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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Toronto Star September 19, 2006

Risk of death soars for Canada's troops

4 more soldiers killed in attack
Report describes `unfair burden'

By Bill Schiller

The deaths of four more Canadian soldiers yesterday — and detailed reports showing our soldiers die at a rate disproportionate to other coalition forces — has again thrust Canada's controversial mission in Afghanistan to the top of the national agenda.

The four died while on patrol in southern Afghanistan when a suicide bomber on a bicycle detonated his payload. More than a dozen soldiers and 27 civilians were injured, among them children.

The soldiers' injuries were said to be non-life threatening.

One of the dead was Pte. David Byers of 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, based in Shilo, Man. The families of the remaining three asked that their names not yet be released.

The deaths raised the Canadian death toll to 36 soldiers — 21 since May 1.

The news came on a day when a grim, new analysis emerged showing Canadian soldiers fighting in Afghanistan face a far higher risk of being killed than their fellow coalition soldiers — or even American soldiers in Iraq.

"A Canadian soldier in Afghanistan is three times more likely to be killed than a British soldier and four and a half times more likely than an American," said Steven Staples, co-author of "Canada's Fallen," a report he co-wrote for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

"And a Canadian in Kandahar is six times more likely to die than an American soldier deployed to Iraq," he said.

The comparisons were based on the number of troops deployed and the fatalities experienced over measurable periods of time

"Canada has taken on a very dangerous mission and is shouldering an unfair burden in the coalition. Why that is ... we don't have an answer for that yet," Staples said.

The report by the centre, a left-leaning research institute based in Ottawa, was released before the deaths of the soldiers were confirmed in a press conference in Afghanistan. They were not factored into the report.

The news and the new report jarred with official weekend pronouncements by the Canadian military that it had scored a key victory against the Taliban in a two-week battle in Panjwaii, west of Kandahar city.

Even military historian David Bercuson — a strong supporter of Canada's mission in Afghanistan — described himself as "skeptical" of the Canadian victory announcement, describing it as "possibly overly ambitious, overly optimistic."

Victory in war, the University of Calgary analyst said, is not only taking territory, "but keeping it" and improving life for the locals in ways that can be clearly measured, in terms of security and quality of life.

Declarations of victory through the ages have served many purposes down the years, Bercuson cautioned.

"They can be for information purposes, for morale purposes and for propaganda (to rattle the enemy)." He was wary of them until life was demonstrably better on the ground, he said.

One American analyst, John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, wondered how long Canada's military could sustain such losses.

"Canada may reconsider how much more of this it wants," Pike said. He said he, too, was familiar with military pronouncements of victory with impressive numbers of enemy dead and low casualties for western forces.

"We spent years doing that in Vietnam," he said of the U.S. war there.

In Afghanistan, Pike envisions a near-endless scenario.

"It's not going to end," he said of the Afghan war. "And it may get worse before it gets better ... it's going to last for decades."

He said he could understand why Europeans in the NATO coalition are taking up the battle in Afghanistan: the country is the major supplier of poppies used to produce heroin sold throughout Europe. "(But) Canada doesn't have an Afghan heroin problem," he said.

Declarations of victory in Afghanistan will be difficult, he said. In Iraq there are metrics — measurable indices like electricity, oil supplies, security forces and cellphone use.

"There are no metrics in Afghanistan," he said. That will make progress — the basis of victory — difficult to measure.

Both he and Marina Ottaway, an Afghan expert and Middle East specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, cautioned against predictions of overly optimistic outcomes.

"I don't think there are really very many people in the (Bush) administration who really believe that we can transform Afghanistan into a democracy, any more than we can transform Iraq into a democracy," said Ottaway. The respected Washington-based analyst added she does not even think Afghanistan can be transformed into a highly centralized state.

The best outcome is to prevent the Taliban from taking complete control of specific regions, she said.

"At this point the best that we can hope for is an emergence of a kind of feudal state where a lot of power is exercised locally ... where unity of the country is not called into question, but the central government does not exercise full control much outside of Kabul."

In England, statistician Sheila Bird did an earlier risk assessment study similar to that done in Ottawa. Yesterday, she said in a telephone interview that when the new fatalities are factored in, Canadian soldiers are now facing twice and possibly four times the risk of death that British soldiers faced in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The British had 46,000 troops engaged in the 43-day invasion but lost only 33 soldiers.

Since May 1 this year — a period of 141 days — the Canadian force in Afghanistan, numbering about 2,200, has already lost 21 soldiers.

Relating the number of fatalities to the number of military personnel deployed is crucial, Bird said, because "this helps to accurately measure the real rate of risk on the ground for coalition forces."

She emphasized that the risk Canadians face in Kandahar is "absolutely" riskier than what Americans face in Iraq.

What the Canadians are confronting is "as dangerous as what the Russians were facing 20 years ago." The Russians left Afghanistan in defeat in 1989 after a nine-year campaign.

Her numbers, Bird said, "underscore what the (NATO) commanders and the soldiers have said about the ferocity that they're facing."


Copyright 2006, Toronto Star Newspapers Limited