When Canada joined the US and other NATO allies in Afghanistan in 2002, the aim was to capture Osama bin Laden and shut down terrorist camps in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
But things didn’t go as planned. Bin Laden found refuge in neighbouring Pakistan. The Taliban proved to be formidable opponents and the débâcle became Canada’s longest military engagement, costing nearly $20 billion. So far, 156 Canadian soldiers have been killed and more than 1,500 wounded. Afghan casualties have been much higher: nearly 3,000 civilians were killed in 2010, the deadliest year in the current conflict.
Originally, Canada’s 3,000 troops were to return home in 2007. But the Conservative government extended the date, with support from the opposition Liberals, first to 2009 then to July 2011. Big mistake. Canadian public opinion has never supported the war and in Quebec it has been overwhelmingly opposed – a key reason why both the Liberals and Tories were almost shut out in the province in the recent federal election.
Now the July 2011 date has shifted too. The troops will leave. But, bowing to pressure from Washington, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s majority Conservatives have pledged 950 ‘military trainers and support personnel’ to help train Afghan soldiers and police until 2014. Both NATO and the US have said they will withdraw troops the same year.
Since 2006, the bulk of Canada’s soldiers have been in the southern region of Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold. The ‘non-combat’ training operation will centre on the capital, Kabul, and the surrounding region – largely controlled by NATO ally Hamid Karzai’s administration, a motley collection of corrupt tribal leaders, brutal warlords, petty thugs and fundamentalists, many of whom are linked to the drug trade.
Canada claims the war will bring democracy to a troubled nation, but no-one believes now that the Taliban can be defeated militarily. The US is encouraging negotiations between insurgents and the Karzai government. (According to the New York Times, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has met three times with senior US officials in recent months to explore peace talks.) Even Prime Minister Harper said last October that ‘It has always been our position [that talks with insurgents] are part of an eventual solution, and that it’s not simply military action alone.’
So why not cut your losses? For Canada’s Conservative government it’s a mix of politics and ideology. The Afghan war has been a useful way for Harper to push his tough-guy image and his market fundamentalist agenda. The military now has a higher public profile than any time since World War Two. Canadians have begun to display the same mindless support for militarism as their American neighbours. Take Libya. When Ottawa joined that conflict, the level of debate both in parliament and in the media was minimal.
In the meantime, the Afghan war grinds on and the body count on both sides rises.