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The Riga Factor

by Martin Shadwick

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It is no less true for being obvious that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Riga Summit of November 2006 was less than a rousing success. At a time when the over-stretched and undermanned Canadian, British, American, Dutch, and other NATO forces operating in southern Afghanistan require augmentation – most notably, but not exclusively, by ‘boots on the ground’ – the 26 member states of a theoretically powerful military alliance managed to cobble together several companies of infantry, some additional close air support (CAS) capability, and helicopters. There was also some thinning out of the national caveats which have seriously eroded the military credibility and operational flexibility of existing NATO resources in Afghanistan. The ability to redeploy existing units in the event of emergency situations was also addressed, although one should perhaps not inquire too closely about the specifics of these arrangements.

The summit concluded with the usual pronouncements about alliance unity and cohesion, but parsimony of such breathtaking proportions was, at best, deeply troubling and potentially toxic in both the short and the long term. Perhaps, as The Globe and Mail pondered in a 29 November 2006 editorial, too many NATO member states have forgotten that the “Afghan mission was not some rogue adventure launched by the Bush administration and a couple of its staunch allies.”

That said, the failure to fashion a more robust and comprehensive augmentation package at Riga should not be regarded as the definitive litmus test for overall NATO strategy in Afghanistan. Additional NATO military personnel, even substantial numbers of additional NATO military personnel, would not obviate the requirement for a vigorous and holistic build-up of Afghanistan’s army and police forces, for additional efforts to reduce pervasive corruption, and for substantially more reconstruction aid. Moreover, as Commodore (ret’d) Eric Lerhe has noted, Canadian annoyance with certain members of the alliance should be tempered by the recognition that Canada’s frequently miserly approach to defence spending weakens our ability to lecture others on burden sharing, that national caveats were not unknown in Canadian post-Cold War overseas operations, and that progress in northern Afghanistan would be jeopardized if NATO forces moved south. However, as Major-General (ret’d) Lewis MacKenzie has argued, NATO countries currently operating in the north “...should hand over to less operationally capable NATO countries currently sitting on their hands at home, and join the fight [in southern Afghanistan].”

Similarly, any Canadian suspicions that the substantial European UN deployments to Lebanon in 2006 were, in part, motivated by a desire to avoid or deflect further requests for assistance in Afghanistan must be tempered by the realization that Ottawa utilized commitments in Afghanistan to deflect American blandishments for a Canadian role in Iraq.

The full impact of the Riga summit on Canadian public opinion remains to be seen, but it clearly did not enhance NATO’s standing with Canadians. How could it be otherwise when NATO’s actions – or, to be more precise – the actions of some leading NATO members – fly in the face of burden sharing and do little of substance to alleviate the heavy load placed upon the Canadian Forces (CF) or, more to the point, to reduce the very real risks faced by Canadian soldiers. NATO remains a cornerstone of Canadian multilateralism, but damage – possibly serious damage if left unrepaired – has been done to the Canada-NATO relationship. Nor, on a broader level, did Riga do anything of substance to assuage Canadian fears and reservations about the current commitment in Afghanistan. Indeed, the perceived lack of credible assistance from some key allies could be utilized, potentially quite effectively utilized, as a justification for withdrawing, reducing, redeploying, or otherwise modifying the current Canadian military presence in Afghanistan.

It is conceivable, too, that Canadian public, media, and political frustration over the lack of meaningful assistance from some NATO allies – when combined with the broader reservations over the current mission in Afghanistan and the continued Canadian wariness over the foreign policy imperatives of the Bush administration – could amplify and reinforce the already-formidable Canadian love affair with the ‘peacekeeping’ operations of the UN. As Jack Granatstein noted in a November 2006 commentary for the Council for Canadian Security in the 21st Century: “There is substantial support for the troops [in Afghanistan] as individuals and even as a collectivity, but there is not much enthusiasm for the idea that soldiers sometimes must kill people. To Canadians, the preferred role for their men and women in uniform is as blue beret peacekeepers and agents of social development.” Given the current political constellation in the House of Commons, and UN projections that there could be a requirement for up to 140,000 military and civilian ‘peacekeepers’ in 2007, the lure of a substantial Canadian return to the blue beret could prove irresistible in some quarters.

One upshot of unchecked Canadian frustration with NATO, the current mission in Afghanistan and Bush-era foreign policy – and concomitant enthusiasm for a UN-flavoured foreign, defence, and international security policy – could be an erosion of support for the more pragmatic, combat-capable optics of Paul Martin’s April 2005 International Policy Statement, and Stephen Harper’s more recent electoral and post-electoral defence policy pronouncements. The irony, of course, is that Afghanistan would have largely fallen off Canadian collective radar screens if the Canadian deployment had been in the comparatively benign north. In policy terms, the consequences of such a geo-political shift would be decidedly wide-ranging and fraught with hazards. Some Canadians would no doubt seize upon such a shift to reduce and redirect the current recapitalization of the Canadian Forces, perhaps still not fully grasping that post-Cold War ‘peacekeeping’ and related operations require military capabilities of a very high order. The ‘peacekeeping’ of 2007 is, most assuredly, not the peacekeeping of 1956. Even in the absence of the current Canadian commitment to Afghanistan, one could posit that post-Cold War ‘peacekeeping’ and peace support operations, international humanitarian relief operations, and a plethora of domestic constabulary, homeland defence, and North American security requirements demand, to cite but one example, a mobility and logistical support package not unlike that unveiled by the Harper government in June 2006.

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Martin Shadwick teaches Canadian defence policy at York University. He is a former editor of Canadian Defence Quarterly.


NATO heads of state at the Riga conference.