TORONTO - Amid reports that the Barack Obama administration is quietly lobbying the Conservative government in Ottawa to keep Canadian troops in Afghanistan's Kandahar province beyond 2011, Stephen Harper is finding himself in an increasingly awkward dilemma.
The Canadian prime minister needs to appease a popular U.S. president who just deployed 4,000 Marines in a new Afghan offensive in Helmand, and at the same time avoid further alienating a war-weary electorate.
One recent national poll revealed that 54 percent of Canadians oppose the Canadian military contribution to the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
The Conservatives are looking pretty unsteady on this file. A few weeks back, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs made haste to contradict Defense Minister Peter MacKay when he suggested the government was considering lifting Canada's decade-old arms embargo against Pakistan.
The uncertainty surrounding Canada's continued involvement in Afghanistan has increased as the war against the Taliban spreads across the porous border into northwest Pakistan, said Shibil Siddiqui, a Pakistan-born, Toronto-based research analyst on central Asian affairs. He was recently consulted on the region in Ottawa by Foreign Affairs.
"I think Canada is only now waking to the possibility of having sort of a specific engagement with Pakistan around this issue," he told IPS. "I don't think there is a very coherent or effective Pakistani policy so far."
But Steven Staples, president of the Rideau Institute in Ottawa and a defence analyst, told IPS it is quite possible that the Harper government already has a clear idea of its post-2011 mandate - and that air strikes, which the Canadians haven't used so far, could be a major component.
Case in point, Staple said, is the March announcement that the Canadian Department of National Defense will be spending half a billion dollars on new armed drones (unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs) to be available in 2012 and similar to the Predators and Reapers used by the U.S. in its air strikes in Pakistan.
"While the role of ground troops may diminish simply because the army is exhausted from years of war, the air force could be called upon to support the U.S.-led combat mission through air strikes by CF-18 fighter bombers or armed drones," Staples said.
He predicted that Canada is about to repeat the mistakes made by its NATO allies, whose aircraft killed more than 500 Afghan civilians in 2008 alone, and by the U.S. in particular, whose drones used for assassination attempts in Pakistan are also responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths.
Not all defense experts, however, worry that the target of the new craft (in departmental parlance called the Joint Unmanned Surveillance Target Acquisition System) will be Pakistan.
"If the concern is that we are going to use drones along the Afghan-Pakistani border, that's unfounded,'' said Lee Windsor of the University of New Brunswick's Gregg Center for the Study of War and Society.
Still, he admitted in an interview with IPS, there's no reason to rule out their use. "There will be circumstances where they could be extremely useful in the way Canada applies deadly force in the mission in Afghanistan," Windsor said.
Another Ottawa-based defense analyst who requested anonymity said he can't "see Canadian UAVs used in Pakistan, for the simple reason that the U.S. has more than enough drones and doesn't want to share that highly classified intelligence it is gathering."
His take is that Canadian drones will be primarily used for domestic coast and Arctic surveillance and in selective international military missions where they would be a cheaper alternative to Canadian troops in the field.
But Yves Engler, author of "The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy", counters that Pakistan is the only place on the planet where a military campaign using UAVs is being conducted. There's no end in sight for an expanded "Af-Pak" war in which Canada has a major stake, he said.
"It is all speculation, [but] the Canadian military is not buying JUSTAS drones to monitor playgrounds in Toronto," Engler told IPS. "Like most Canadian arms purchases, the drones are being acquired with interoperability - supporting U.S. war-making capacities - in mind."
And certainly there's evidence that unmanned bomb conveyors are the war machines of tomorrow. P.W. Singer, the U.S. author of "Wired for War", notes that pilots are an endangered species. He told IPS that the future of warfare can be seen in Pakistan, where drone attacks are remotely controlled by military personnel on an air base near Las Vegas, Nevada.
Countries, he worries, might be tempted to launch attack drones for short-term strategic gains to avoid the sight of dead pilots in body bags. "If you aren't thinking about the risks," he said, "maybe you don't weigh drone attacks the way warfare demands."
It's not just the UAV decision stirring air power speculation. There was also that mysterious little dust-up in April when Major-General Duff Sullivan told reporters he favors deployment of CF-18 fighter planes and that the Department of National Defense is considering the matter.
MacKay's office quickly declared Sullivan mistaken.
His denial is reinforced by DND's Lieutenant Sébastien Monger, who told the publication NOW: "We have a fully operational air wing in Afghanistan [helicopters, unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles]. Canada has no plans to deploy CF-18 fighter aircraft."
So why would a shaky minority government in Ottawa entertain a political nightmare like a Canadian CF-18 misfire and the potential deaths of Afghan civilians?
Some experts think it's plausible that DND could decide to join the air war. "The idea of sending a squadron of CF-18s over there has always been something floated within the academic community paying attention to this," said James Fergusson, head of the Center for Defense and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.
"What does it mean when we say we're going to end our combat mission? It doesn't mean we can't do other things out of Kandahar," he said.
The University of New Brunswick's Windsor also thinks there's a logic to sending CF-18s. "If Canada wants to maintain a commitment to the total NATO mission, planes might be the way to do it. You can buy some time for the army to recuperate," he said.
Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, the former chair of the Canadian Senate committee on foreign affairs and international trade, says that an entirely new airborne operation of perhaps 200 people, including a squadron of 12 pilots, as well as backup pilots, maintenance and ground crews, is feasible as a replacement for the Canadian combat mission - which currently has close to 3,000 troops in Kandahar.
"There will be many people in the military who would disagree with that," Segal said. "They would say perhaps it is too expensive. It is the wrong theater for those, but the truth of the matter is that the CF-18s have over the last 10 years been modernized."
The senator was referring to new targeting pods in the CF-18s that improve the pilot's view of the ground and potential targets, as well upgraded precision guided munitions. (That is the GBU Unit 49 bombs - the exact same ones raining down on northwest Pakistan by armed U.S. drones).
Although on the outs with the Harper government after being turfed from his Senate committee chairmanship, Senator Segal disagrees with any assertion that the decision has already been made in Ottawa on the planes or other possible options for the Canadian military in Afghanistan.
"You know people often say, 'Are there secret meetings to which we are not being invited, or planned in which we are not being included'? My bet is there is none of the above. I don't know that, but I am just saying from my perspective, my bet is there are no plans. There are probably some options kicking around somewhere, but I don't think they have reached the point of formality that you might call plans."