January 23, 2008

Quick fact: average age of Cdn. fatalities in Afghanistan

Twenty-nine. A fact little noted by Canadians is that we have fairly mature soldiers by historical standards. (stats from icasualties.org).

Posted by BruceR at 01:44 PM

Manley report: the day after

Okay, so what's going to happen, or should happen, now that the Manley report is out?

Well, the big problem now is time. We're running out of it. The existing parliamentary mandate expires next February, and it would take a year for replacement forces from another nation to start spooling up, realistically. So we owe our allies notice. So Manley's idea of deferring a parliamentary debate until after the April Bucharest summit seems unviable. To present a reasonable ultimatum along the lines he proposes at that time means extending the current mandate by at least several months. The Opposition will not agree to that without other changes to the mission, obviously.

So, back to square one?

The Manley plan taken in whole does seem fundamentally non-implementable for this and other reasons (procurement time for helicopters, etc.) The real problem with it is, like all single-issue commissions, his doesn't evaluate the externalities. Not that this is a bad thing, it's terms of reference did (and should) preclude it from doing so, so it's not Beeker's fault that he could not consider questions such as whether Canada's arguable overcommitment to Afghanistan is preventing it from doing other, worthy things in other places, or whether Canadians replacing U.S. troops in Afghanistan means we're "enablers" to their less justifiable Iraq adventure. Again, Manley would have been exceeding his mandate if he had pronounced on those issues, but they're ones a government needs to consider. Effects on election timings are another, of course, and that is what the government's and the opposition's responses this week are really going to be calibrated to.

The PM has a couple options. He can try a last-ditch stand on extending the mission as is or bigger, embracing the report, and daring the Liberals to overthrow the government before the April NATO summit. It would almost certainly be in the Liberals' political interest to do so, rather than risk the PM appearing the statesman in Bucharest and losing anti-Afghanistan votes to the NDP and Greens. (An election, of course, would force at least a short-term extension of the Kandahar mission and almost certainly preclude effective inter-NATO diplomacy at Bucharest.)

If there is an election, the Conservatives will likely have to mollify the public by promising a drawdown of the mission anyway: "staying until the job is done" isn't going to cut it. And the Liberals if elected will likely be more drastic. So "Manley as it's written", or "stay the course," for all their virtues, are politically dead letters already.

So what the PM probably needs to do, whether he wants an election or not, is embrace the Manley Commission's principles, while not feeling constrained by its recommendations overmuch. The smart political move is also to take a position that neutralizes the Liberals on this issue.

Manley does help in this by effectively taking a couple of the crazier proposals off the table, like trading provinces with another NATO country. The PM should accept that logic. Everyone involved also needs to be clear that, even if no one says it out loud, only a couple countries have the ability to replace a whole battle group in an expeditionary force, and only one is in a real position to do so in this timeframe.

The most likely replacement force, whether Canada pulls out unilaterally or does not, is the U.S.; specifically the 3,000-strong Marine formation currently deploying to southern Afghanistan. They're also currently scheduled to pull out around February '09. So what this is really about operationally is getting the U.S. to commit those troops to Kandahar province longer than that, in conjunction with some kind of continued Canadian presence. Between the lines, that is what the Manley report is recommending. It is also the current Liberal position once you unpack it: there is no doubt that NATO has to hang on to Kandahar province: it's hugely strategic, so some major Western nation will have a battle group there when we go, regardless. So executing the Liberal plan (or NDP plan, for that matter) can only realistically mean handing over some responsibilities in Kandahar province to the U.S. next February.

(Frankly, one can't help but assume that the reason the U.S. rapidly reversed a decision not to deploy Marines to southern Afghanistan (they nixed it only recently, then un-nixed it around the same time their defense secretary uttered some petulant comments about the quality of their allies) is that they assume there's a high probability now of some Canadian drawdown, and need those in-place forces to pick up the slack if and when that happens. Manley's concerns about Canada's unreliability as an ally are certainly already being factored into U.S. strategic planning.)

Once you subtract all that out, all we're left is haggling about who provides the 1-2 NATO battlegroups (@ c.1,000 soldiers each), which is a strategically insignificant question. Indeed, reduced to their ground-force realities, and minus the rhetoric, you could basically sum up the various positions on what NATO should have in Kandahar province after February 2009 this way:

Manley: 1 Canadian battlegroup, 1 U.S. battlegroup, Cdn training and reconstruction teams
Liberals: 1-2 U.S. battlegroups, Cdn training and reconstruction teams
NDP: 1-2 U.S. battlegroups, no Cdns.

Given the options, the PM could well choose to forego the chicken-diplomacy game Manley's proposing and buy into the Liberal position on this one. He could put a new proposal before Parliament that Canadian training and reconstruction teams will remain in place after 2009 "until the job is done" but that the Canadian battle group will be rotated out and replaced by whatever forces Comd ISAF assigns (in other words, a Marine battlegroup or two). Canada would become the junior partner to the U.S. in Kandahar, doing the softer tasks the same way the Danes are doing in a British formation in Helmand, or the Australians are doing in the Dutch framework in Uruzgan. This would not be a horrible outcome.

The Conservatives could probably modify foreign allies and local pro-war supporters by saying that any critically-required resources (specifically the artillery battery, reconnaissance or tank squadrons) could stay in place as part of the new (U.S.) battlegroup if the new nation could not field similar resources right away, and be only pulled out when replacements exist or 2011, whichever comes first. (In reality, these are assets relied upon just as much by the local Afghan forces for their combat power, and would be most sorely missed by them.)

That means that the withdrawal would be effectively limited in the immediate term to as little as the two companies of Canadian infantry, plus some of their logistical tail, and the battlegroup headquarters. It would be hard for the Leader of the Opposition, post-Manley, to not support a proposal along these lines, which would see Canadian troop levels in theatre drop to 2,000 or so and the mission "refocussed", whatever that means. Some of those infantrymen could also be reassigned to a larger PRT or military training presence.

The PM could justify the proposal by saying it has the spirit of Manley, is bipartisan, and gives Canada back some strategic depth that could be applied to other NATO or UN tasks in future. It would probably be well-received in Bucharest: the European allies would prefer a Canadian position that wouldn't change overmuch regardless of who won our election, to Manley's proposed game of chicken with the U.S. over whether 1,000 Marines stay or not. (No one else is going to come forward anyway; the French are the only other nation that could both provide a battlegroup, and would be trusted by the other allies with what is a critical task, but they certainly couldn't be in place in that strength starting from a decision in Bucharest before late-2009 at the earliest.)

And should a Democrat takes the White House in the fall (and both Clinton and Obama support an increased American presence in Afghanistan) the domestic pressure in this country for further withdrawals (largely rooted in visceral anti-Bushism) will largely drop and this will drop in prominence as an issue, restoring both Conservative and Liberal freedom to maneuver.

It's not particularly combat-efficient, as you're basically subbing out warfighters while keeping most of the support infrastructure in place. It also doesn't actually solve any of the problems anti-Afghanistan Canadians are complaining about. Canadian soldiers will still be exposed to violence; issues like what to do with detainees will only be complicated when Canadians are seen to be working under a tactical U.S. command; the risk of bombing etc. to Afghan civilians will not diminish. But it still may be all that's politically achievable right now.

In short, Harper probably shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good on this one: given the plausible outcomes, a Canadian presence in Kandahar, minus a Canadian battlegroup per se, could be the most politically robust option currently achievable to him.

Posted by BruceR at 11:59 AM