Generals, diplomats, politicians and troops in Afghanistan

Leaked news that Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, is urging President Barack Obama to think twice about sending more troops to the troubled country makes for some interesting discussion about the ways diplomats and generals sometimes try to publicly pressure their political masters.

Eikenberry, himself a retired three-star general, seems to be pushing back against the media campaign of Gen. Stanley McChyrstal, the top U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, whose own pleas for many more U.S. troops to be sent to help him against the Taliban were leaked earlier this fall. Eikenberry reportedly argues that Obama should wait for clear signs of reform on the part of the Afghan government before more American soldiers are committed.

It’s often useful to get the message out in the press. Politicians listen in a different way once debate is open. In that vein, it’s fascinating to listen to Gen. Walter Natynczyk telling CBC radio’s James Cudmore about his plans for pulling all Canada’s troops out of Afghanistan in 2011.

The general might just be describing what he’s up to. Or he might be sending the message to his political masters that if they have any other post-2011 plans, they’d better start explaining what they are.

Natynczyk is far clearer than Defence Minister Peter MacKay or PMO spokesman Dimitri Soudas have been on this subject. MacKay and Soudas have both vaguely suggested that troops might stay on in some non-combat role after 2011. The general says that would only be a very few officers, as part of Canada’s embassy staff in Kabul.

And he says that in starting the planning process for a complete withdrawal, he’s merely complying with the motion passed by the House of Commons on March 13, 2008. “The parliamentary motion directs that it will be the end of the military mission in July of 2011,” he says. “Those are the words that are there.”

Actually, those aren’t precisely the words. The House stipulated that “the government of Canada notify NATO that Canada will end its presence in Kandahar as of July 2011, and, as of that date, the redeployment of Canadian Forces troops out of Kandahar and their replacement by Afghan forces start as soon as possible, so that it will have been completed by December 2011.”

The important point here is that only Canada’s “presence in Kandahar” must end. Obviously, that leaves open the possibility, at least in theory, of Canadian troops moving to some other, presumably less dangerous, part of Afghanistan.

Perhaps that would be a waste of hard-earned Canadian expertise on the ground in Kandahar. But a smaller role for fewer Canadian troops elsewhere is far from inconceivable. For example, clearly much more security is going to be needed in Kabul, following the shocking attack on a UN residence there.