Will Canuck forces be dispatched to do U.S. dirty work in Pakistan tribal areas next? Photo By Murray Brewster/ CP Photo
With the social justice mantras of the U.S. Democratic National Convention still swirling, it's easy to forget that a Republican administration wouldn't be the only one exerting hawkish pressures on Canada.
Just last week, Senator Jack Reed a Democrat from Rhode Island, became the second Obama adviser to urge Canada and other NATO allies to rustle up more soldiers for the mission in Afghanistan.
The big question is, with both presidential candidates pumping an Iraq-style surge in that country, a potentially disastrous scenario, can Canada keep its promise of a military pullout in 2011?
The situation is particularly troubling given that the withdrawal timetable resulted from a Tory/Lib consensus, so the Afghanistan issue may not get much airtime in Canada's own looming electoral countdown.
"No matter what happens in the U.S. election, there's going to be pressure on Canada to carry on beyond 2011, and there will be much less room to manoeuvre," says defence analyst Steven Staples, who heads the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute.
The Pentagon's move to solidify the separate U.S. and NATO command under American military leadership is not a good omen for an independent Canadian stance, says Staples.
"The problem is, the U.S. is waging a counter-insurgency war when other countries in NATO are trying to rebuild the country," he says
But despite the "war on terror" rhetoric raging in both presidential camps, York U. prof James Laxer, author of the recently published Mission Of Folly: Why Canada Should Bring Its Troops Home From Afghanistan, thinks the U.S. will find itself retreating from both Iraq and Afghanistan due to severe economic pressures stemming from military efforts.
"If Obama pulls back, it will be seen as a great change that came from American liberalism and a new kind of American politics; if McCain does it, he will be seen as the new Nixon," says Laxer.
"The geo-strategy of the United States is going to end up changing rather fundamentally no matter which of these guys wins," he says.
Laxer is upset by the absence of a meaningful debate in Canada over the mission.
"What amazes me is that there has been very, very little effective opposition to the war in this country," he says. "I find [Jack Layton and the NDP] have been very ineffective and pretty mealy-mouthed. I mean, having taken [a position against the war], they don't repeat it very often. And they haven't done a lot with it."
Ironically, he argues, if the Canadian election were held a year from now, Stephen Harper would be much more vulnerable to charges that he is a neo-con anachronism, given the shift away from interventionism he sees happening in Washington. "I think Harper is actually out of step with the fundamental currents of American politics."
Meanwhile, south of the border, progressives haven't been too noisy on Afghanistan, either because they have been overwhelmed by the mess in Iraq or are channelling their efforts into Internet campaigns for U.S. political candidates - as in Moveon.org's support for Obama.
Still, the "other war" is starting to get more attention. Tom Engelhardt, the creator and editor of The Nation-magazine-affiliated website TomDispatch, points to a virtual consensus in Washington on expanding the American presence in Afghanistan and winding down the one in Iraq.
Obama's promise of two new brigades in Afghanistan and tough talk of attacking the tribal border areas in Pakistan, with or without Islamabad's permission, makes the new political icon just part of the pack, Engelhardt says.
"Obama has picked up the framework of the global war on terror; of course, he is just going to prosecute it better."
It's noteworthy that the author of the 2002 Bonn agreement that ushered in Kabul's Karzai government and reputedly the leading academic expert on Afghanistan, professor Barnett Rubin of New York University, declines to comment. The reason? He's an adviser to the Obama campaign, one of a reported 300 foreign policy experts tapped by the Democratic presidential candidate.
Rubin's influence will be interesting to watch, says Afghan expert Mark Sedra of the University of Waterloo, since the NYU prof is critical of the failure, following the overthrow of the Taliban, to include all of the forces, including "spoiler and insurgent groups," in the new Kabul government.
Sedra himself opposes Obama's call for direct U.S. and NATO intervention in Pakistan, suggesting that the new government in Islamabad has to be given a chance to pursue a more political approach to local Taliban in the regions bordering Afghanistan.
"I think the rhetoric that Pakistan has done nothing is also wrong. I mean, 4,000 to 5,000 Pakistani troops have died fighting militants in the federal-administered tribal areas. I don't think that is nothing."
We don't want to let John McCain off the hook, though. The Republican presidential nominee has been so focused on the U.S. winning the war in Iraq that he hasn't been forthcoming about his position on Afghanistan, beyond echoing calls for increased U.S. and NATO forces.
Obama proposes to exchange a bad war for a supposedly good war, as he revealed in his summer op ed in the New York Times.
"Ending the war is essential to meeting our broader strategic goals, starting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban is resurgent and al Qaeda has a safe haven. Iraq is not the central front in the war on terrorism, and it never has been."
But the Democratic presidential nominee has got himself in a rhetorical bind that could tie his hands when it comes to pursuing a negotiated settlement that incorporates Taliban elements in a Kabul government, says University of Michigan history prof Juan Cole, an expert on the Muslim world and editor of the Informed Comment website.
"Obama keeps saying Taliban and al Qaeda [in the same breath], and so there is this failure to understand that the Taliban are a territorial ethnic nationalist movement with a strong religious component," says Cole.
If the U.S. follows Obama's recommendations, it will up the number of U.S./NATO troops in Afghanistan to about 82,000, Cole notes, approaching the 1980s Soviet level of 100,000 - an earlier failed intervention.