...in the party positions. According to the Ottawa Citizen:
Having Canadian troops stay in Afghanistan until 2011 in a non-combat role is a good balance between protecting our forces and protecting the Afghans we signed up to help in 2001.
It's also the general proposal made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in this week's throne speech, subject to the recommendation of the panel he asked to look into the question, which is headed by the Liberal hawk John Manley. It might be difficult for the opposition to swallow, but it's the right thing.
We've committed to keep troops in the Kandahar war zone until 2009, and must live up to that promise. But by 2009, it will likely be time for Canadians to rotate out of the Kandahar hotspots. Canada's military is recovering from over a decade of neglect in the 1990s, and we might not be capable of sustaining 2,500 fighting men and women on the ground much longer.
For some, including the NDP and many Liberals, that won't be good enough -- they want Canadians out of Afghanistan right away...
Well, that's the NDP position, but since they will never assume power federally, know it, and therefore have the luxory of making irresponsible proposals, I propose to ignore them. The official consensus of Liberal Party is:
...the Liberal Party has been calling on the Harper government since February to make a clear and unequivocal commitment to end Canada’s combat role in Kandahar when the current commitment ends in February 2009. Without a plan for a new rotation of troops from one of our NATO allies, the successes gained by our troops could be put at risk.
...which sounds pretty close to the Conservative proposal, as it is interpreted by the Ottawa Sun. But here are a couple of problems.
For one thing, the proposal outlined by the Citizen is an interpretation of Conservative intentions based on some pretty slippery language. From the throne speech it is entirely unclear, for example, whether the Tory proposal would see Canadians moving from the Kandahar region (a point acknowledged obliquely in the Citizen article by the use of the phrase "likely be time"):
Our Government does not believe that Canada should simply abandon the people of Afghanistan after February 2009. Canada should build on its accomplishments and shift to accelerate the training of the Afghan army and police so that the Afghan government can defend its own sovereignty. This will not be completed by February 2009, but our Government believes this objective should be achievable by 2011, the end of the period covered by the Afghanistan Compact. Our Government has appointed an independent panel to advise Canadians on how best to proceed given these considerations.
Now, if what Harper et al mean by this "shift" is that Canadian troops stay in Kandahar but stop shooting back, as it were, this amounts to a truly ridiculous strategy of "cutting and running in place". Wheras what is obviously required (and what the Liberal position calls for) is that one of the NATO allies step up and send combat troops into Kandahar as Canada, the terms of its agreement to go into the South until 2009 fulfilled, rotates into another part of the country to do some other variety of work.
Hence the Liberal demand for "clarity" around the mission. One gets the feeling that Harper and Co. want to either back the nation into a continuation of the status quo, or have our guys hide behind the wire in Kandahar (which probably amounts to the status quo, eventually, because not firing back in this context is not an option). But the Canadian people, though split on the status of the mission today, overwhelmingly want our troops doing something other than rather pointlessly shooting up the desert in Kandahar after 2009. For this reason, when the issue comes before the HOC for the promised vote, the choices which the Tories are offering should be unambiguous. They should not be allowed to hide behind vague wording.
Because their wriggling around on this issue marks it as a Conservative weakness. The vote on the throne speech could have been made a vote on the nature and extent of the Afghan Mission extension, but was not simply because the Tories know they could not win an election supporting the status quo in Afghanistan.
(In this light it is interesting to note that, outside the mention in the throne speech transcript, there seems to be nothing re Afghanistan on the CPoC website, and certainly nothing under "key issues". The Tories, for all their chest thumping on other issues, seem to want Afghanistan swept under the rug)