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Would Trudeau send Canadian soldiers back to Afghanistan to save NAFTA?

Could Canadian soldiers be heading back to Afghanistan to appease U.S. President Donald Trump and preserve the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)?

Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom writes, “The pressure is on for Canada to return to Afghanistan. Can Prime Minister Justin Trudeau resist it? So far Trudeau seems to be holding firm. ‘We have no troops in Afghanistan at this time’, he said last week. ‘But we are happy to be supportive in other ways’. Canada’s problem, however, is that it is one of only two NATO countries that does not have troops in Afghanistan (the other is France). This is at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump wants NATO to do more in that country.”

Walkom adds, “Behind all of this is the spectre of the upcoming North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiation. The Trudeau government is fixated on keeping the trade pact linking Canada, the U.S. and Mexico intact. Ottawa looks at everything, including defence, through a NAFTA lens.”

And he notes, “Perhaps sending 450 Canadian troops to Latvia to face down the Russians will suffice. Perhaps the roughly 200 Canadian special forces advising the Iraqis engaged in the battle for Mosul will be enough. Perhaps Trump’s attention will wander. If not, prepare for a return to Afghanistan. No combat of course. [NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg] has ruled out a ‘return back to combat’ for any NATO troops sent there. Just training. And advising. And assisting.”

It has been previously suggested that trade relations with the United States was a factor in the original deployment of Canadian soldiers to Afghanistan.

In March 2006, an article in The Walrus political affairs magazine noted, “Those who see a link between trade and foreign affairs believe Canada has good reason for [sending troops to Afghanistan]. The American security agenda extends overseas and across North America, and, as the United States consumes nearly 80 percent of Canadian exports and provides nearly 65 percent of our foreign direct investment, its demands for beefed-up Canadian military support … can be rebuffed for only so long…”

That article adds, “In the entwined corridors between [the ministries of] Defence, Foreign Affairs, and International Trade, and through shuttle diplomacy between Ottawa and Washington, the thinking may be that we will finally resolve the softwood-lumber issue and keep our border open to trade by lessening America’s burden in Afghanistan.”

The Ottawa Citizen has also reported, “In a July 2005 interview …[then Liberal Defence Minister Bill] Graham …acknowledged that mending fences with the Bush administration played a role in the government’s decision to take on the Kandahar mission. The U.S. was still angry over Canada’s refusal to join its invasion of Iraq and it didn’t help that the Martin government had declined to participate in the Pentagon’s controversial missile defence system.”

In April 2006, Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin commented, “A former, highly placed Defence Department official, whose hands were all over the Afghan file …tells me the reason the Liberals took up the mission was not out of any great noble purpose. It was principally because they had no choice. They had to appease Washington for not having joined the invasion of Iraq.”

And in November 2008, Liberal Senator Colin Kenny said, “We have to be able to offer the President something he needs if we are going to convince his new administration that it should resist inevitable congressional pressure to shut Canadian products out of U.S. markets. That something is significant military assistance, both to defend the continent and deploy abroad when it makes sense… Sensible military assistance is not too much to offer an ally so essential to our well being – especially if it gives us a preferred seat at the table in Washington when issues are discussed that are vital to Canadian job creation.”

Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien first sent Canadian troops to Afghanistan in January-February 2002. The last Canadian soldiers left Afghanistan in March 2014. Over that twelve year period, 40,000 Canadian soldiers fought in Afghanistan, 159 were killed and more than 1,800 were injured. At least 70 Canadian soldiers and veterans killed themselves after serving in Afghanistan.

Canada spent $18 billion on the war.