Mired in Afghanistan

By  Joseph Sinasac
  • April 24, 2007
The recent deaths of eight Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan underline once again the troubling direction of Canada’s largest initiative in the global struggle against terrorism. It is not so much the fact that soldiers are dying in a military conflict that is so worrisome — though this is tragic enough — but the seemingly ad hoc management of this military venture by the Conservative government.
The parents, spouses, siblings and friends of the dead soldiers deserve better assurances from their federal government that the deaths of their loved ones were not without purpose. So far, however, what Canadians are hearing from Ottawa raises more questions than it answers.

It’s worth recalling that the Canadian military venture in Afghanistan was a direct response by the Liberal government of Jean Chretien to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. Al-Qaida, the terrorist group led by Osama bin Laden, claimed responsibility and it was both headquartered in Afghanistan and supported by the totalitarian regime of the Taliban in that country. It made sense and seemed a proportionate defensive response by a NATO military alliance, with United Nations sanction, to invade Afghanistan and eliminate the regime.

Alas, “surgical strikes” happen only in video games. Since 2001, progress has been both halting and mired in a culture that poses challenges the NATO alliance has not been prepared to meet. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper led his Conservatives to victory in early 2006, one of his first moves in foreign affairs was to extend the Afghanistan mission to 2009. This appears to have been less a carefully calibrated response to the situation on the ground than an attempt to win points in Washington.

Since then a steady current of bad news has flowed from the Canadian troops in Afghanistan. And from Ottawa, an unsteady string of contradictory statements, including Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor’s embarrassing climb-down regarding Canada’s handing of military prisoners over to Afghan security services for likely torture. Now we know that Canada cannot guarantee that it hasn’t been an accessory in torture of military prisoners, a sorry state of affairs that is surely not what we bargained for.

Having staggered badly through that affair, O’Connor has now decided the Canadian troops need a bevy of extra tanks, though they won’t get them until after 2009, when their mission is supposedly over. Yet he insists the mission will end on schedule in February 2009 even while proceeding with plans to equip them with the extra tanks. For what purpose? We don’t know and the minister hasn’t been overly helpful in clarifying this point.

The New Democrats have called for a full parliamentary debate on the Afghanistan mission. It is sorely needed. There may still be a strong case for Canada’s military role there, but someone has to make it. So far, we’re still waiting.

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