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Obama opens door to more Canada in Afghanistan

February 18, 2009

On the day he signed the order authorizing 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, President Obama opened the door to “ongoing talks” with Canada in a “comprehensive strategy” regarding our engagement there, along with the U.S. and with NATO.

He was nuanced – and spoke of the need to work with Canada on  expanding diplomacy and development – a Canada model, in fact. But today’s Globe and Mail seems to hit the nail on the head in a must read story by Campbell Clark: “Soft talking President hints he’d like Ottawa to extend Afghan mission.”

Days before his arrival for a seven hour “working meeting” in Ottawa with Prime Minister Harper, President Obama granted CBC Newsworld a ten minute interview in the White House. Three topics emerged: trade, energy and Afghanistan. On NAFTA, Obama made reassuring noises about abiding by its rules; on energy, his more interesting  position referenced collaboration between Canada, Mexico and the U.S. to “sequester” greenhouse emissions.

And on Afghanistan, for the first time in a long time, a U.S. President specifically acknowledged Canada’s heroic sacrifice. Were our NATO allies, those with much larger populations, but without the gumption, or depending on your point of view, the foolhardiness to step up to the plate, listening?

It was good to hear Obama offer his gratitude to the families of the fallen. But in his brief interview, in advance of his meeting with Prime Minister Harper, Obama deftly avoided anything precise on any of these topics.

Yes, Obama cited deference to the 2011 date and stated, “I think it’s important for the Canadian legislature and the  people of Canada to get a sense that what they’re doing is productive.”  The bulk of the President’s comments showed that he will try and persuade us that a complete strategy of troops, diplomacy and development – a remix, more and better, of what’s gone before, will and should continue.

This column has predicted that one way or the other (the link is to Joe Klein’s blog on The Swamp at Time; scroll down for his Feb. 16/17 entries) our citizens will not be coming home from Afghanistan at the 2011 mark.

Obama’s Thursday meeting in Ottawa seems designed as a “door opener” to get Canada on side for a longer, more involved U.S. venture in a region of the world fraught with historical, economic and cultural difficulties. Thoughts?

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Akira permalink
    March 8, 2009 1:35 pm

    Re: “This column has predicted that one way or the other (the link is to Joe Klein’s blog on The Swamp at Time; scroll down for his Feb. 16/17 entries) our citizens will not be coming home from Afghanistan at the 2011 mark.”

    You’re wrong. Harper could not be more clear on his belief that any continuation of the mission would be counter-productive:

    “Canada: Ten Years in Afghanistan is Enough”:

  2. February 20, 2009 11:40 am

    I am agnostic on the issue of staying in Afghanistan or not because I don’t know enough. I do know that Afghanistan is a mess and needs help. I just hope that while we’re there, we’re doing everything we can to make life better for them – not worse.

  3. J Fletcher permalink
    February 19, 2009 10:36 am

    Although much has been written about the corruption in Afghanistan, very little attention has been focused on the role of NATO and the US in imposing policies that facilitate and reward corruption – particularly when the primary beneficiaries happen to be contractors and consultants from the donor countries. Today’s story in The Guardian exposes the problem.

    There is much talk among the new Obama people about the need for increased development to accompany military strategies, but how can a policy of development succeed if it is riddled with so much corruption and profiteering? It appears that under Bush and Friends, the civilian development operations in Afghanistan have been managed and overseen just as badly as the military operations.

  4. February 18, 2009 12:22 pm

    On the eve of his first foreign visit, Canadian Tourism shot some videos of Canadians welcoming Obama to Canada. They’re worth a look!

    Welcome to Ottawa, President Obama!
    What should President Obama do in Ottawa?
    What should President Obama know about Canada?

