when it comes to canada's mili-tary involvement in Afghanistan, the feds have been performing a delicate balancing act from the word go. They're taking care to be seen as doing their part in the coalition's "war on terrorism," while remaining sensitive to the fact that the public is not completely sure that Canada should be involved in the first place.So when word leaked out last week that the feds were preparing to deploy ground troops -- a 1,000-strong unit composed of three rifle companies -- Defence Minister Art Eggleton moved quickly to assure Canadians that the "combat-capable troops" would only be providing "short-term stabilization in certain areas" to allow humanitarian aid into Afghanistan.
When Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley suggested in subsequent news reports that he couldn't see how the troops would be able to avoid combat situations -- especially in Afghanistan, where diplomacy is usually conducted behind the barrel of a Kalashnikov -- Eggleton countered that the soldiers would be pulled out at the first hint of trouble.
Some observers suggest that the mixed messages from Ottawa are deliberate -- an attempt to gauge just how willing the Canadian public is to put our soldiers in harm's way. Others are disgusted that Canada agreed to a crude bombing campaign that destablized Afghanistan are are now dithering over whether it will bear the human costs of remaking the peace.
"I have it on solid authority that the guys are going in to fight," says Howard Michitsch, a former member of the armed forces and military analyst at Esprit de Corps magazine. "They're taking all the toys. They're putting themselves in the mindset that, if required, they're going to have to kill people."
It wouldn't be the first time since the September 11 attacks that the Grits have floated a trial balloon. On the issue of establishing a security perimeter around North America, for example, the feds seemed moved by public opinion polls -- they were first for, then against, then for again.
Observers say the constant to-ing and fro-ing suggests Ottawa doesn't have a clear game plan when it comes to Afghanistan. Critics say they don't get the sense that the powers that be in the PMO knew what they were getting into when they signed on to the U.S.-led campaign. Even some of those sympathetic to the government's dilemma share this view.
"They seem to be pushed in one direction or another, depending on how people are reacting," says Stephane Roussel, an expert in international studies and Canada-U.S. relations at Glendon College.
Canada, says Roussel, is still trying "to find its place in the post-September 11 political arrangement," a situation complicated by Canada's relationship to the U.S.
"We want to be viewed as a very loyal ally; we're insulted when President Bush forgets to mention Canada in his speech," Roussel says. "But we don't want the U.S. to pay too much attention. If they start to think that Canada is part of the problem, we're going to be in a very tough situation. It's hard to find the line."
Eggleton has been doing a lot of reassuring ever since he became defence minister.
Truth is, the defence department has never been so plagued by indecision, even in its most recent peacekeeping efforts, partly because of deep divisions in the cabinet and partly because of money problems.
Canada, for example, was among the last of the western allies to commit troops to Bosnia. Another peacekeeping commitment in Eritrea and Ethiopia was cut short. The prime minister's pledge to lead a peacekeeping effort in the Congo was quickly reversed after higher-ups in the defence department warned that Canada was not prepared.
In military circles, "Fort Fumble" is the not-so-affectionate label critics have slapped on the PMO.
"You kind of wonder if the left hand knows what the right hand is doing," says retired brigadier general Jim Hanson, an associate executive director with the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies.
Last week's dithering over ground troops in Afghanistan seems particularly ill-considered.
For starters, Canada doesn't have the lift capability to fly the troops and equipment into the mountainous nation. And while France is sending its air assault brigade and Germany its mountain troops -- both special forces units -- the infantry unit Canada will deploy is not well suited or trained, observers say, for the terrain in Afghanistan.
Making the proposition of an Afghan campaign dicier for Canadian troops is the fact that the war is not a conventional one between two opposing forces. There are at least a half-dozen warring factions.
The feds are talking about a six-month deployment. The UN says it will take at least two and a half years to set up a government.
John Thompson, executive director of conservative think-tank the Mackenzie Institute, says the Grits have a record of "sending troops into countries without understanding what local conditions are like." Think Somalia.
"Even something as innocuous as delivering humanitarian aid," he says, "is not likely to be accomplished without combat."
David Mutimer, a professor of international studies at York University, says Canada simply doesn't have the wherewithal to become involved in peacekeeping missions long-term any more, and shouldn't feel pressure from its international allies to do so. "Really, the Americans don't need us," he says.
Bill Graham, the Grits' Foreign Affairs Committee chair, says if there are mixed messages coming out of Ottawa, it's not due to a political vacuum or the absence of a clear game plan at the top. Rather, it's because "Afghanistan is a very confused place. The political dimensions are complex. The military situation is highly volatile. This is high-combustion territory."
If anything, says Graham, the perception of confusion around Canada's involvement in Afghanistan is really symptomatic of healthy debate.
"It wouldn't make sense to have such a rigid game plan that it didn't recognize that we're looking at a very fluid situation. Three weeks ago nobody thought this (the routing of the Taliban) was going to happen." The feds didn't have much time to think about that eventuality. The troops, meanwhile, are poised to go in any day.