OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper secretly promised NATO early last year that Canada would consider staying in Afghanistan to conduct army training, according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable.
It was an assurance the Conservative government kept under wraps for months until the new mission was announced -- much to the surprise of the public and opposition parties -- last November.
The government line almost right up to the training mission announcement was that the combat mission would end and the troops were coming home.
The army is now set to deploy up to 950 troops and support staff to bases in Kabul, Marzar-e-Sharif and Herat.
NATO's secretary general pressed Harper and Defence Minister Peter MacKay in a series of meetings in Ottawa in January 2010 to join its newly established training mission in Kabul.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen "sought Canadian commitment to a post-2011 role in training Afghan security forces as part of the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan," said a cable released by WikiLeaks on Thursday.
The Jan. 20, 2010, summary of the discussion from the U.S. embassy in Ottawa noted that "Harper promised that the government would look at the possibility."
Rasmussen, in his first visit to Ottawa as secretary general, assured his hosts he was not there to "cause problems" and respected that Parliament had mandated ending the combat mission in 2011.
The document suggests Harper was worried the impending Canadian departure would be characterized as a "withdrawal" and that the optics surrounding the mission needed to managed.
Harper noted that the Obama administration's plan to begin pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan was "not helpful politically to his government" because it would make the case for staying a more difficult sell to the Canadian public.
Rasmussen told the prime minister he was worried the Canadian withdrawal in 2011 could produce a "domino effect," and increase domestic pressure on Germany and France to leave as well.But Harper rejected the comparison and insisted Canada has "been there in a big way".
Harper told the NATO chief that he saw three downsides to a continuing presence in Afghanistan, including the high number of combat deaths, which was "the most damaging" aspect.
The cable is startling because it suggests that the final decision to embark on a training mission was something long under consideration in the Prime Minister's Office but not shared over the wider government.
New Democrat Jack Harris accused Harper of not being straight with the Canadian public.
"The public obviously had no indication this was coming until they actually made the announcement," he said. "Whether it's totally duplicitous or not, I'm not sure, but it is saying one thing in public and another in private."
-------- The Canadian Press
U.S. chides PM's Arctic rhetoric
A new Wikileaks cable suggests the U.S. government views Stephen Harper's talk about Canadian Arctic sovereignty as little more than rhetoric designed to win votes.
In a diplomatic cable Wikileaks posted this week, the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa says the Tories have made successful political use of promises to beef up Canada's presence in the Arctic.
"The persistent high public profile which this government has accorded 'Northern Issues' and the Arctic is, however, unprecedented and reflects the PM's views that 'the North has never been more important to our country' -- although one could perhaps paraphrase to state 'the North has never been more important to our Party.'," the cable quoted U.S Ambassador David Jacobsen.
-- The Canadian Press