By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
OTTAWA–The Conservative government was exploring ways to have Canadian military trainers work with Afghan security forces in Russia as part of a wider plan to significantly downgrade Canadian involvement in Afghanistan and shift focus to the rebuilding of Haiti, according to “confidential” U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by APTN National News.
The cables show that in early 2010 U.S. officials expected the Stephen Harper government to basically end Canada’s Afghanistan mission by the end of 2011.
This past November, however, the Conservative government announced that about 950 Canadian troops would remain in Afghanistan until 2014 as part of a training mission. The training mission is expected to cost about $700 million a year.
APTN National News obtained hundreds of secret and confidential U.S. diplomatic cables from whistleblower website WikiLeaks.
CBC-Radio Canada also obtained the same batch of cables.
WikiLeaks also recently released a large number of unclassified diplomatic cables on its website from the U.S. embassy and consulates across Canada.
Steven Staples, of the Rideau Institute think-tank, said these latest cables show the “dramatic a shift in position” Harper took when the government decided to stay on in Afghanistan as part of the training mission.
“The U.S. had every expectation that there would be only some financial assistance and a soldier guarding the Canadian embassy,” said Staples.
U.S. officials were preparing for Canada to not only withdraw most of its troops from Afghanistan, but also scale back its financial assistance to the country, according to the diplomatic cables.
One of the cables said that the Harper cabinet considered three options on the future of Canada’s role in the Afghan mission. The options were described as “small, medium, and large” roles. The cable said cabinet chose the “small role” as its preferred option.
U.S. officials were also told Canada wanted to focus its efforts to improving the porous Afghan-Pakistan border which allows Taliban militants to cross back and forth with ease.
“Canada will not only end its military mission in Afghanistan in 2011 but will likely significantly scale back its assistance after 2011 and offer only relatively modest contributions to Afghan Trust Funds. A top priority is likely to be the Afghan-Pakistan border programs,” said the cable, dated Feb. 18, 2010. “With growing concerns over budget deficits … Canadian leaders will be loathe to make any new generous commitments for Afghanistan in what is already an unpopular cause within Canada.”
The cable said the trust funds included assistance for the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police and the Reconciliation fund.
U.S. officials were told Canada wanted to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year, except for whatever was needed to provide security at the Canadian embassy in Kabul.
The Canadian government didn’t even want military trainers to remain in Afghanistan and was hoping to find a way to train Afghan forces in a third country, the cables show.
One of the cables is based on a conversation between U.S. officials from the Ottawa embassy and Regan Watts, a senior policy adviser to former foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon.
“Watts promised to explore the option of providing trainers for the Afghan National Security Forces, but wondered about whether it might be possible to offer such training after 2011 in a third country, i.e. Russia,” said the cable.
Canada has since committed to keeping soldiers in Afghanistan as part of the training mission.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay said earlier this year that Canada had no plans to remain in Kandahar after the end of the year, but that officials were exploring training options in less volatile parts of the country.
In April, the Canadian military said most of its trainers and support troops would be stationed in Kabul and a few would be sent to Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, The Canadian Press reported.
The same cable also notes that Canada wanted to make Haiti, which was devastated by an earthquake last year, its top foreign policy priority, instead of Afghanistan.
“Watts also noted that Canadian officials increasingly viewed Haiti as overtaking Afghanistan as its main foreign policy priority (after relations with the U.S.),” the cable said. “And its major assistance recipient, especially in light of post-earthquake rehabilitation. Haiti is currently the second largest recipient of Canadian aid.”
Staples said the focus on Haiti may have been more productive in the end.
“One has to wonder about opportunity costs of the Afghanistan extension,” said Staples. “Would we be doing more in Haiti today had we not taken on the new Afghan military mission?”
Staples said the Liberals played a key role in the government’s ultimate decision to stay in Afghanistan.
“The Liberals can either take the credit or accept the blame for the extension of the Afghanistan military mission,” he said. “Had they not applied public pressure on the government, it appears that Canadian troops would all be returning to Canada this summer. Instead, hundreds will be involved in dangerous training missions throughout Afghanistan.”
U.S. officials at the time, however, weren’t thinking about the Liberals, but hoping a Conservative majority government would lead to a sharp change in Canada’s Afghanistan plans, the cables show.
“Absent a federal election in which the Conservatives win an actual majority, a significant and positive change in the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan, and/or a formal U.S./NATO request for Canada to remain post-2011 in some military capacity, the likelihood at present is that Canada will withdraw on schedule as gracefully as possible,” said one of the cables, dated Jan. 4, 2010. “Some Conservatives as well as defense officials and media commentaries have already begun to express concern that the Canadian military pullout will diminish whatever special attention and consideration Canada has received from the U.S. and NATO as a result of its sacrifices in Kandahar.”