Canada is bearing a disproportionate load in Afghanistan

Our casualty rate gives us a strong case for scaling back operations in 2009

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The Gazette, Friday, August 24, 2007

Opposition to Canada's mission in Afghanistan has always been strongest in Quebec, and will only intensify in light of this week's death of three Quebecers in roadside bombings near Kandahar.

This brings to six the number of Quebecers who have died in Afghanistan, beginning with Cpl. Ainsworth Dyer's death in the infamous friendly fire incident from a U.S. bomber in 2002.

This is still only about 10 per cent of the 69 Canadians who have been killed in Afghanistan, though the percentage of Quebec casualties is certain to rise over the duration of the Van Doos' rotation leading the mission. There are two months remaining before an expected winter lull (there were no Canadians killed from last November to March).

Support for the humanitarian aspects of the mission actually runs quite high in Quebec, but the operations against the Taliban in the south are widely perceived as part of George W. Bush's wider war on terror centred in Iraq, rather than a UN-approved, NATO-led mission to liberate and rebuild the broken country of Afghanistan.

At the Montebello summit this week, President Bush went out of his way to praise Canadian troops for their "brilliant" and brave contributions to the effort in Afghanistan, but in Quebec that only underlined the point it was his war. White House officials, in a press briefing aboard Air Force One and later at Montebello, also were unusually sensitive to the politically delicate position of the Canadian government on the Afghan mission. And that's putting it delicately.

CROP was in the field for La Presse last weekend when the first Van Doo was killed and the news of Pte. Simon Longtin's death dropped support for the mission in Quebec from 35 to 28 per cent overnight, and 31 per cent overall, as opposed to 65 per cent opposed.

In other words, two Quebecers in three are opposed to the mission. Only 33 per cent approve of the Van Doos' deployment and only 33 per cent believe Canadian troops should be deployed in Afghanistan until 2009. Thus, only one Quebecer in three believes Canada should fulfill its commitment to Afghanistan and undertaking to NATO to complete our obligation in Kandahar to February 2009.

All of which indicates if casualties from Quebec mount, there will be more political fallout for the Harper government.

But the narrower focus on troops from Valcartier misses the larger point that Canadian troops have been taking disproportionate number of casualties in Afghanistan.

All but the four friendly fire deaths, and a handful of others on patrol out of Camp Julien in Kabul, have occurred since Canadian troops redeployed from the relative safety of the capital to the dangerous Kandahar region, home of the Taliban.

As of yesterday, Canada had suffered 69 deaths in Afghanistan, only one less than Britain, though the British have stationed well over twice as many troops there, about 6,500, as we have. The Americans, with about 15,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan, have suffered 361 deaths since launching Operation Enduring Freedom in response to the events of 9/11 in October 2001.

After that, the discrepancy in NATO casualty numbers is quite striking. The Dutch, with about 3,000 troops in Afghanistan, have suffered only nine deaths, the same number as the Italians, and only one fewer than the French. The Germans, with 3,000 troops posted to Afghanistan, have accounted for 24 deaths among losses suffered by

NATO's International Security Assistance Force. In all, according to the ISAF website, 37 countries have contributed 41,000 troops to the mission.

There is no question that Canada is suffering a disproportionate number of casualties because of the heavy lifting we are doing in the south. It's very clear from a look at the casualty list. Kabul, where only a few troops died on patrol, was relatively safe duty; Kandahar is very dangerous. The nature of our casualties also speaks to the deadly character of the Taliban insurgency: 31 Canadians have now died as a result of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), while another 11 have died in suicide bombings, six have died from friendly fire, while only 13 have died in direct combat from hostile fire. Less than 20 per cent of our deaths have been suffered in direct engagements with the Taliban.

It doesn't really matter anymore that we got to Kandahar because General Rick Hillier lobbied hard for the redeployment, and the Liberal government of Paul Martin approved it in the summer of 2005 (even though most Liberals voted against renewing the mission when in opposition in 2006, and Martin himself couldn't be bothered to show up for the vote).

The important fact is that Canada is carrying an unfair share of the load in terms of troops in harm's way, and it's time for other NATO countries to step up in terms of burden-sharing.

Canada is not a cut-and-run country, and we should fulfill our commitments to NATO. But these numbers make a very strong case for rotating out of Kandahar in 2009, even while remaining in Afghanistan at the head of another provincial reconstruction team and to help build a civil society in one of the most ravaged nations in the world.

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