Donald Trump’s about-face on Afghanistan raises questions about Canada’s new foreign policy statement — and whether this country might be drawn back into a war that haunts it still.
The Trudeau government’s foreign policy, unveiled to much fanfare two months ago, was premised on the Trump Administration “shrugging off the burden of world leadership,” in the words of Chrystia Freeland, the Global Affairs Minister.
Canada would, as a result, step up and “set our own clear and sovereign course” — aided by an additional $6.6 billion in defence spending over the next five years.
But President Donald Trump’s televised address on Afghanistan late Monday suggested that, far from retrenching, the U.S. will increase the number of troops waging America’s longest war.
Trump had campaigned on withdrawal from Afghanistan, calling it a massive waste of U.S. “blood and treasure” and declaring on Twitter: “Let’s get out.”
That was then, apparently.
What does it mean for Canada? Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signalled in June that his government has no plans to send any troops back to Afghanistan. Trudeau said Canada is “always willing to step up around the world” but that its efforts are now focused elsewhere.
Last year, Trudeau committed $465 million over three years for aid and security in Afghanistan.
But that might not be enough to assuage this most mercurial of presidents.
Trump said he is now persuaded that a U.S. withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists would fill.
“We will ask our NATO allies and global partners to support our new strategy, with additional troop and funding increases in line with our own. We are confident they will,” he said.
Since it is not clear exactly how many more troops the U.S. will send to the region, it’s impossible to estimate how many the president envisages coming from NATO countries. The organization has already said it will find as many as 3,000 additional soldiers to help train and work alongside Afghan security forces.
Whatever Trump asks for, common sense dictates that Trudeau say no.
It was a Liberal government that first sent troops to Afghanistan in 2001, committed soldiers to the NATO security force in Kabul two years later, and agreed to take part in the stabilization efforts in dangerous Kandahar. The fear then, as now, was that the country might fall back into the hands of the Taliban, and its extremist allies.
The Conservatives inherited the war and promoted the idea that Canadian troops were there to protect human rights and free elections. Stephen Harper vowed he would not “cut and run” at a time when just 10 soldiers and a diplomat had been killed. But by 2011, 158 soldiers had died, Canada had withdrawn from a combat role and Harper was in Kandahar claiming the mission had been a great success.
“This country does not represent a geo-strategic threat to the world. It is no longer a source of global terrorism,” he said.
Yet the reason that Trump has had a rare change of heart is precisely because Afghanistan is once more a potential safe haven for terror groups.
His hope appears to be that by pressuring Pakistan, the Taliban can be driven to the negotiating table. The president’s typically pugnacious rhetoric talked of “fighting to win,” “crushing” al-Qaida and “obliterating” the Islamic State group.
But the U.S. couldn’t win in Afghanistan when it had 100,000 troops in the country — 10 times more than now.
As U.S. Army Lt.-Gen. Daniel Bolger wrote in Harper’s Magazine in 2014, American forces are designed, manned and equipped for short, decisive, conventional conflicts, not long, indecisive, counter-insurgent struggles.
Failed strategy was masked by calls for more time and more troops.
“Counter-insurgency works if the intervening country demonstrates the will to remain forever,” he wrote. “Our foes waited us out.”
Yet no senior officers argued for withdrawal.
That was the reality Trump inherited — and its recognition does not necessarily mean a sea change in the president’s view of the world.
“I don’t think it says ‘the U.S. is back’; it says ‘the operation continues,’ ” said Roland Paris, an international affairs professor at the University of Ottawa and former foreign policy adviser to Trudeau. “So many other areas of U.S. foreign policy remain undefined and confused.”
Trump baulked, on the one hand, at a major military surge and, on the other, at complete withdrawal.
The upshot is a modest increase in troop numbers that does not significantly deviate from the strategy that Lt.-Gen. Bolger said failed so spectacularly — an army with limited resources slogging onward in an unlimited conflict.
Trudeau’s commitment to increase military spending buys Canada some independence. It should be used to avoid a return to the country justifiably known as the “graveyard of empires.”
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