The death toll from our military commitment in Afghanistan has now climbed to 27, and Canadians are rightfully starting to worry. This week, a Strategic Coun-
sel poll found that the percentage of respondents who support the missionhaci slipped from 55 per cent to 37 per cent since March, after Canadian troops took on a more prominent role in the Afghanistan campaign and thus began sustaining heavier losses. The rising anxiety was succinctly articulated two weeks ago by David Steeves of Charlottetown, who wrote in a letter to the Globe and Mail, "more and more young Canadians will be killed in Afghanistan for no sensible objective other than to please the Americans. What is there in Afghanistan worth fighting for?"
It’s a legitimate question deserving a thoughtful answer. The sight of flag-draped coffins rolling, one after another, off transport aircraft is enough to shake anyone’s resolve. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that the Canadian government, under both the Liberals and Conservatives, has consistently failed to provide Canadians with a clear explanation of our presence in Afghanistan. Why is it our problem? Who are we fighting for and who against? What national interest is being served by our presence there?
Under the Liberals, Canada’s deployment was always downplayed as just another chapter in our long history of multilateral peacekeeping. In a 2004 address to the Interna-
tional Conference on Afghanistan, then-foreign affairs minister Bill Graham said the military deployment “has deep political support in Canada because of the importance that Canadians attach to seeing Afghanistan established as a free, open and democratic society.” He painted a picture of a community police action aimed at promoting human rights and discouraging drug traffic. Not once did he utter the word “Taliban” or hint at exchanges of live ammunition.
The Conservatives under Stephen Harper have consistently minimized the possibility of combat and refused to acknowledge that Canada is at war. The Prime Minister at first tried to keep the House from debating the Afghan mission at all. On extending our deployment by two years in May, he finally allowed Parliament a brief run at the issue. He himself connected the dots between global terror networks and the Taliban and our own national security. He even made reference to the Taliban’s ruthless oppression of the Afghan people. But much of his time on the floor was dedicated to embarrassing the opposition by reading earlier statements from Liberal, NDP and Bloc Québécois members in support of the Afghan mission. He didn’t build a case for our involvement so much as argue that it was all the Liberals’ idea to go there in the first place, wasting an opportunity to bolster the nation’s confidence and resolve.
Canadians are perfectly right to doubt the wisdom of sending brave young soldiers to die for a cause their leaders won’t rationally,
vigorously and sincerely defend. But the case for Canada’s commitment to Afghanistan is not difficult to make. We are not there as a pawn in George W. Bush’s war on terror. We are not fighting the Taliban to placate Washington for our refusal to commit to Iraq. Canada is one of 37 NATO and partner nations—Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey, to name just a few—risking lives in Afghanistan in the hopes that one of the world’s most dangerous breeding grounds of desperation and extremism might be lifted onto its feet and made a full contributing member of the world community. The effort has been endorsed by the UN and practically the entire world community.
Should our Prime Minister decide to take pride in our contributions, he could do worse than to crib from recent comments made by his Australian counterpart John Howard on the announcement of his decision to lend another 150 troops to the NATO effort:
“The Afghan people are working to achieve stability, peace and democracy, after many years of violence and extremism. For Afghanistan, the path to security will be long and hard, with many challenges lying ahead. But Afghanistan will not have to face these challenges alone. Australia, along with many others in the international community, is there to assist the Afghan people.
“We have already witnessed what happens when the global community turns its back on extremism. Afghanistan was neglected for too long, condemning the Afghan people to decades of war and poverty. But the world is now much more aware of the dangers of ignoring extremism and fundamentalism. The stability of Afghanistan has wider implications for global security and it is for this reason that the Australian government is committed to ensuring that Afghanistan achieves long-term peace.
“Afghanistan’s social indicators remain sobering. At 46 years, Afghan life expectancy is one of the world’s lowest, and at least 20 years lower than that of all Afghanistan’s neighbours. One in five children still die before the age of five, and the country has some of the world’s lowest literacy rates. In addition, 3.4 million Afghans remain outside their country and there is much room for improvement in the country’s human rights situation.
“Afghanistan is still one of the world’s poorest countries. Decades of war destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and severely disrupted economic activity, including in agriculture. Criminal and terrorist activity continues to hamper economic growth, and the expansion of the drug trade remains of very deep concern. Sustained economic growth will be required to make a significant dent in the country’s chronic poverty.
“These problems are complex and will
not be solved quickly. But Australia cannot and will not abandon Afghanistan. We need to remain committed to supporting this fledgling democracy.”
