Afghan extension: What to do when NATO comes pleading

Brian Stewart on the NATO push to keep Canada in Afghanistan longer.

It could soon be much harder for the Harper government to tiptoe away from the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan next year.

Later this month (Nov. 19-20), NATO leaders hold their long-anticipated Strategic Summit to thrash their way forward on a wide range of issues.

Afghanistan will be very much front and centre and, according to high-level talk in Ottawa this past week, our main allies have no intention of easing Canada's way home.

Indeed, there's increased speculation that the U.S., Britain and other Western powers will use the bilateral meetings that go along with the summit to try and change the prime minister's mind about the Canadian withdrawal.

They are not asking for a complete about-face but they still want hundreds of Canadians left behind as military trainers and frankly believe that Canada still owes NATO that much.

Last call

No one, of course, underestimates the challenge of changing Stephen Harper's mind on anything. He has said very publicly that he has no intention of leaving any military forces behind after next summer, apart from perhaps a few embassy guards.

A graduating class of Afghan National Police at the joint Canadian-American base in Kandahar in April 2010.The RCMP has started looking at options on how to continue the police training mission after the Canadian military pulls out next year. (Murray Brewster/Canadian Press)

But the reality is that NATO is desperate and sees Canada's planned withdrawal as upsetting the larger game plan.

NATO has pegged its own departure date for 2014, after which it wants to hand over all security to Afghan forces.

But that timeline is a pipe dream unless the alliance can find more than 1,000 top-quality military trainers from member nations — specialists in their respective fields — to help double the size of the Afghan army over the next few years. A Herculean task.

There's no way around the fact that the Afghan military is still critically weak for a variety of reasons, but also because NATO has too few training specialists there. Now it will lose another 200 or so next spring as Canada begins its withdrawal.

In NATO's eyes, we're going to make a bad situation very much worse and so the new heavy-duty line to Ottawa is: "Look, we all want out as soon as possible. But we really need your help if we're to pull this off."

Austerity's measure

Adding to the urgency is the fact that NATO has already been shaken by a wave of austerity-driven defence cuts, including an historic 15 per cent downsizing in Britain.

In the U.S., the Obama administration has just lost its hold on Congress and faces mounting concerns over runaway budgets.

Across NATO, but in the U.S. in particular, dissatisfaction with Afghanistan and with under-performing allies there is likely to increase in the coming months. The training issue is one of those potential flashpoints.

For allied commanders, it has always been something of a nightmare to come up with an appropriate training regimen from an alliance of 28 countries. What looks easy on paper is numbingly complicated when classes are set up.

In this age of advanced military technology, trainers are not just ordinary soldiers. They are your particularly high-skilled master corporals and sergeants, all the way up to the levels of captains and majors — usually the very leadership gems armies don't wish to part with.

Run out of options

Until now, British, French, Canadian, Turkish and America trainers have carried most of the load, but they are still impossibly short of the numbers required.

Out of the roughly 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, it is estimated that only three per cent are dedicated trainers and they face a daunting challenge.

Not just Canada's military who are training. An instructor with Correctional Services Canada demonstrates how to apprehend a prisoner to Afghan prison security officers in August 2009. (Allauddin Khan/Associated Press)

Corruption, desertion, language problems, tribal hostility, even literacy, all work to make building a national Afghan security force extraordinarily difficult.

But today the emphasis is expanding into more sophisticated training — of officers, pilots, doctors, artillery and communications specialists — and NATO has simply run out of the appropriate personnel for the job.

In a sign of its desperation, NATO is now sending hundreds of Afghan recruits to study out of country. Three hundred trainee officers were recently sent to learn their trade with French troops in the United Arab Emirates, while Turkey is starting to take in Afghan police recruits.

This is not a move that allied officers welcome for it can lead to still more fragmented standards in a security force that has had too many already. But NATO has simply run out of options.

Welcome to Lisbon

This lack of specialty trainers has long-term strategic implications as well, which NATO leaders are sure to impress upon our Canadian prime minister.

The goal is not just to defeat the Taliban but to get Afghanistan to the point where it can stand on its own, militarily, over the next four years in a profoundly dangerous south Asian neighbourhood, with Iran to its West and Pakistan to the East.

Even with an expected $20 billion a year in aid from the U.S., this won't be possible unless Afghanistan can become independent of NATO in such areas as logistics, maintenance, medical services, transport and basic air defence.

Which is why our allies are so reluctant to let Canada off the hook with simply a, still substantial, pledge to contribute $600 million a year in development and humanitarian aid. The stakes are just too high.

At this point, the rumour is that NATO will badger Harper for as many as 400 trainers, to be based in Kabul and other areas away from direct combat.

That number would still leave Canada with a significant role in the nearly decade-long conflict.

But, politically, that kind of request would seem a safe political sell for the PM, as many Liberals, as well as many in Harper's own caucus, are open to the idea of maintaining non-combat trainers after next summer.

Harper, however, has not indicated in any way that he'll consider changing his mind.

What's more, it is assumed by military officers who have observed him up close that he is thoroughly sick of the war and personally appalled by the casualties that he has seen. 

Nor does he have a lot of use for NATO after years of lost opportunities in Afghanistan.

Still, the pleas for help are serious enough and seem to be coming from very high levels. So it will be interesting to see what Harper makes of his allies in Lisbon this month, and what they make of him.