Thursday, May 15, 2008

Canada in Afghanistan

The US commander in Afghanistan calls the Taliban's spring offensive a "myth", but nevertheless, US and NATO forces continue to take casualties.

The most recent Canadian death was Cpl. Michael Starker from Calgary, killed just west of Kandahar on May 6.

For non-Canadians, it may surprise you to learn that we actually have the highest casualty rate of any coalition military force in Afghanistan. We've suffered 83 deaths since 2002, most of them since the expansion of the Kandahar mission to a full-time committment of 2,500 troops in 2006. This is mostly due to our presence in one of the most dangerous regions of Afghanistan. Kandahar was the home of the Taliban and remains a hotbed of militant support.

Predictably, the Afghan mission has become a very hot topic in our politics. The Conservatives support the mission, as do the Liberals, but there is a growing sentiment that our troops should be redeployed out of the combat zone while other NATO countries such as France and Germany pick up the slack. There has been very limited progress on that front, mostly vague promises and symbolic measures, though France has promised to deploy more troops to eastern Afghanistan, thus freeing up some American forces who can then aid us.

It's worth noting that for decades, the Canadian public and government viewed the military largely as a peacekeeping force, and thus, its peacemaking capabilities steadily deteriorated. The Conservatives have injected some new funds into the Forces, but there are still many deficiencies to overcome. And the Afghan mission has really sparked a public debate over Canada's role in the world. Should we be fighting wars? Is this what Canada is about?

My opinion is that the Afghan mission is legitimate, unlike the war in Iraq. We have an obligation to the people of Afghanistan to finish the job we started, and to get the country on its feet and making progress toward economic development. But we have to recognize the basic fact that poppy cultivation (leading to heroin production) is the central obstacle blocking a peaceful resolution. The warlords depend on it, as do most Afghan farmers. If we destroy their poppy crops, they see us as their enemy and join the Taliban.

A major international committment is needed to solve this problem; Afghans need alternative means of making money, and this will come only after the basic needs of a functioning society are in place: basic sanitation, disease control, universal primary education, adequate food and water supplies, well maintained roads, and a competent government that is accountable to the people. And the deplorable oppression of women must end as well, but societal transformation will only come as a by-product of economic transformation. Afghanistan needs a hell of a lot more aid then they are getting. Without that, any military progress we make is like pissing into the wind.

UPDATE: There is an ongoing blog at the Globe and Mail by Katherine O'Neill (on the ground in Kandahar) about Canada's mission in Afghanistan; it can be accessed here:

Also of interest:

Tories grilled on defence plan

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