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Canada's combat missions need clear - not muddy - goals

The last act of the Canadian combat mission in Kandahar - a formal change of command - comes Thursday as another war is already under way. The lesson that Canada, the United States and Western countries seem to have drawn from Afghanistan is about the size of the military footprint, rather than matching it to clear goals.

Ottawa, like Washington, is telling a war-weary public that ground troops won't be sent to Libya. But the mission has crept. It's not just the size and shape of a military role that matters, but whether there are clear goals, and whether we possess the means to achieve them.

Both questions will matter in Canada, not just because Canadian Forces already have a new mission in Libya, but because our alliances, and Ottawa's attitude to them, are changing.

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Look at how Barack Obama described the future when he announced reductions in U.S. forces in Afghanistan: The United States won't always respond to threats by deploying large armies overseas, but will instead "rally international action," he said, pointing to Libya, "where we do not have a single soldier on the ground."

In an interview with Maclean's this week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada will have to do more. "The world is becoming more complex, and the ability of our most important allies, and most importantly the United States, to single-handedly shape outcomes and protect our interests, has been diminishing, and so I'm saying we have to be prepared to contribute more, and that is what this government's been doing."

Canadian influence, he said, means not just having a military, but using it: "If capabilities are just in the freezer all the time, then they're not really capabilities, right?"

But playing a bigger role is no substitute for setting goals and deciding whether Canada, and its allies, have committed the resources to achieve them. Canadians have to test the logic of the wars, not just the logic of alliances.

A big reason the Canadian Forces went to Kandahar was pressure from allies, and a desire to play a bigger role, according to Eugene Lang, the former chief of staff to Liberal defence ministers Bill Graham and John McCallum, and co-author of The Unexpected War. General Rick Hillier argued persuasively that the Canadian Forces could play a key role, a hard one that would win credit, and ease pressure on the United States (by then in Iraq).

But in Kandahar today, Brigadier-General Dean Milner will hand command to a U.S. general, two days after Canadian troops turned over battlefields to American forces. It will be almost six years since Canadian soldiers went in August of 2005 to set up shop for a battle group that arrived in December. That wasn't the initial plan.

"It was never supposed to be a long-term thing," Mr. Lang said. "The budget was for 12 months."

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There was miscalculation. The United States thought the war was mostly over. Canadian Forces didn't expect the revived Taliban it faced in 2006, or the lasting insurgency after.

But since 2007, it has been clear the Canadian Forces numbers on the ground weren't enough for counterinsurgency and nation-building. They were holding ground for reinforcements that didn't really arrive until the 2010 U.S. surge, after American operations in Iraq started to wind down.

But the muddy objectives in Afghanistan kept shifting. First it was limited to hunting al-Qaeda and dislodging the Taliban. Then it was peacekeeping to stabilize the country, then fighting a counterinsurgency which really required tens of thousands more troops, mixed in with establishing democracy and sending girls to school. But the surge came almost nine years after the Taliban fell. Now, the goal is to build enough Afghan forces and broker a deal with the Taliban.

In Parliament, political parties cut deals to extend the Afghan mission though they disagreed on it: many Liberals portrayed the 2008 extension as the end of Canadian combat. The same thing happened on Libya, where the NDP disagreed with regime-change-by-air-strikes while Conservatives all-but-officially embrace it. Instead of creating consensus on the goals, it has muddied them by neutering debate, University of Ottawa defence analyst Philippe Lagassé argues.

Libya is not Afghanistan, but it's also got muddy goals that shifted from a no-fly zone to stop massacres to ousting Moammar Gadhafi by bombing Tripoli. It's not clear whether air strikes alone will accomplish the goal, and there's no discussion of an end game. Even if Col. Gadhafi is ousted, Libya could still splinter into chaos - placing pressure on allies to send ground troops to stabilize it.

The conundrum for Canada is that in seeking to play a bigger role as an ally, and in the world, it still can't determine the broader military strategy - but one lesson must be that a mission needs clear goals, and confidence that allies are committing the means to get there.

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Campbell Clark writes about foreign affairs from Ottawa

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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