Lee Berthiaume, Postmedia News – www.montrealgazette.com
CHICAGO — Prime Minister Stephen Harper joined Canada on Monday to the growing list of war-weary nations ready to move on from Afghanistan by announcing that all Canadian soldiers will be out of the troubled country by the end of March 2014.
Dollars will begin replacing boots on the ground as the prime minister, rebuffing NATO calls to extend Canada’s current training mission, pledged $330 million to support Afghanistan’s security forces over three years starting in 2015.
Speaking at the end of a two-day NATO summit that was dominated by questions about Afghanistan, Harper said it was time the country began standing on its own and that prolonged international intervention will hurt rather than help.
It was a message echoed by U.S. President Barack Obama, who has signalled his own country’s plan to begin withdrawing combat troops next year and transition from combat to a training role as Afghan forces take full responsibility next year.
But it was also clear the disproportionately heavy burden borne by Canada — at a cost of about $11 billion and more than 160 lives — and the fact Afghanistan has become country’s longest-ever military commitment, were key factors in Harper’s decision.
“I point out that by the time 2014 comes, the NATO alliance, ourselves and our NATO friends will have been in Afghanistan longer than the two world wars combined,” the prime minister said in an unusual moment of candour.
“If you ask me frankly would I wish it was earlier, I would say yes. But I think we’re doing it as early as is feasible.”
With a firm deadline for withdrawal finally set by the Conservative government, the question now turns to whether Afghanistan will be able to take the next step toward long-term peace and stability once Canada and most of its allies quit the country in less than two years’ time.
Leaders expressed a determination to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for terrorists while at the same time noting that Afghan forces, already responsible for security in half the country, are making significant gains and that the insurgency is on its last legs.
“Our forces broke the Taliban’s momentum,” Obama told delegates at one point. “More Afghans are reclaiming their communities. Afghan security forces have grown stronger.”
But it’s difficult to gauge how accurate such statements are. The insurgency’s imminent demise has been predicted for years, and Obama himself later acknowledged at the end of the summit that the Taliban remains “a robust enemy.”
In addition, while Afghan forces have taken responsibility for security in half the country — a point NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen repeated throughout the weekend — they have not yet demonstrated an ability to operate without international support.
Harper and other leaders agreed during the summit to establish a new mission after 2014 that would put alliance soldiers in an advisory, assistance and training role over the long-term; Rasmussen had asked publicly that Canada participate in the mission.
Asked to respond to the news Canada would not make such a commitment, Rasmussen refused to say whether he was disappointed or otherwise upset, and instead thanked Canadians for their contributions to Afghanistan over the past decade and the new $330 million pledge.
“At the end of the day, it is a national decision whether a country wants to deploy troops or trainers,” he said. “We fully respect that.”
It was clear that concerns existed over whether the Taliban would be emboldened by the increasing number of countries committing to definitive dates for withdrawal.
Obama said there would be no “optimal point” at which NATO could say its job is done, and so a transition must be undertaken at some point, “and it’s sometimes a messy process.”
The U.S. and NATO had been asking other allies to commit money to help cover the $4.1 billion per year that will be needed to sustain the Afghan security forces after 2014; Canada was asked to contribute $125 million, according to the New York Times.
While not quite at that level, Canada’s contribution is on par with the United Kingdom’s, and Harper said the commitment was intended to encourage fellow allies to pony up — and to send a signal to the insurgents who continue to threaten Afghanistan’s peace and stability.
“We are all determined that the Taliban receive the message that this is not an abandonment of Afghanistan,” Harper said. “None of us will rest. We will make the contributions necessary to ensure that the Taliban does not reassert control over this country.”
And keenly aware of concerns about rampant corruption in Afghanistan, Harper said Canadian officials will monitor the money set aside for the Afghan security forces to ensure it isn’t siphoned off.
“The money we’re putting into this is for the Afghan military and we’re not going to see it used for another purpose,” he said. “I was very frank with President Karzai today, as I have been in the past, that Afghan governance must improve.”