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Canada's Changing Role In Afghanistan



Canada’s Ambassador to Afghanistan David Sproule escorts the pallbearer party for diplomat Glyn Berry to a CC-130 Hercules aircraft at Kandahar Airfield.

It took the dramatic suicide bombing of Canadian diplomat Glyn Berry near Kandahar on Sunday, Jan.15, for many Canadians to finally awake to the death of Canadian peacekeeping.

Berry’s killing, and the critical wounding of three soldiers who were in the vehicle with him, was only a portent of things to come. In the weeks after that attack Canadian troops were shot at, rocketed, hit by improvised explosive devices, and suffered more suicide attacks. Canadian soldiers have been killed in terrorist attacks and vehicle accidents, about a dozen more were wounded. By the time this column appears, the casualty count will probably be higher.

As our troops began to take fire in Afghanistan, a disturbing thing happened–Canadian support for the mission appeared to drop. Polls published in the last week of February and the first week of March showed a significant decline from the period immediately after 9/11. Back then, when the picture of airliners piloted by fanatical Islamists smashing into the twin towers was so fresh in people’s minds, 66 per cent of Canadians wanted to fight the terrorists–in Afghanistan. But now, when the troops actually were fighting them, the number slipped to some 54 per cent, according to an Ipsos Reid poll published March 4. How did that happen?

What Canadians awoke to after Berry’s death is that Canadian soldiers are at war in southern Afghanistan. Canadians are not there to do peacekeeping, they do not wear blue United Nations helmets, they are not present to give two warring factions a chance to make peace.

Canadians are there to sustain the initial military defeat of the Taliban government in the fall of 2001 and to make sure the Taliban don’t re-establish control over Afghanistan. They are there to build support for the central government of President Hamid Karzai who has but a tenuous hold outside the capital of Kabul. They are there to kill “bad guys” before the bad guys can kill them. And although the Liberal government tried to explain this to Canadians in the spring and summer of 2005, hardly anyone listened.

The Canadian mission in southern Afghanistan is a very different mission from the one Canadians were performing in Kabul when they were essentially acting as an extension of Karzai’s military and police forces. They were there to maintain calm in the capital. But in southern Afghanistan the fighting never really ended. The Americans and their allies in the central and southern regions of Afghanistan have been battling the Taliban since late 2001. As of the writing of this column, 344 have been killed including 277 Americans.

When Canada first entered the post-9/11 war against Islamism, we sent a battle group to fight in southern Afghanistan–the very region we are in now–under American command. That mission was taken up under great pressure both from Canadians and from Canada’s allies to do something. Canada had committed substantial naval forces to the then new war on terrorism, as Washington dubbed it very shortly after Sept. 11, and some air assets as well, but “boots on the ground” is the only real measure of a nation’s commitment to war and everyone, except possibly for certain leaders in the government, knew it.

In fact the government would have much preferred to have joined the then newly forming International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) which was at the time under UN auspices, and which was–at least in theory–a peacekeeping mission in the Kabul area proper. When that proved impossible, Jean Chrétien’s government had little choice but to throw in with the Americans.

The Canadians left southern Afghanistan as soon as was feasible, after two six months rotations. Then in the spring of 2003, just when the government decided, at the last minute, that it would not join the attack on Iraq, ISAF needed troops. It was switching from UN to North Atlantic Treaty Organization command and was being beefed up. Chrétien grabbed at the chance. It gave him an excuse for pulling out of the Iraq operation while appearing to make a solid commitment to another battle that needed fighting, the battle in Afghanistan.

The ISAF mission in Kabul was sold to Canadians as another form of peacekeeping, though the soldiers who went there knew full well that it was not. Nonetheless, the pretense of peacekeeping was possible because the intent of the mission was essentially defensive. We were there to win hearts and minds and to keep the Taliban from killing Karzai.

When the present mission was announced last May, most Canadians thought that the only change taking place was a change of mission venue. Both Minister of National Defence Bill Graham and Chief of the Defence Staff Rick Hillier took pains to try to explain to Canadians that this operation was going to be different, but no one really listened. After all, wasn’t this just a mission to protect a Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team that was going to do what Canadians always do–build schools and provide fresh drinking water? The government followed the long established precedent of not bringing the new mission to Parliament for debate and a vote while the press followed its long established precedent of not paying attention to any story that didn’t have the word medicare in it.

Then Berry was killed and an almost daily count of Canadian casualties began.

Canadians are now in the process of waking up to what soldiers do. Soldiers fight wars and prepare to fight wars–big wars, small wars, asymmetric wars, wars against terror, wars against tyranny. Soldier is not a synonym for peacekeeper. For all the long history of this country Canadians have gone into harm’s way for reasons of both national pride and national interests. They are doing it once again and the sooner the veil of national naïveté drops from Canadians’ collective consciousness, the better. Once they know what the stakes are, and where Canadian pride and interests lie, Canadians will be far less inclined to cut and run.


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