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U.S. Afghanistan debate curbs Gates on Canada visit

Defense Secretary Robert Gates attends a conference but, with the Obama administration wrestling over its Afghan strategy, isn't in a position to push Canada to reconsider a troop withdrawal plan.

November 21, 2009|By Julian E. Barnes
  • Speaking in Halifax, Canada, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, seen here the day before at the Pentagon, called Afghanistan an effort requiring more sacrifice.
Speaking in Halifax, Canada, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, seen… (Michael Reynolds / European…)

Reporting from Halifax, Canada — As the Obama administration wrestles over its new Afghanistan strategy, the domestic debate is having far-reaching implications for the United States' ties with its allies in the war.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was in Canada on Friday as part of an effort to strengthen the alliance with a partner considered vital to the war effort.

But with the U.S. strategy still undecided, Gates was hardly in a position to ask Canada to reconsider or modify its decision to withdraw its 2,800 troops by 2011. Instead, the trip to Halifax, in the Maritime province of Nova Scotia, was billed by officials as more an effort to build goodwill over the long term.

Gates arrived in the midst of a national furor over the conduct of Canadian troops in Afghanistan. A senior Canadian diplomat has charged that the country's troops handed military prisoners over to Afghanistan's intelligence service, under which they faced a high likelihood of torture.

The outcome of the debate over those charges could help determine Canada's decision on its troops, who are concentrated in Kandahar province. Southern Afghanistan is the birthplace of the Taliban movement, and Kandahar, the region's main city, is a key strategic target of the insurgency. In the short term, it is Canada that is looking for reinforcements for its mission.

Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay said more allied forces were needed to help secure Kandahar, but did not specify U.S. troops.

"It is fair to say there is an expectation that all NATO countries will up their game," MacKay said at a news conference with Gates. "There are a number of ways they can contribute, but what is needed right now is combat soldiers."

Because of Kandahar's importance to the Taliban, Canadian forces have seen fierce fighting. Canada has lost more than 130 troops, proportionately one of the highest fatality tolls of any allied nation.

"In Afghanistan, the Canadian military has more than distinguished itself in battle in some of the most dangerous parts of the country," Gates said Friday in a speech to the Halifax International Security Forum, an international conference.

Public sentiment in Canada has turned against the Afghanistan mission. Still, U.S. officials believe that with improvements in Kandahar and the surrounding area in the next year, Canada might be more open to extending its stay.

U.S. officials consider continued allied participation to be key to the war effort, particularly if the White House does not approve a military request for 40,000 additional troops.

Gates said at the news conference with MacKay that the war effort was sustainable even with the scheduled Dutch withdrawal next year and Canada's planned exit. But in his speech at the security conference, Gates sought new support from allies.

"We call on our other allies and friends to do what they can on behalf of this noble and necessary campaign," Gates said, calling it "an effort that will . . . require more commitment, more sacrifice and more patience from the community of free nations."

Slovakia announced this week that it would double its small contingent of troops in Afghanistan to about 500.

Within the larger strategy debate, U.S. officials have been debating ways of helping secure Kandahar.

A key part of the plan for more troops advanced by Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and allied commander, is bolstering the forces in and around the city, according to American officials. The plan could echo recent U.S. strategy in Iraq, where commanders positioned forces in belts around Baghdad to stem the flow of weapons and munitions into the capital.

In Kandahar, a version of that plan could position allied forces in rural areas to reduce Taliban influence in the countryside as well.

Alternatives being discussed by the White House would be to refrain from moving forces into areas around Kandahar that the allies do not already hold. Those plans would concentrate allied forces in the city itself and use airstrikes to try to disrupt Taliban forces in rural areas.

Gates avoided questions about how long the international military presence will last in Afghanistan. He said he hoped that in "a reasonable amount of time," Afghan forces could assume more responsibility for the country's security.

Gates also addressed efforts to reform the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, saying the U.S. could use its influence to reduce corruption associated with contracts it approves.

"The place to start is the place we have the greatest leverage, and that is where we are writing the check," Gates said.

julian.barnes@latimes.com

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