  5. February 18, 2009 11:26 am

    I’m often reluctant to weigh in on the Afghanistan situation because I still don’t know where I stand on our efforts there. After leading a program in the region for 4 1/2 years with women who pleaded with us to keep Canadian troops in the country, I feel torn. I never supported our move to Kandahar. I didn’t understand why we chose to go to an area where we had so little intelligence and experience and I feared that our renewal of counter-insurgency operations under Operation Enduring Freedom (before it was conflated with the ISAF mission) was a mistake. But I was also unimpressed with the calls for “troops out of Afghanistan” with little dialogue about what that might mean for women and for all of the people who returned to the country in the hope of rebuilding it after years of despotic Taliban rule and Cold-War inspired invasions.

    I followed the Senalis Council’s recommendations and I believe that Noreen MacDonald (the lawyer from BC who heads the Council’s efforts) has extensive experience on the ground that is relevant and important. But I’m not sure that the Senalis’ recommendations of shifting poppy cultivation to legal medicinal production isn’t more than another simplistic anecdote to a very complex issue. I’ve followed this debate now for years and while it might be an attractive possibility, I’m not sure that it is feasible. On Saturday, the Globe published a piece by Thomas Schweich, the U.S. ambassador for counternarcotics in Afghanistan. It’s an interesting overview of the actors Obama has appointed to lead the US efforts there and it provides a strong critique of the legalized poppy recommendation (this is one of many that I have read).

    If anyone has read convincing articles for why the Senalis recommendation might work (which counters some of the claims Schweich and others have made), please let me know.

    I am also interested in reviewing any articles about what Canada is doing in Afghanistan. We don’t hear enough about the details of our efforts there. I’ve had a chance to attend briefings by Canadian heads of our Provincial Reconstruction Teams and I’ve tried to follow some of the CIDA grants, but none of this is synthesized in the public realm. It would be better if we were making informed decisions about how Canadian values, interests and assets are being advanced in Afghanistan rather than feeling pressured by our neighbour to extend our commitments there.


  6. Sandra Chamberlain-Snider permalink
    February 18, 2009 10:31 am

    I think President Obama recognizes, with the soft-sell, that we are out of resources troop-wise and that there is no political will to extend Canada militarily until the forces are rebuilt. I have no wish to send more troops until they are backed up with proper resources, i.e. helicopters instead of hummers and enough boots in the theatre to accomplish goals. With the soft-sell, he can diplomatically back away from pressuring Canadians until we actually have the resources to be effective. As a Canadian, while I support the the larger vision for Afghanistan and the role we have to play, I cannot, in good conscience, send more forces in without the resources they need.

  7. reneethewriter permalink
    February 18, 2009 9:48 am

    Dear C. Fuller: many thanks for the detailed and hard-hitting post. The story of the Senlis Council is of great interest – i believe there was a Canadian woman lawyer, a Q.C. from British Columbia involved, amid controversy here in Canada from DFAIT etc about Senlis, its positions and its donor backing. I welcome more information.

    Your analysis of the economic situation and the opium trade is worthy of much more discussion.

    This week I read a piece in the National Post about Pakistan and its federally administered tribal areas and not one sentence dealt with the economic conquest and the history of economic extraction of that region.

    I’m reminded, reading your comments, of the original British T.V. version of “Traffik ” – seems prescient now. R

  8. C. Fuller permalink
    February 18, 2009 9:09 am

    Obama’s whole strategy in Afghanistan is disappointing. He seems committed to pursuing a policy that is almost guaranteed to fail. If the US and its Nato supplicants were serious about change they would adopt the strategy of the Senlis Council to legalize the poppy crop so that Afghan poppy farmers could help alleviate the world shortage of pain medication derived from the poppy. In October Afghanistan banned the Senlis Council from operating, and Nato is set to target farmers (militarily) who are selling the poppy crop to the Taliban. This will further punish desperately poor people and solidify their links to the Taliban and international drug traffickers.

    This is not change we should believe in and our Canadian troops should not be fighting in a war whose real purpose is to serve the oil industry, with the international drug cartels a major beneficiary. Obama seems to be a great American president — for the American people. For the rest of the world? So far, not so good.

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