Facing the Facts: Canada and the War in Afghanistan

Canadians are reluctant to carry on

A few years ago, proponents of the New Cold War, also known as the "War on Terror", boasted that the battle for Afghanistan was over: been there, done that, now on to Iraq. Supporters of this new world order (or new world odour, according to some) could hardly keep themselves from laughing at how easy it had all been.

At the time there were some, however, who looked at the situation with a certain amount of misgiving. Yes, the Taliban had been easily routed and Osama bin Laden was on the run, but somehow we had seen this picture before. The Soviet Union had occupied most of Afghanistan in the early 1980s, and yet this mighty superpower slowly but surely bled itself to death, to the extent that it had to admit defeat and retreated.

So here we are again, military history repeating itself as it had done so many times before. Hitler failed to take heed of Napoleon’s lessons in Russia and the German army ended up freezing itself on the Russian steppe; now NATO fails to take heed of the Soviet Union’s folly in Afghanistan, and likewise finds itself demoralised and bleeding itself to death. Nowhere is this best seen than with the Canadian army as it struggles to fulfill its commitment in Afghanistan.

Canadians feel that they are shouldering more than their share

Lately, Canada has been suffering heavy losses as Canadian troops are being targeted and attacked more frequently - not only by Taliban forces, but by frustrated civilians as well. Canada has sustained the bulk of its casualties in and around Kandahar, where it is looking for some help from its allies. However, some NATO countries have insisted on caveats that limit how their troops can be deployed in the mission.

Some, such as Germany, stay in areas where they know that they are in relative safety and refuse to move and help their comrades in arms. As a result, many Canadians feel that they are shouldering more than their share of the burden. Statistics speak for themselves: since the mission started in 2002, almost 70 Canadian soldiers and one diplomat have been killed in Afghanistan.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that many Canadians feel they have had enough. A poll released to the Canadian Press suggested most Canadians want to see their troops home by no later than February 2009 -— the month when the Afghan mission is due to expire. The survey, conducted by Decima Research a few weeks ago, found two-thirds (or 67 per cent) of respondents believes Canadian military forces should withdraw from Afghanistan when the current mandate from Parliament is over. Only 26 per cent of Canadians were in favour of stretching the mission deadline past then, "if that is necessary to complete our goals there."

Canadien army has resorted to advertising itself - among children

As a result of this and in a vain attempt to boost popularity for the war, the Canadian army has resorted to advertising itself - among children. In fact, the army has gone so far as to bring an army tank to schoolyards, allow children to touch weaponry, and even show them how to use rifles in a perverse form of "show and tell". Admittedly, the army did draw a line somewhere - they were the ones who pulled the trigger.

It goes without saying that many parents are outraged by this form of government show and tell. "It's almost unbelievable that they're showing this to Grade 4, 5, 6 [students]," remarked one concerned parent. "I don't feel it is the place. The school is a learning place, not a place to show military [equipment]. This is basically recruitment."

In addition to the army taking their subtle message to the schools, politicians in support of the war have done their best to create an appropriate atmosphere by putting up "support-our-troops" billboards. Antiwar activists have protested against this, saying such billboards sends the wrong message and is a cheap way to further an unpopular political agenda.


Despite these attempts to try and boost the popularity of the military and what it’s doing, protest against Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan has been gathering momentum. In many ways, the protests in Canada over Canadian soldiers serving in Afghanistan are reminiscent of the anti-war protests in the US and elsewhere against the Vietnam War. One of the most active of the myriad anti-war movements in Canada is the War on War Coalition, a group strongly against Canada's military involvement in Afghanistan, as one activist notes:

We're not targeting the soldiers, we respect them as people.But we are in total opposition with the Afghanistan mission and we want to show we represent the great part of the population that is opposed.

Within Canada, it's quite clear that the province of Quebec is the part of the country most opposed to the war in Afghanistan. Polls reveal that over 70 per cent of people in the province don't agree with the mission. Recently, protesters carrying drums, banners and even mock coffins held an antiwar demonstration as soldiers set to deploy paraded through the streets of Quebec City. Earlier, letters were sent to soldiers urging them to refuse their deployment, saying that if they go to Afghanistan they will be complicit in war crimes and torture, and will become "cannon fodder" in the war-torn region.

