Canada, Afghanistan and coalition politics

Joint service seal of the Canadian Forces. Bas...

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This continues my ongoing review of Hynek and Marton’s book on state-building in Afghanistan.

Benjamin Zyla’s discussion of the Canadian approach to Afghanistan takes us in a different direction from the previous chapters which focused on how national policy translated into military activity on the ground.  Zyla, by contrast, looks at how to describe Canada’s policy based upon theories of coalition politics to see if it fits the models set forth by the editors of the book.

What I found particularly interesting was how Canada appears to have ‘punched above its weight’ (made a greater contribution to the Afghanistan mission) given it’s size/strength and it’s perceived threat from al-Qaida backed terrorism.  In this regard, Canada may be in a situation similar to Sweden which, prior to the end of the Cold War, consistently made a greater contribution to peacekeeping missions than one would otherwise expect.  In Sweden’s case, that was a decision intended to gain greater influence and say in the international order as the two Superpower blocs balanced and countered each other.

Zyla runs through the ways that Canada has its own ‘special relationship’ with the United States and the desire to maintain that relationship, especially in light of non-participation of the Iraq War, certainly played some role in heavy participation in Afghanistan.  Still, Canada has a pretty robust history of missions like this that are independent of attempting to cultivate the relationship with America so other factors need to be considered as well.

Here’s where I think Zyla’s work may have benefited from discussing not just Hynek and Marton’s depiction of national decision making in coalition politics but also their status along the threat balancing/alliance dependence axis.  Clearly Canada fits in among the ‘servents’ (those with a high commitment to NATO yet low perceived threat).

Other than that I have a minor quibble or two with this article.  In discussing Canada’s commitment of troops in comparison to other nations he looks at absolute troop presence between 2007 and 2010 but it’s not clear why he picked those dates.  Based on his narrative 2006-2010 might have been a better choice given the generally acknowledged shift in the conflict then or, an even better reason, the Canadian assumption of command of RC-South in February of 2006.  Or perhaps 2009-2010 since that reflects the beginning of a general shift towards a more general aadoption of COIN as well as the beginning of the American (and NATO) ‘surge’ of troops to the country.  As is, his selection of dates can give the appearance that they were picked simply to bolster his case.

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