Canada has threatened to pull its troops from insurgency-plagued southern Afghanistan unless NATO allies send reinforcements. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose Conservative minority government faces increasing opposition in parliament, said NATO's reputation was on the line. The mandate for 2,500 Canadian troops deployed in Kandahar Province, a Taliban stronghold, is set to expire next year.
Last week, an independent panel chaired by John Manley, a former Liberal deputy prime minister and foreign minister, advised Mr. Harper that the mandate should be extended provided another NATO country sends 1,000 troops to Kandahar, reports the Associated Press. The panel also demanded more helicopters and surveillance aircraft for the mission.
NATO has 42,000 troops in Afghanistan. One-third are from the US, in addition to a separate US combat mission. Troops in the south and east of the country have borne the brunt of escalating Taliban violence.
Other NATO allies with forces already deployed in southern Afghanistan include Britain, the US, the Netherlands, and Denmark, The Times of London reports. However, "national caveats" have prevented other allies from switching troops from less-troubled areas to insurgency hot spots. Since 2002, 78 Canadian soldiers and one diplomat have died in Afghanistan.
The Winnipeg Sun reports that Stephane Dion, Canada's Liberal Party leader, opposes the panel's recommendations and will turn up the pressure on Harper's Conservative government. The Liberals want Canada to stop fighting the Taliban in Kandahar and concentrate instead on training and equipping Afghan security forces.
Dissatisfaction over Canada's slowing economy is also costing Harper support in parliament, potentially triggering early elections, reports Bloomberg. Harper has promised to hold a vote on the NATO mission extension, as well as introduce a supplementary budget amid growing criticism over fiscal policy. Under parliamentary protocol, a budget defeat represents a no-confidence vote.
Support among Canadians for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan has dropped by seven points since last October, to 37 percent, in a poll conducted after the release of the panel's recommendations, reports Canada.com. The number of Canadians willing to extend the mission if it shifts to a noncombat role rose by five points to 45 percent. Only 14 percent want to stick with the current combat mission.
The friction over NATO troop levels comes as the Afghan government rebuffs the appointment of a prominent British diplomat to head the United Nations mission in Kabul while also serving as a NATO representative. Paddy Ashdown, a veteran British politician, headed the UN mission to Bosnia in 2002-05 and was promoted as a "super envoy." But his candidacy was opposed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who reportedly feared the creation of a Western "viceroy" who could undercut his administration, which is frequently accused of being a pawn of Western powers.
The Financial Times reports that Britain and the US have lobbied for months to install a senior statesman in Kabul to coordinate international development and security efforts in Afghanistan. But, on Sunday, Mr. Ashdown formally withdrew his candidacy, saying he lacked political support.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday she regretted that Ashdown wouldn't fill the post, saying a "stable figure" was needed, Agence France-Presse reports.
Mr. Karzai sharply criticized the role of British troops in restless Helmand province last week, The Times of London reported. He said Britain's insistence on replacing the provincial governor was a mistake that played into the hands of the Taliban.
Relations between Karzai and NATO countries, particularly Britain, have also been frayed by Afghan civilian casualties from coalition raids on militants, says Asia Times Online. By rejecting Ashdown at the 11th hour, Karzai has turned the table on domestic critics and has signaled that he will not be bypassed by impatient foreign powers. Karzai may fear for his political future amid speculation that the US ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, an ethnic Afghan, might consider a run as president of Afghanistan, according to the author, a retired Indian diplomat.
The BBC says that Afghanistan has proposed a British Army general as an alternative for the post. Gen. John McColl is currently NATO commander in Europe. However, the UN is unlikely to accept a serving military officer to take a civilian job. In its analysis, the BBC argues that the international community wants someone in Kabul with a proven track record in trouble spots and a forceful personality, qualifications that Ashdown had. But his clout in dealing with Western allies posed a threat to Afghan elites.