The letters not only urged soldiers not to participate in the mission, but also offered support for those who refuse to go to Afghanistan. Even within the provincial parliament, some members of the opposition Parti Québécois refused to stand in honour of Quebec soldiers who were visiting the province's national assembly.

Its allies in southern Afghanistan are starting to ask questions

Because of the growing and often vocal opposition to the war in Afghanistan, Canada’s commitment to the NATO mission has come under scrutiny by others. Canada has committed troops to the war-torn country until February 2009. But its allies in southern Afghanistan are starting to ask questions about Canada's combat commitment and whether it will continue beyond that deadline.

These concerns were echoed by NATO's secretary general who urged Canada to continue its military mission in Afghanistan past its 2009 withdrawal deadline. During a visit to Montreal earlier this summer, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer stressed that Canada was playing a vital role in helping Afghanistan to rebuild, adding that "you are there for a good cause [...] you are there to defend basic human values." The NATO Secretary General had some further confusing comments, however, words that resonated of Orwellian doublespeak: "It is not a combat mission; it is a reconstruction mission, but to make [reconstruction] possible, we have to fight. It is as simple as that. NATO has to fight." In other words, NATO is fighting a non-combat mission.

Yet despite these lofty remarks by the NATO Secretary General and others who have been trying to cajole the government to extend its participation in the mission, there is rising public disquiet in Canada about the country's Afghan presence. Presently, Canada has 2,500 troops deployed in southern Afghanistan as part of the 40,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The 2009 deadline was set in May 2006 when the Conservatives announced a vote on a two-year extension for the mission and, a few days later, squeezed it through Parliament in a vote of 149-145.

The war is already lost

The looming prospect of Canada's extended involvement in Afghanistan has led to heated debates within the Canadian parliament. Although the Conservative government had said that it won't extend Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan beyond February 2009 without a consensus in Parliament, many feel that its objectives are otherwise. According to the leader of the opposition Liberals, Stéphane Dion, the government has deliberately created ambiguity over Canada's future role in Afghanistan. "If he were responsible, he would tell the Afghan government and our allies that the Canadian combat mission in Kandahar would end in February 2009 and they should prepare themselves on that basis," noted Dion.

To keep saying these ambiguous things, it's because he wants to stay.

Dion reiterated that that his party will oppose any extension of the mission beyond February 2009. Together with the New Democrats, not only are Canada's opposition parties against extending the mission, but they are already calling for an early troop withdrawal. Jack Layton, leader of the New Democrats, would like to see Canada take its troops out of Afghanistan immediately.

The question over Canada’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan is important for it betrays an uncomfortable fact which NATO must come to terms with: that is, the war is already lost. As with the Soviet Union some twenty years before, NATO isn’t simply confronting an enemy within the country. Muslim fighters from all over the world have converged upon Afghanistan (not to mention Iraq) in what they consider is an unlawful and brutal occupation. This solidarity among Muslims crosses political, social, and cultural borders; many Muslims may not like the Taliban, but they are even less receptive when a Muslim country is taken over by a non-Muslim occupier. We have seen this type of situation before not only in Afghanistan, but in Bosnia and Iraq as well.

The failure to deliver on the promises made

Yet it’s not only a case of the Taliban and those who support them out of solidarity or conviction. As already mentioned, Canadian troops are being targeted and attacked more frequently by frustrated civilians as well as the Taliban. This is not only because of the failure to deliver on the promises made, which make westerners and their allies look like nothing more than a bunch of hypocrites, but also because of the careless way in which civilians and detainees are treated.

The "collateral damage" which is so easily dismissed by NATO and the western media isn’t forgotten so easily by the local population. Indeed, the torture and abuse of prisoners captured by the Canadian armed forces that were then turned over to the Afghan authorities was a particularly thorny issue for the Conservative government earlier this year.

Ultimately, what will drive Canada and other western countries from Afghanistan is the unclear sense of sacrifice that Canada’s young men and women are being asked to make for their country. Not only has there not been any substantial form of progress in rebuilding Afghanistan in the past five years, but by all indications things are getting worse. The Taliban are getting stronger and the number of coffins sent home steadily increases. All countries have a limit as to how much sacrifice they can accept before they begin to critically question what they are fighting for; Canada has just about reached that limit. (John Horvath)