Should our Prime Minister want to offer Canadians more vivid examples of what we’re fighting in Afghanistan, he could relate how, last January, Taliban thugs broke into the home of Malim Abdul Habib, a high school headmaster in the central Afghanistan town of Qalat. His assailants stabbed Habib eight times before cutting off his head, while his wife and eight children, aged two to 22, watched. According to Human Rights Watch, Habib’s crime was that his school had the audacity to
The PM should highlight the enormous good our presence has already accomplished
educate girls, and the attack was part of a much broader assault against education in general throughout the country. In the past 12 months, 208 schools have been closed and Taliban insurgents have burned 144 more and killed 41 teachers and students. Investigators believe that Canadian carpenter Mike Frastacky, 56, was another victim of the same reign of terror last month. Frastacky had been building a school in the town of Nahrin, in northern Afghanistan, when he was shot to death in the home where he was staying.
The Prime Minister must know that the Taliban’s ruthless and bloody campaign is by no means limited to the country’s fledgling school system. Last month, attackers lobbed grenades into the home of a postman who worked in the eastern province of Khost, simply because he dared take a job with the national government. The attack severely wounded the postman, and killed his three young daughters. And just last week, in the village of Daigh, in the southern province of Helmand, a 70-year-old woman and her 30-year-
old son were hanged from a tree because her son-in-law had worked for the Afghan police.
That is the face of our enemy: an ideology that not only advocates the utter subjugation of women and the violent opposition to Western culture, but the decapitation of a teacher, the blowing up of a postman and hanging of an old woman, for no reason other than that they sought a better life for their families and their country.
It would also be advisable for the Prime Minister to highlight for Canadians the enormous good that our presence in Afghanistan has already accomplished. He might note that since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, an
immunization program has vaccinated over five million children under the age of five against polio, almost eradicating that disease. And despite the Islamist extremists’ determination to terrify teachers and burn schools at every opportunity, Human Rights Watch estimates 5.2 million children are now enrolled in school in Afghanistan, compared to about 775,000, all of them boys, under the Taliban. There are also the makings of an economic recovery in Afghanistan. Real GDP is expected to grow by almost 12 per cent in 2006. This builds on strong growth rates over the past few years, even if from a low base.
Even more crucial for the long-term health, welfare and security of the Afghan people, our commitment to their country last year helped them launch their first parliamentary elections in 30 years. Afghanistan now has a democratic constitution and a democratically elected president and parliament. In an encouraging sign for the inclusiveness of Afghanistan’s burgeoning civil society, women featured prominently in these elections: 68
women were elected to the lower house, taking 27 per cent of available seats.
The Prime Minister might further mention that the Afghan people desperately want us to remain in their country. In December, ABC News commissioned the first national opinion poll of Afghans. Asked if they prefer the current government under Hamid Karzai to the Taliban regime, 91 per cent said they did. Fully 85 per cent said living conditions had improved since the change in government, and 77 per cent said they believed the country was headed in the right direction—and despite popular perceptions in the West, there is a great deal to justify that faith and optimism.
Finally, it is imperative that Canadians hear a frank statement from the Prime Minister on the extent and duration of our commitment to Afghanistan. This is not going to be a cakewalk. We face enormous challenges in Afghanistan. As Ottawa Bureau Chief John Geddes explains in this week’s cover story (page 22), the level of violence has increased in recent months as the Taliban and other terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, seek to chip away at the credibility of the Afghan government and reverse the reconstruction effort. Security beyond the capital of Kabul, particularly in the east and south, is the worst it has been since the Taliban fell. This month, Lt.-Gen. David Richards, head of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, said NATO troops are encountering “persistent low-level dirty fighting,” the most dangerous sustained combat they have seen since the Korean War. He warned that the country is teetering perilously “close to anarchy.” But the seriousness of the situation is reason for us to dig in our heels, not throw up our hands. There are some who’ve complained that Canada’s presence in Afghanistan is doing damage to our international reputation as a peace-loving, progressive nation. The reality is just the opposite: if we were to heed the naysayers, give up now, and turn our backs on our duty and the Afghan people—that would be a national shame.
Last week, Lt.-Gen. Richards was in Kandahar to express his gratitude to the Canadians who gave their lives in recent clashes with militants, and to implore this country to stay the course. If ever there was a just war, he said, it’s the one we’re fighting now.
It is an awesome responsibility to assign young men and women to risk their lives in service to their country. It should only be undertaken for clear and important causes, and with forthright explanation. Thus far, our government has failed our soldiers, their families and our citizens by backing into commitments, by avoiding debate, by misleading the public, and by refusing to lead. It’s time all that changed. M
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.