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Afghan President Hamid Karzai, left, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown speak in London.

It was visible in the protesters preparing to take to the streets of London dressed as the leaders of Britain, Germany, the United States, France and Japan. Canada's role in Afghanistan, it seemed, was too minor to be mocked.

It was audible in the words of Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon, who seemed to have been taken by surprise by the key idea to be tabled at today's high-level conference on the Afghan war - a proposal by President Hamid Karzai to create an international fund to pay Taliban fighters and leaders to join the government.

And it was visible in the list of promises. While other countries were promising hundreds of extra troops, tens of millions of dollars in aid and commitments of money to the Taliban fund, and ideas to the plan for the war's final transition to an Afghan army, Canadian officials acknowledged they weren't bringing anything to the 63-nation conference.

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"I am anxious to see what President Karzai will put forward ... we will make a determination on that as to whether this is a plan with which we can work," Mr. Cannon said yesterday. "We need to come back to Canada and give these ideas serious consideration."

In short, Canada is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the Afghanistan debate.

With Canada planning to end its combat role in the summer of 2011, the war's end game has become a matter for the big powers. Briefings by officials from Britain and the United States did not mention Canadian contributions to the debate about the mission's future.

In contrast, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a $70-million contribution to Mr. Karzai's proposed organization to bring moderate branches of the Taliban into the government and army. Ms. Merkel also added about 800 soldiers to Germany's NATO force in northern Afghanistan, bringing their strength to more than 5,000. French President Nicolas Sarkozy disappointed the United States by refusing to raise France's current 3,000-troop commitment to bolster the 30,000 U.S. Marines who are fighting in a one-year "surge" designed to stabilize the south.

Unlike larger and more militarized countries, Canada has neither the troops nor the financial capacity to expand its Afghan role. And politics also seem to get in the way of a larger contribution: An aide to Mr. Cannon said yesterday that many of the spending commitments and strategic proposals made by the likes of Ms. Merkel and Mr. Sarkozy would require the approval of a parliamentary committee - an impossibility while the House of Commons is prorogued by order of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Numerically, Canada has visibly lost its clout: In 2006, its 2,500 soldiers made up 13 per cent of the NATO force; today, Canada contributes little more than 3 per cent of the 84,000 troops in Afghanistan and has moved from commanding the province of Kandahar to sharing responsibility for a single district. The battle effectively became Americanized as the large-scale coalition became unwieldy and failed to contain the expansion of the Taliban.

It is not that Canada has lost respect. In fact, many NATO allies, including British military leaders, say privately that they believe Canada's withdrawal plans are wise, as there is deep skepticism that the U.S. plan to have a military surge and then transfer power to a retrained Afghan National Army will be successful.

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But it does seem that Canada has lost influence, especially in the debate over the war's end game.

U.S. officials expressed their dismay yesterday that Canada and the Netherlands - and possibly other NATO partners - will be withdrawing in 2011, when U.S. strategists are suggesting that a five-year commitment may be needed.

"2010 is clearly is the year in which we are either going to turn the corner and move in a fundamentally different direction and succeed or not ... so it is the time of maximum effort," Ivo Daadler, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said. "This is therefore not the time to start decreasing effort. It is to maintain, if not expand, the effort."

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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