As we all know, Canadian troops are just now starting to prepare for the settled 2011 withdrawal date, with our troops starting to leave by July 2011 at the earliest date. This comes after much wrangling on the subject, driven by public pressure and fears of the repercussions of extending the mission of our exhausted military past 10 years. All in all, this is something the vast majority of Canadians support, and none too soon by certain reckoning.
Yet, the pullout also comes with certain repercussions, the least of those being our reputation abroad (at this point, there's a certain modicum of understanding among all parties involved in Afghanistan). NATO's mission in Afghanistan, often coming under the jurisdiction of the International Security Assistance Force (though not exclusively), has relied heavily upon the Canadian contingent of forces based in Kandahar, where our forces make up a good portion of both the fighting force in the troubled province, and the administrative service as well. Much like the UK's withdrawal from the Sangin area of Helmand province, ISAF and mostly US forces will have to fill the gap, leading to an even greater exertion of American forces blanketing the area (thereby increasing America's load, commitment, and exhaustion).
While no one can actually blame Canadian forces for wanting a break after 10 years in what is a very desolate country, the fact is that the Canadian commitment, after the collapse of Dutch and British support for major missions within ISAF, was one of the few remaining non-American actors that helped give the "I" in ISAF legitimacy. Our pullout not only lends credence to the idea that Afghanistan is an American exercise in imperialism (whether or not you think it is, I don't know), but it hammers the final nail in the coffin of NATO's modern raison d'etre.
Let me explain: since the end of the Cold War, NATO has struggled to find an actual, meaning reason to exist, outside of annoying the heck out of Russia. Because NATO was originally built in opposition to the USSR and the Warsaw Pact countries, as well as to essentially cement the United States' influence over Western Europe, the loss of these opponents has really brought many to question the purpose of the alliance. In recent years, however, two things have helped NATO redefine itself: Kosovo and Afghanistan.
Kosovo is the most successful example of NATO's power, even after all these years its been forgotten by most. Though NATO's initial involvement in the region was simply aerial bombardment (and mostly American at that), after Milosevic's removal from power, NATO's "Kosovo Force," the UN-sanctioned peacekeeping force made up of alliance members, helped preserve the peace in the tiny region, providing security, infrastructure, and administrative services. KFOR has done a very good job considering its mandate, up to the point where Kosovo was able to successfully claim independence with relatively little violence for the region's history.
Afghanistan, of course, is another story. After the American-led invasion in 2001, NATO members came in with the idea that the set-up of ISAF would be more or less like the successful KFOR mission. However, less resources, far less support from the majority of members, and the general desolation and resistance in Afghanistan have created challenges to this missions, dragging on the commitment of members for years at the time. The stress, simply put, has been great, and members, already averse to taking much risk, collapse under it. This has lead to member after member dropping commitments, support, and simply off-load their portion to the Americans, who under Obama are more willing to take them up.
However, the disintegration of ISAF's legitimacy as an internationally-backed fighting force, especially with Canada's eventual pullout, has consequences for the alliance. The very fact that European allies were not willing to step up, leaving the heavy fighting to American, Canadian, British and Dutch forces, already doomed NATO in one way; the fact that three of those four major players are now losing their cool over the situation just hurries the process up. The Americans, quite rightly in my opinion, are now focusing on letting the Afghanis rebuild their own country, including their police forces, something that NATO members, even the more feeble ones, were hoping to do. The fact that the Americans are more focused on their ability to rebuild the country without much NATO and ally support - much like they did in Iraq with quite successful results - should tell us something about their patience with the alliance.
As noted, Canada's pullout is simply sounding the final warning bell for NATO's future, not only in Afghanistan, where Canadian forces will leave a gap that American forces can and will fill, but for its ability to meet the demands of modern combat and national building. The question should not be whether or not American forces can handle the takeover of Kandahar, because they can. The question is whether or not NATO can survive the aftermath.