The notion that Prime Minister Stephen Harper would abruptly announce lowered expectations for Canada's mission in Afghanistan, to an international audience on CNN no less, has provided fodder for his critics. Certainly, his blunt words sound shocking enough. If “we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency,” as Mr. Harper told interviewer Fareed Zakaria, why have we spent most of this decade in combat there, losing more than 100 Canadian troops? And why did Mr. Harper – or the Liberal government that committed us to our current role, for that matter – take so long to recognize its futility?
In fact, what Mr. Harper said should have been familiar to his Canadian audience, if not his American one. The thrust of his assessment – that a realistic goal is to have in place “an Afghan government that is capable of managing that insurgency and improving its own governance,” which he acknowledged remains some distance away – was consistent with Canada's recent outlook on the prospects for its mission.
On a few previous occasions, Mr. Harper has gotten carried away and hinted at wiping out the Taliban altogether. (“There are still the remnants of terrorism and if you leave with the job half-done ... they will re-emerge to haunt you at home,” he said while visiting Kabul in May, 2007.) But for the most part, he has presented – to both Canada and its allies – the aim of preparing Afghanistan to take control of its own security needs.
That was his message at last year's NATO summit in Bucharest. While the January, 2008 report by the commission headed by John Manley rejected the idea of imminently shifting away from combat (as the opposition Liberals were then calling for), it too recognized that the focus must gradually shift to training, and did not pretend that the total defeat of insurgents was on the horizon. Neither did the parliamentary motion that extended the mission until 2011.
The question that will soon need to be considered is not whether Canada's goals for Afghanistan are too modest, but when and how those relatively modest goals will be achievable.
Mr. Harper has been inconsistent on whether he intends to stick to the 2011 pullout, at times seeming to close the door to an extension, at others leaving it open. “If President Obama were to ask me [to extend the Canadian commitment further], I would have a question back for him,” he said in his CNN interview. “And that question would be: What is your plan to leave Afghanistan to the Afghans, so they can govern it?”
With a welcome shift in American attention – and manpower – from Iraq to Afghanistan, U.S. policies will of course play a major part in determining Canada's future involvement. But with Canada's wealth of experience in Afghanistan, particularly in the volatile Kandahar province, it should not be taking a passive role in determining what comes next.
2011 is not as far away as it seems. CNN studios may be a more comfortable environment, but it is in Parliament where the future of the mission will soon need to be addressed once more.