By: David Pugliese, The Ottawa Citizen
NATO is asking Canada to once again send troops to Afghanistan to help deal with the resurgence of the Taliban.
The request will be on the agenda at the May 25 NATO summit in Brussels, to be attended by U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said a request has been received from alliance commanders in Afghanistan for several thousand more soldiers to help shore up Afghan forces who are struggling to deal with the resurgent Taliban. Estimates suggest the Islamic fundamentalist group, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until the U.S.-led NATO invasion of 2001, is now back in control of or a major presence in about 40 per cent of the country.
“It will continue to be a train, assist and advise operation,” Stoltenberg said. “We are now looking into requests regarding some areas like more education, for the military academies, but also training special operation forces and air forces.”
The office of Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan did not comment on whether the NATO request had been received yet or whether it had already been rejected by the Canadian government. “We are not tracking a request,” Sajjan’s spokesperson Jordan Owens said in an statement emailed Friday.
But Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirmed Friday he has received such a request from NATO and is considering sending more troops. Although Australia is not a NATO nation, it has about 300 soldiers in the country training and advising Afghan forces.
Germany’s government indicated it too had received a request from NATO but would not send additional soldiers. German troops are already in northern Afghanistan.
In March 2014 Canada ended its military involvement in the Afghan war, which cost the lives of 158 Canadian soldiers. A Canadian diplomat, two civilian contractors and a journalist were also killed. More than 2,000 soldiers were injured.
A handful of Canadian military personnel are currently deployed in the country to provide security at the Canadian embassy in Kabul. “The number of CAF members deployed is limited, and in order to maintain operational security and ensure the safety of Canadian Armed Forces personnel, no further information is available at this time,” Department of National Defence spokesman Evan Koronewski said Friday.
There are slightly more than 13,000 coalition and NATO soldiers now in Afghanistan, involved mainly in training. Of those around 7,000 are from the U.S.
Another 1,500 U.S. special forces are operating in the country as well, conducting combat missions against the Taliban as well as those aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Trump is currently examining a recommendation that could see between 2,000 and 5,000 additional U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan. He has yet to make a decision. White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said Friday that Trump will have the opportunity to hear from allies during his trip to the NATO summit and the upcoming gathering of G7 nations. McMaster said that Trump understands that “America first does not mean America alone.”
In February, Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told Congress that America and its NATO allies are facing a “stalemate” in Afghanistan as the Taliban gain more ground. He noted he needed a “few thousand” soldiers to act as advisors to the Afghan military.
Afghan security forces are still plagued by weak leadership and corruption.
Several weeks ago John Sopko, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, told Congress that casualties being suffered by Afghan security forces were “shockingly high.”
In the first six weeks of 2017, 807 Afghan security personnel were killed and more than 1,300 wounded. Civilian casualties had also increased to the highest on record since the United Nations started documenting them in 2009, Sopko said.
Australia’s Turnbull said Friday he is carefully reviewing the NATO request. “We are certainly open to increasing our work there, but we’ve obviously got to look at the commitments of the Australian Defense Force in other parts of the region and indeed in other parts of the world,” he told journalists. “It is very important that we continue — we and our other allies in the effort in Afghanistan — continue to work together,” he added.
U.S. intelligence official Dan Coats told Congress on Thursday that the Taliban are making gains and warned that the situation will get worse over the coming year. “Afghanistan will almost certainly deteriorate through 2018 even with a modest increase in military assistance by the United States and its partners,” Coats said. “Afghan security forces performance will probably worsen due to a combination of Taliban operations, combat casualties, desertion, poor logistics support and weak leadership.”