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Matthew Fisher: Canada’s military commitment likely to come under fire at this week’s NATO meeting

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waves from he stairs of his plane as he departs Ottawa on Wednesday, May 24, 2017, on route to Europe.

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Canada may respond to a fresh demand from NATO and U.S. President Donald Trump for troops with combat backgrounds to train Afghan forces by instead offering to send police mentors, according to security sources in Ottawa.

That potential contribution, and Trump’s growing political problems at home, may provide enough camouflage to allow Canada to get away with being the only NATO country at Thursday’s leaders’ summit that continues to reduce defence spending, despite demands from the Trump and from the alliance’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, that all 28 member states meet a pledge renewed three years ago to spend two per cent of GDP on defence.

After the horrific terror attack in Manchester the fight against terror will feature more prominently in discussions in Belgium. The violence in Britain skews predictions about the summit’s agenda, but the reluctance shown by Canada and a few others to spend what the U.S. and NATO have asked them to will likely still be front and centre.

Other pressing issues include the need for the West to devise a more coherent strategy for dealing with Russia on NATO’s eastern and southeastern flanks, and a separate demand by Trump for member countries to provide more resources to take on Islamic radicals in the Middle East and to assist Afghanistan’s beleaguered army, once again losing territory to the Taliban.

Canada’s commitment to NATO mission in Poland… 1:31

Trudeau’s plan to brazen it out on defence funding was made plain when the federal budget postponed spending billions of dollars on military equipment. Canada’s strategy at Brussels will be to try to defend its feeble defence spending — as it has done recently at home — by arguing that the way that NATO calculates expenditures is unfair to those countries which make high quality contributions and provide leadership on key alliance missions. The German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen recently promoted the same idea, saying a better measure would be an “activity index.”

It is not a bad idea, in principle. But figuring out what should and should not be included in such calculations and how to measure and compare the quality of these contributions would be devilishly complicated and a potential source of friction within the alliance at a time when Russian propagandists seek to exploit any lack of unity and cohesion. And if Ottawa advances that argument, it could draw attention to the fact that Canada’s actual contributions to NATO are not as significant as it claims.

What Canada wants is to get more credit for what it did on combat operations for NATO in Kandahar between February 2006 and July 2011. And yet countries such as Britain, the U.S. and Australia — which is not even a member of NATO — continued their Afghan combat missions for years after Canada left. It has been three years since the last of Canada’s trainers came home from Afghanistan, while the U.S. and Germany have kept trainers there in considerable numbers

Canada’s position also bumps against the fact that NATO, like any international organization, is always far more interested in today and tomorrow than the help it got in Kandahar six years ago.

Beyond discussion about Afghanistan, the Americans are hoping to strong-arm NATO countries into taking on a bigger training role in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

Canada’s record in the Middle East is a bit shaky since it shrunk its modest commitment there 15 months ago when it withdrew its Hornet fighter jets from the air campaign against ISIL. Ottawa has said it is considering slightly increasing the number of army trainers working with Iraqi Kurds, and there is an outside possibility they could be assigned to Syria as well as Iraq, but there is not likely to be a significant increase in Canada’s contribution.

What Trudeau wants to emphasize in Brussels is that Canada is about to lead a NATO combat task force in Latvia. The prime minister will not want to call attention to the fact that Canada ended up there only after former foreign minister Stéphane Dion tried for months to have nothing to do with the project, lest it interfere with his dream to deploy peacekeepers to Africa.

When Canada finally put up its hand, it ended up in Latvia because Estonia and Lithuania, considered easier to defend and with smaller Russian populations to serve as potential fifth columns, had already been spoken for by the Brits and the Germans.

He will likewise not want to draw attention to the fact that is sending the fewest troops among task-force leaders in eastern Europe, and they will be the last to deploy. Not until next month will Canada begin rotating 450 troops through Latvia on six-month tours, at about the same time it will withdraw several hundred infantry trainers from another NATO mission in Poland (though it is keeping another 200 trainers in western Ukraine).

To put the numbers in perspective, even after the Canadian government finally gets around to figuring out what if anything it is going to do for the UN in Africa, Canada will have, at best, 1,300 combat arms troops deployed overseas. They are highly professional and strongly motivated, but that is still less than half the number of combat troops that Ottawa rotated through Kandahar between March 2006 and July 2011.

There is no escaping that at a time of heightened tensions in eastern Europe, an increasingly complex dynamic in the Middle East and terror attacks in Britain, France and Belgium, Canada comes to NATO summit with a plan to spend less on defence and to do less for and with its closest security partners than it did a few years ago.