OTTAWA—Canada turned down a direct plea from NATO to sent more troops into southern Afghanistan in the run-up to last year’s Afghan presidential election, federal documents say.

It was among the most specific requests Ottawa has received over the years and provides a keen illustration of the pitfalls the Conservative government faces both at home and abroad as it slowly untangles the country from the costly war.

A briefing note prepared for Defence Minister Peter MacKay showed that both NATO and the U.S. expected Canada to ante up the extra troops needed to secure Kandahar from an anticipated wave of Taliban violence prior to the vote.

The plea was turned down cold.

There was a hint of exasperation in the comments category of the note, suggesting that the allies seem oblivious to both the strain that four years of fighting has placed on Canada’s small army and the bruising political debate that has battered the minority government.

“The U.S. and NATO had hoped that Canada, as one of the lead nations in (Regional Command) South, would generate the required supplementary forces for south,” said the Jan. 23, 2009 briefing document.

“It will be important to communicate to allies — and perhaps the Canadian public — that Canada is already contributing significant military resources to the region where the threat of election-related violence is the highest. While the CF will review and assess future NATO requests for supplementary election forces, allies should understand that Canada is already contributing to the maximum extent possible.”

Last winter, NATO asked for more military trainers and Canada sent 90 soldiers. But it was underlined — once again — that they go home when the rest of the army leaves next July.

That the requests keep coming even though Ottawa has formally signalled its withdrawal plans speaks volumes, not only about allied perceptions of the country’s military capacity, but the international expectations built up by the Conservative government’s tough-sounding rhetoric of not cutting and running.

Douglas Bland, of Queens University’s defence management studies centre, said the Afghan mission may be over next year, but the perception that Canada can be counted on to carry the heavy load will likely remain for years to come.

The briefing note urged MacKay to turn the tables on NATO allies and press those already in Afghanistan to remove restrictions that prevent them from fighting in the south.

MacKay, in a recent interview, conceded NATO had come to expect a lot of Canada because the country has “contributed so mightily” to the campaign.

“I would argue that we’ve done more than most for a military of our size,” he said. “Without opening up the whole issue of burden-sharing, I do think we have to continually remind, in some cases, many who follow the mission closely Canada that has been and remains a major contributor to the mission in Afghanistan.”

What MacKay didn’t address was how you ratchet back those expectations at a time when the U.S. is consumed with Afghanistan and redoubling efforts to batter the Taliban into submission.

Bland said it’s up to the government to say ‘no’ more forcefully.

The fact Canada cannot — or is unwilling — to produce even a few hundred extra soldiers at such critical junctures as the election and the planned offensive in Kandahar mystifies some NATO commanders in Kabul.

NATO sources in Kabul said U.S. commanders in particular don’t understand how their northern neighbour could have produced over 4,000 troops for peacekeeping in the Balkans in the 1990s — a time of budget restraint — and yet claim the well is dry while fighting a war. They question Canada’s short rotation system of six-month deployments and nearly year-long training programs for each battle group.

The Canadian army did examine the request for extra soldiers for the 2009 Afghan election and developed two options. One involved overlapping the tours of incoming and outgoing battle groups, which would have temporarily doubled the number of soldiers on the ground.

The second option was censored in the documents, but ultimately both suggestions were rejected.

Bland said he doesn’t see much lasting political damage with NATO, but said the United States is another matter.

“The American military officers can be pretty aggressive and not understand our politics because they don’t understand our country and method of government,” Bland said.

“They have their own expectations of what we would be able to do and if they were running our Armed Forces they would do it differently. We used to get that all the time from the Brits. They tell us exactly the same kind of crap, but that’s what you get when you’re small nation.”