Canada

What does 'inside the wire' mean in a place like Afghanistan?

Brian Stewart on the prime minister's about-face on Afghanistan.

One has to marvel at Prime Minister Harper's tactical skill when it comes to the strategic retreat. 

Here, in a matter of days, he reversed his party's reverence for free trade by nixing the foreign takeover of Saskatchewan's Potash Corp. and then followed up with a complete about-face on his whole Afghanistan policy.

In neither case does he seem to have suffered a strong backlash.

The government's decision to keep Canadian military trainers in Afghanistan after the combat mission ends next July is an astonishing reversal of the prime minister's oft-stated determination to bring our troops home.

Even I was surprised, despite having written just last week that the PM had run out of manoeuvering room when it came to dodging our chief NATO allies and their appeals for help. 

But what really caught my attention is the scale of the training mission now being considered: One thousand Canadian troops, including 750 trainers along with another 250 in support and security roles.

Inside the wire and armed to the teeth. Correspondent Brian Stewart talking with Canadian combat trainers in Afghanistan. (CBC)

This is twice as many as was suggested when rumours started floating around Ottawa that Harper was about to pirouette for NATO and reverse his stand on a continued military presence in this conflict.

This higher figure, though less than our current combat numbers, nonetheless represents a significant military engagement over the next four years and will position Canada as one of the leading trainers of the Afghan security forces.

Along with our large embassy in Kabul and $600 million a year in aid and reconstruction support, that will leave us as a very important element in this ever-growing counter-insurgency.

About-face

The sheer size of this new commitment suggests that something or somethings pushed Harper from being a profound doubter of the allied cause in Afghanistan into a true believer.

Future historians will be fascinated to find out what provoked this change of heart.

Harper himself says he came to realize only recently that Afghanistan needs this extra training to allow it to stand on its own feet.

But this is hard to follow given that the failure to train Afghanistan's military has been perhaps the biggest worry in NATO circles for more than a year.

A more likely explanation is that the fear of repercussions from key allies — including a possibly protectionist new U.S. Congress — was more the deciding factor.

In any case, a big surprise has been the relative lack of public and political uproar.

The federal Liberals, who have supported a continued training presence in Afghanistan for some months now, seem to be merely asking for more details, which is the least that can be expected under the circumstances.

But even the NDP and the Bloc have protested less than you would have thought, although this may change when Parliament resumes sitting.

Inside the wire?

We don't know what new opinion polls will show now that this decision has been made. But leaving our NATO allies in the lurch is something that may not have been sitting well with many Canadians. The prospect sure didn't go down well with our military.

When I was in Afghanistan in February visiting training units, I found most officers deeply and morally upset at the very thought of walking away.

This was not just because they had formed emotional ties with our allies. But because, for them, the potential human rights nightmare is very real when they contemplate the possible return of the Taliban.

At this point, however, Canadians need more certainty about what is at stake here and parliamentarians should push for a great many details about this new plan, including more overall transparency over what to expect in the future.

To almost every question so far, the prime minister and his team have repeated the mantra that this will be "a non-combat mission" only, suggesting maximum safety.

But keep in mind that the Taliban will also have an important say in this.

In counter-insurgencies, military and police trainers are critical targets for guerrillas to go after, in this case both to blunt the rise of any new Afghanistan force as to demoralize NATO.

Rockets and mortars regularly rain down on training camps and Taliban units have grown increasingly bold in striking at highly protected NATO camps and headquarters.

Should Canadian trainers go into the field as "mentors," which they have in the past, the risks are obvious. Although I expect the federal government will impose rules to try to keep our soldiers "inside the wire."

But nowhere in Afghanistan can now be assumed to be beyond attack. Even the heavily guarded diplomatic corps of Kabul has been hit this year and is always braced for a possible suicide offensive.

You will note the picture of me in 2007 with Canadian trainers: We are "inside the wire" of a training base and yet all are armed as if for instant combat.

Only three days earlier a suicide truck bomber had tried to wipe out the entire foreign training mission, failing only narrowly at the main gates.

Infiltrators

A more worrisome concern is Taliban infiltration.

In all the military or police classes that I have visited, the trainers wear sidearms and seem to accept the possibility that someone in any group or 20 or 30 recruits will have Taliban ties.

"I just hope I'm a faster draw than my students," one U.S. security trainer joked, tapping his .45.

These are not just hypothetical concerns. In July, two American trainers were shot and killed, and another wounded, when an Afghan sergeant suddenly opened fire on them.

Just days earlier, three British soldiers were killed in the same way by an Afghan soldier. Last November, it was five British soldiers, killed by an apparent Afghan infiltrator in the police.

To make the point that this "non-combat mission" will likely not go unvisited by acts of war is not to condemn the government's new decision.

I've been arguing for a while now that Canadian troops are more than able to take on the training challenge and that the stakes here are high enough to make the long-term cause worthwhile.

But the only way to move forward in Afghanistan is with eyes wide open to the dangers involved.

No matter how you phrase it or try to soften up a mission statement with vague assurances of being tucked "inside the wire," it is never wise to underestimate the risk or ignore the old saying that to be at a war means to be in one.

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