The 2011 Afghanistan exit date: carved in snow

Everybody agrees that President Barack Obama didn’t put any pressure on Canadian politicians today to rethink Canada’s planned withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2011.

Yet from both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, answers on the question of the exit date were far from emphatic. It’s reasonable to conclude that both are open to being persuaded to extend the mission. If they aren’t, they would have been firmer about sticking to the 2011 timetable.

This is a top-of-mind issue for U.S. journalists, since Obama just ordered 17,000 more American troops be sent to Afghanistan. Here’s what Harper had to say when the sticky 2011 date was raised at today’s news conference by an American reporter:

“Just very quickly, as you probably know, it was just last year that we were able to get through Parliament a bipartisan resolution extending our military engagement in Afghanistan for an additional close to four years at that point. As we move forward, we anticipate an even greater engagement on economic development. That’s part of the strategy that we adopted. I would just say this. You know obviously we’re operating within a parliamentary resolution. I would just say this. In terms of the United States looking at its own future engagement, we are highly appreciative of the fact the United States is going to be a partner with us on the ground in Kandahar.”

It’s not the first time that Harper has cast the 2011 exit date as primarily a matter of what Parliament decided, as opposed to clearly stating that it’s a policy he and his government wholeheartedly supports. So what if Parliament changed its mind?

On that question, we turn to the leader of the second largest contingent of MPs in the Commons. Asked what he would do if Obama persuaded Harper that Canada should prolong its military mission in Afghanistan, here’s what Ignatieff said: “We cross that bridge when we come to it. We are bound by the parliamentary resolution.”

He went on to remark that Canada could continue working in Afghanistan after 2011 on development, diplomatic, political and strategic fronts. He also mentioned that Obama didn’t press him on the exit date in their half-hour meeting. However, Ignatieff didn’t say anything that sounded like he regards the matter as closed.

“The position of the party stays where it is,” he said, “and we’ll cross whatever bridges we have to cross when we have to cross them and not before.”

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