“All Canadians understand what is being asked of the men and women of our armed forces and their families . . . . As always, they are ready to serve. As always, they will do Canada proud.”
— Prime Minister Jean Chretien,
Canada has sacrificed almost 130 men and women to the enigma that is Afghanistan since former Prime Minster Jean Chrétien addressed the nation in October 2001.
Sacrifice implies “giving up something valued for the sake of something else more important or worthy.” Initially, fighting the threat of terrorism was deemed worthy.
According to Canada’s Engagement in Afghanistan, it has evolved into helping the Government of Afghanistan to maintain security, provide jobs and services, render humanitarian assistance, rebuild institutions and contribute to Afghan-led political reconciliation.
Aiding a people brutalized by more than three decades of war is a worthy goal, yet it’s difficult to look at the photos of those soldiers who have given their lives — some smiling, others mostly stoic — and feel anything but anger and regret because, thus far, their sacrifice has amounted to so little: a presidential election marred by the involvement of prominent warlords, allegations of widespread fraud and boycotts; a burgeoning opium crop, which accounted for 92 per cent of global production in 2006; and controversial legislation, believed by critics to legalize rape within marriage, aimed at the country’s Shia minority.
And then there is the rampant corruption, which has some Afghans privately longing for the Taliban’s return; ongoing security concerns, which make it difficult to render humanitarian assistance; and abject poverty, which leads some women to deliver their babies into cow dung because it is the only source of warmth available.
Canadian politicians like to point to the thousands of girls who troop to school daily in their black and white uniforms as proof of progress, although they neglect to mention that there is a shortage of qualified teachers to instruct them. Chalking up a perfect attendance record at biology class is of little value without one.
While it may be difficult today to justify the sacrifices made by Nathan Smith, Mathieu Allard and their 125 counterparts killed in between, it will be impossible to do so in the future unless Canada re-evaluates its commitments in Afghanistan. And that means reopening the debate about troop withdrawal.
NATO would certainly like Canada to keep its troops in Afghanistan past 2011, the deadline set by Parliament just last year. NATO’s secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said as much while visiting a Canadian development project in Kandahar province earlier this month.
Minister of Foreign Lawrence Cannon dismissed Rasmussen’s call out of hand, insisting the government would abide by the motion to withdraw the country’s forces in 18 months.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay reiterated the Conservative’s opposition to an extension on Aug. 25. He said NATO should approach many other countries before it comes knocking on Canada’s door, a statement that has more to do with NATO’s internal disagreements about the Afghan mission’s direction than Canada’s capability to field troops.
Both ministers went on to laud Canada’s military personnel for their significant contributions to the Afghanistan mission. But it’s faint praise coming from a Conservative government that once insisted it was “committed to success” and would honour the sacrifices of the soldiers and their families and “not simply cut and run for political reasons.”
If Cannon, MacKay and, by extension, Prime Minister Harper, believe the sacrifices made by Canadian troops have been worthy, they should let the troops continue to do the job they were trained to do and revisit the decision to withdraw by 2011.
Political reasons were the only justification for approving the withdrawal of combat troops in 2008, and the situation on the ground has changed with President Barack Obama’s recent approval of an additional 17,000 troops. Most of them will be stationed in the Afghanistan’s volatile south.
Prime Minister Harper signalled in 2006 he was willing to extend the Afghan mission even if it meant losing the next election.
Perhaps he will muster that necessary leadership again during the next 18 months and give our troops the time they need to do Canada proud.
Cameron Kennedy is an Advocate editor.