U.S. requested Canada to consider extending mission
OTTAWA - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's minority Conservative government in 2009 was reconsidering its planned 2011 end date for the Afghanistan combat mission, a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks to CBC News reveals.
At a cabinet meeting in March, ministers "agreed that 'all options are back on the table' with respect to Canada's military role in Afghanistan after 2011," the March 17 cable marked secret says.
The cable — among a batch of Canada-related U.S. diplomatic cables released to CBC News from whistleblower website WikiLeaks — quotes extensively from conversations held with a senior adviser from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
"It will take time for the government's public rhetoric to catch up to this 'new reality,' however, requiring some 'patience' on the part of allies," the senior adviser apparently told U.S. officials on March 16.
Allies should not "publicly press" Canada to extend its troop deployment past 2011, he urged.
His comments appeared to give hope to U.S. officials that "the minority government of Prime Minister Harper may not have actually ruled out extending Canada's 2,800-member military contingent, including combat forces, in Kandahar beyond 2011."
A "truly final decision" would have to be made by fall of 2010, with a plan in place by Jan. 1, 2011, due to operational requirements.
The U.S. diplomatic cable acknowledges what a "highly sensitive political football" an extension of the combat mission would be after Canada was "explicit publicly and privately that the [Canadian Forces] combat mission in Afghanistan would definitely end in 2011."
A Canadian officer demonstrates a gun to an Afghan police officer at a checkpoint in Kandahar city. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press)
"PM Harper and his Cabinet would be venturing into politically sensitive territory to try to re-sell a further extension to an increasingly dubious Canadian public," the cable says.
Adding to the difficulty was the fact that a decision reversal would be a "political goldmine" for the Liberals, the cable says.
"Official Opposition Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff — who has also been firm about the 2011 deadline — has repeatedly accused PM Harper of going back on his word of obfuscating on other issues," the cable says.
U.S. officials speculated that Harper "may be banking on President Obama's popularity here" and upcoming U.S. policy reviews on Afghanistan to change the "dynamics enough to give this government — or its successor — enough political flexibility" to continue a combat role after 2011, in addition to reconstruction and development.
Several weeks later — ahead of an important NATO meeting in France — the United States put forward a demarche, a formal diplomatic request, asking Canada to consider a combat mission beyond the scheduled 2011 end date, another diplomatic cable dated April 3, 2009, shows.
The request, sent April 2, 2009, was delivered to the prime minister's national security adviser, Marie-Lucie Morin, and senior foreign affairs and privy council staff.
The U.S. request asked that Canada "remain open to reconsidering its plan to withdraw combat forces after 2011" or at a minimum, keep reconstruction and training teams in Kandahar past the date.
Morin stressed that Harper in his public comments had so far "been clear on the 2011 position." But U.S. officials surmised that "intervention at the highest level might get the Prime Minister to show his cards."
The cable goes on to say that the April 2 request "likely went straight to the Prime Minister's party in Strasbourg," where world leaders were gearing up for a two-day NATO summit.
"Canadian officials probably spent the night struggling to formulate a response," U.S. officials mused.
American officials were also well aware that the very act of issuing the formal request had complicated Harper's public response on Afghanistan.
Until that point, Harper had repeatedly responded to questions about possible extensions by brushing them off with the comment that the U.S. had made no specific request of Canada.
After the U.S. request, that line would no longer work.
In the end, at the Strasbourg NATO summit, countries promised to send 5,000 non-combat troops to train Afghanistan's police and army, but Canada did not commit any additional troops.
However, months later, in late 2009, the government began openly discussing the possibility of extending Canada's role in Afghanistan past the 2011 date in a non-combat capacity.
The U.S. diplomatic cable also quotes then Liberal defense critic Bob Rae as telling an American official that "no prime minister could make a decision to extend a combat role beyond 2011 until after the next election." (Agencies)