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Economy to dominate Harper's meeting with Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrive for a joint news conference during his one-day visit to Ottawa on Feb. 19, 2009.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

International support for the war in Afghanistan is at a crossroads, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper's aides say he will hold his counsel on the mission's future when he visits Barack Obama at the White House this week.

The economy, the inevitable No. 1 issue for both leaders, will dominate the hour-long meeting. But the elephant in the room will be Afghanistan and the cracks in international resolve to back the mission.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Harper will confine discussion of Afghanistan to a short review of the situation there, according to the PM's spokesman, Dimitri Soudas. And although the U.S. President is in the throes of a domestic debate about whether to commit more troops or seek to exit what some are warning will be his Vietnam, Mr. Harper will save his counsel for Afghanistan's future.

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"I'd say that the best forum for that discussion to take place is NATO," Mr. Soudas said. "The economy, and the clean-energy dialogue, will dominate the discussions. Primarily the economy."

In Canada, Liberal Senator Colin Kenny, usually one of his party's hawks, broke ranks this week on a bipartisan deal, arguing that Canadian troops should withdraw from combat operations before the scheduled 2011 date or risk a "Vietnam ending."

Those warnings have reverberated in London, Berlin and Washington, accelerated by fears that the taint of election fraud on Afghan President Hamid Karzai has crippled his legitimacy, and the mission's.

Canada used to argue that other NATO countries had to stiffen their resolve and contribute more to the combat in Afghanistan. As Canadian Forces suffered heavy losses in the country's dangerous south, the U.S. sometimes pointed to Canadian commitment as an example for other allies.

Canada's negotiated political deal to stay until 2011, then withdraw from combat, tempered that zeal, but it remained the nation's foreign-policy priority. Now Mr. Harper is playing down the issue as international commitment grows shakier - hastened by the widespread allegations of electoral fraud against Mr. Karzai.

"It's really thrown the whole premise of the mission off the rails, which was that you stabilize the security situation so that the democratic political process, economic reconstruction and all of that can move forward," said Fen Hampson, director of Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

"It's quite clear that nobody, even our own government, really has a clear idea of how you move forward."

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It's hardly surprising that Mr. Harper's PMO does not want to play up discussion of Afghanistan's future, Mr. Hampson said. The war is unpopular, deeply so in Quebec, and election fraud has soured that more. "The support for the two-years-from-now exit option is eroding," he said.

Mr. Kenny, a vocal figure on security and defence issues, echoed that sentiment in an essay this week. "What we hoped to accomplish in Afghanistan has proved to be impossible," he wrote.

There have been similar defections in other capitals. British MP Eric Joyce, a former army major, resigned as parliamentary secretary to Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth because his government lacked an exit strategy; in Germany, Angela Merkel's Social Democrat Coalition partners will make troop reductions an election issue. Mr. Obama is facing Democrats in Congress who warn a surge of troops is unpopular with the public.

"We may not be the only ones out in 2011," said Colin Robertson, a former senior Canadian diplomat in Washington now on leave to research Canada-U.S. relations. "For Obama, that's an election year."

That political pressure alone is one reason some experts believe Mr. Obama will in fact question Mr. Harper about Afghanistan behind closed doors. The U.S. President will ask Mr. Harper how he neutralized the issue with a 2011 exit date, Mr. Robertson predicted.

"It's Obama turning to Harper and saying, 'You've got some experience here. … You found the exit ramp. Any advice?' "

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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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