Bearing the brunt in Afghanistan

MOST Canadians have a hard time understanding what their calling is in Afghanistan. They see the mission as having a less than an even chance of success, too reliant on guns and tanks, and part of an American enterprise rather than an international UN-endorsed undertaking. There is a tendency to conflate Afghanistan with Iraq.

By George Abraham

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Published: Sun 8 Apr 2007, 8:02 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:06 AM

Hence, the government has been sending words and celebrities into battle to counter the scepticism and make a case for Canada’s long-term presence in the blighted nation. Not a week goes by without a Canadian political personality making a “surprise” visit to the military base in Kandahar, but of late, these outings have included cultural and sporting icons who can ‘soft sell’ the mission in more human terms.

Last week, the owner of the Ottawa Senators hockey team touched down in Kandahar aboard a C-130 Hercules aircraft, carrying as baggage Cdn$50,000 worth of sticks, skates, goalie pads, jerseys and gloves. Shortly after, billionaire Eugene Melnyk offered this ringing endorsement of what the 2,500 Canuck troops are doing in southern Afghanistan: “I want to thank you on behalf of my family who sleep better at night because of you, for everything you do.”

Toeing the official line, Melnyk went on to praise the Canadian mission’s sense of balance between what the government calls its 3-D strategy – development, diplomacy and defence. “I learned a lot about what goes on, there’s a lot more than combat. The soldiers are literally rebuilding a society. Combat is only about 10 to 20 per cent of it. They are building schools, infrastructure, trying to put the country together again.”

Back home, Canadians have said in repeated surveys that they see little of the development and diplomacy and a lot more of the military aspect, including the highest casualty rate among NATO troops deployed in Afghanistan. In a country that still harks back to the ‘blue berets’ of the Suez crisis of 1956, this is hardly surprising. Melnyk’s essential assessment has been offered in recent months by the prime minister, the governor-general and military commanders during visits to Kandahar, but they were probably not as effective as coming from the owner of the Senators.

Canada went into Afghanistan in 2003 as a way of staying out of Iraq. Since then, it has bolstered its presence and financial commitment, concentrating much of its military might in the former Taleban stronghold of Kandahar. The government has been trying over the last year to refashion its message to an increasingly restive audience that views the mission veering away from Canada’s true humanitarian traditions. Rather than the 3-D approach touted by their political leaders and military commanders, ordinary Canadians prefer the soft 3-R strategy of Reconstruction, Relief and Restoration that matches their self-image as global Good Samaritans.

These instincts, however, fly in the face of evidence that there can be no exclusively soft approach to rebuilding Afghanistan, that development cannot happen without at least armed protection and that the Taleban retain the ability to play spoiler six years after being driven out of Kabul. While most commentators talk of success in a 10 or 20-year time frame —long after the current protagonists have left the scene and world attention has shifted away from both Iraq and Afghanistan – Canada’s current commitment ends in 2009 and there is little appetite for an extension.

There are also signs that the Canadian military has not been as adept at coping with Afghan battlefield conditions as they have been to tailoring the hockey they play to the scorching climate. At the Kandahar military base, league games are played on a concrete rink built on a patch of sand, with a ball replacing the standard puck. Games are restricted to 25 minutes because of the heat and are “called” in the event of a rocket attack. “We have a rule in our constitution that in case of a rocket attack, we call the game, go to the shelters and reschedule,” an officer said during Melnyk’s visit.

The troops, though, have had less luck patrolling Kandahar in their Leopard tanks. The vehicles turn into ovens over the summer months, with the interior getting as hot as 60 degrees C. The army has tried heat shields on the outside and cooling vests for the troops, but they made little difference. This summer, the Canadian Forces are leasing 20 newer Leopard tanks from Germany, which not only withstand landmines better but also have air-conditioned interiors.

But, the climate in Canada may be more of a problem in the long run. Independent experts continue to offer dire predictions, even as the voting public finds it hard to evaluate progress. Add to that, diplomats such as Gordon Smith and Rory Stewart are urging Ottawa and its allies to synchronise their objectives with those of the Afghan people. Stewart, a former British diplomat currently stationed in Kabul as head of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation created by Britain’s Prince Charles, told delegates at a conference in Ottawa that Western governments have “set [themselves] up for failure” because ordinary Afghans “don’t buy our fundamental vision” of creating a democracy, giving women equal rights and ending poppy cultivation.

“The reason they (Afghans) are not doing those things is that they don’t want to. … Afghans are considerably more canny and capable than we acknowledge. I do think we can create an Afghanistan in 20 years time that is more just, prosperous and free.”

Smith, a former Canadian ambassador to NATO headquarters, has just published a study entitled “Canada in Afghanistan: Is it working?” for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. He does not see Afghanistan achieving a “representative government and self-sustaining peace and security” even in the next 10 years. “The next two years will likely be decisive. If major conflict continues at the present rate, there is a very real risk that the local population will become increasingly frustrated by the lack of security, and that some allies will head home.”

Canada might well be among them, not because it thinks the mission has been accomplished, but because it finds the goal beyond reach.

George Abraham is an Ottawa-based writer. He can be reached at

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