rhetoric to catch up to this 'new reality,' however, requiring some 'patience' on the part of allies," the senior adviser apparently told U.S. officials on March 16.

Allies should not "publicly press" Canada to extend its troop deployment past 2011, he urged.

His comments appeared to give hope to U.S. officials that "the minority government of Prime Minister Harper may not have actually ruled out extending Canada's 2,800-member military contingent, including combat forces, in Kandahar beyond 2011."

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A "truly final decision" would have to be made by fall of 2010, with a plan in place by Jan. 1, 2011, due to operational requirements.

'A political goldmine'

The U.S. diplomatic cable acknowledges what a "highly sensitive political football" an extension of the combat mission would be after Canada was "explicit publicly and privately that the [Canadian Forces] combat mission in Afghanistan would definitely end in 2011."

A Canadian officer demonstrates a gun to an Afghan police officer at a checkpoint in Kandahar city. ((Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press))

"PM Harper and his Cabinet would be venturing into politically sensitive territory to try to re-sell a further extension to an increasingly dubious Canadian public," the cable says.

Adding to the difficulty was the fact that a decision reversal would be a "political goldmine" for the Liberals, the cable says.

"Official Opposition Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff — who has also been firm about the 2011 deadline — has repeatedly accused PM Harper of going back on his word of obfuscating on other issues," the cable says.

U.S. officials speculated that Harper "may be banking on President Obama's popularity here" and upcoming U.S. policy reviews on Afghanistan to change the "dynamics enough to give this government — or its successor — enough political flexibility" to continue a combat role after 2011, in addition to reconstruction and development.

Several weeks later — ahead of an important NATO meeting in France — the United States put forward a demarche, a formal diplomatic request, asking Canada to consider a combat mission beyond the scheduled 2011 end date, another diplomatic cable dated April 3, 2009, shows.

The request, sent April 2, 2009, was delivered to the prime minister's national security adviser, Marie-Lucie Morin, and senior foreign affairs and privy council staff.

Canadians likely spent night 'struggling'

The U.S. request asked that Canada "remain open to reconsidering its plan to withdraw combat forces after 2011" or at a minimum, keep reconstruction and training teams in Kandahar past the date.

Morin stressed that Harper in his public comments had so far "been clear on the 2011 position." But U.S. officials surmised that "intervention at the highest level might get the Prime Minister to show his cards."

The cable goes on to say that the April 2 request "likely went straight to the Prime Minister's party in Strasbourg," where world leaders were gearing up for a two-day NATO summit.

"Canadian officials probably spent the night struggling to formulate a response," U.S. officials mused.

American officials were also well aware that the very act of issuing the formal request had complicated Harper's public response on Afghanistan.

Until that point, Harper had repeatedly responded to questions about possible extensions by brushing them off with the comment that the U.S. had made no specific request of Canada.

After the U.S. request, that line would no longer work.

In the end, at the Strasbourg NATO summit, countries promised to send 5,000 non-combat troops to train Afghanistan's police and army, but Canada did not commit any additional troops.

However, months later, in late 2009, the government began openly discussing the possibility of extending Canada's role in Afghanistan past the 2011 date in a non-combat capacity.

The U.S. diplomatic cable also quotes then Liberal defence critic Bob Rae as telling an American official that "no prime minister could make a decision to extend a combat role beyond 2011 until after the next election."

NATO chief, PM manage the message

Another U.S. diplomatic cable from early 2010 shows the continued pressure Canada came under to stay past 2011 in a non-combat role. It wasn't until late 2010 that Harper officially announced the non-combat mission, saying a smaller number of soldiers would stay to help train Afghan forces.

The cable details behind-the-scenes talks during a high-profile visit by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to Canada in January 2010 when the NATO chief met with Harper.

Ahead of the meeting, he told Canadians he wasn't coming to Ottawa to "cause problems" related to the 2011 end date and in media appearances "avoided criticism of Canada's decision and refrained from calling for a reversal of the decision," a cable dated Jan. 20 says.

But in closed door meetings, Rasmussen was pushing for Canada to commit to stay in Afghanistan to train local security forces. "PM Harper promised that the government would look at the possibility," the cable says.

The prime minister and NATO chief also agreed on the importance of "managing the messaging" relating to the 2011 target.

"It is important that this not be interpreted as a date for withdrawal of NATO forces," the cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa to various outposts said.

Harper apparently observed, however, that the U.S. target date was "not helpful politically" to his government, especially if he needs to make the case for continued Canadian engagement.

Rasmussen, meanwhile, worried that the Canadian withdrawal in 2011 could produce a "domino effect" increasing domestic pressure in Germany and France to withdraw as well.

Harper rejected the comparison, the cable says, adding that "Canada has 'been there in a big way'" and the circumstances were not the same.

Three key issues were identified by Harper as creating domestic difficulty in keeping support for the Afghanistan mission: a mounting Canadian death toll that stood at 143 at the time; perceived lack of progress; and a "problematic" Afghan government.

The leaked U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks end the month after that cable was sent.