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The ChronicleHerald.ca September 23, 2006

War in Kandahar: some explosive questions

By Ralph Surette

ATLANTIC CANADA has more people per capita in uniform than the rest of Canada – poorer places always supply more recruits for armed forces. As the toll of battle rises since Canada took over the ultra-dangerous Kandahar operation, Afghanistan is suddenly particularly close to home.

The need to support the troops is vitally important. Their bravery, dedication and self-sacrifice are not only evident, but so contrary to the lax and decadent ways prevailing in society generally.

These qualities, however, hardly describe the politicians and commanders who sent them there. And so, just as vital is the need to keep a hard light shining on the operation and its strategies, especially in view of the fact that the complicating background of the Afghan mission is the mind-boggling debacle that has been the invasion and incompetent prosecution of the war in Iraq.

The past few weeks have been particularly alive with serious questions we ought not ignore.

There was, for example, that report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives stating that 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. A British statistician, Sheila Bird, did a similar study, came up with similar results, and added that Canadians are even more at risk than Americans in Iraq, and roughly at the same risk as Russian soldiers in Afghanistan 20 years ago.

Meanwhile, Canadian commanders have declared themselves "surprised" at the tenacity of the Taliban. Surprised? Considering everything that’s going on in the Middle East, considering the history of Afghanistan, and they’re surprised! Do we have some lethal naiveté here?

There was also that shocker from Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor, who stated that it was "impossible to defeat the Taliban militarily." Since then, the prime minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay have insisted at every turn we’re there until Afghanistan is secure, democratic and built up.

Alas, the stream of reports coming out of Afghanistan supports what O’Connor is perhaps unwittingly suggest-ing, and then some. A notable one was by the Senlis Council, a London-based international think tank concerned primarily with drug policy, and which has researchers in Afghanistan.

"Canadian troops are failing to stabilize Kandahar province," it states. "Canadian troops and Afghan civilians are paying with their lives for Canada’s adherence to the U.S. government’s failing military and counter-narcotics policies in Kandahar." The council states that Canadian troops are under the command of both the U.S.-led counter-terrorist Operation Enduring Freedom and the UN-mandated NATO-led Stabilizing International Security Assistance Force, with different objectives. "There is local and international confusion surrounding the role of Canadian troops in Kandahar. This opaqueness of purpose is making the Canadian troops’ mission considerably more dangerous." Should we be asking questions?

The main theme of these reports is that attacks against insurgents are merely creating civilian casualties and refugees. Large refugee camps populated with starving Afghans are popping up around the Western military bases. The "hearts and minds" campaign, according to these observers, is being lost. The most dramatic statement to this effect was made by British Captain Leo Docherty, who made news by quitting the military in protest against an operation he called "barking mad" – a poorly planned venture that was supposed to be a low-risk reconstruction mission in Helmand province, that turned out to be the fiercest operation faced by the British since the Korean War. The entire Afghan mission, he said, is a similar blunder.

The military commanders keep reporting progress when we kill insurgents. A report in the Toronto Star recently quoted demographics experts pointing out that the Middle East is in the midst of a "youth boom," whereas the West is getting older. Most of these youths are unemployed and easily recruited into insurgency. The strategic implications, one said, is that they can outlast us for another two generations, even if we outkill them 20-to-one. The Star also quoted an American analyst, John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, saying "Canada may want to reconsider how much more of this it wants." He warned against claims of success based on large numbers of enemy dead. "We spent years doing that in Vietnam."

Meanwhile, the argument goes, we’re there because we have to support our NATO allies. But no NATO ally wants to step up and relieve us in Kandahar.

Are we really taking a lead here, or repeating U.S. mistakes?

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County.

Copyright 2006, The Halifax Herald Limited