Will Canada ever leave Afghanistan? Harper extends mission for another three years

December 2010

Will Canada ever leave Afghanistan? This is a difficult question. I believe the answer is yes.

When attempting to answer this question, there are three things we must consider. First, Canada’s relationship to the United States; second, the reasons given for the military occupation of Afghanistan; and third, public opinion.

Canadian involvement in Afghanistan started in 2001, with a small contingent aiding the U.S.-led invasion, increasing slowly until today, where we have almost 3,000 troops, largely based in and around Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city.

While it was Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government that initially gave support to U.S. opera- tions in Afghanistan with about a hundred Canadian troops, it has been Harper’s Conservative government that has increased support of the American initiative, continuing to extend the Canadian military presence in Afghanistan.

Despite Obama’s campaign promises to decrease the American military presence in Afghanistan, it looks as if the troops won’t be coming home anytime soon.

In Canada, as the previously announced term for the combat mission ends (mid-2011), the Harper government has managed to extend, once again, the mission by another three years.

While the majority of troops are to return to Canadian soil (or to another mission the government has yet to announce), about 950 troops will remain in a “training” capacity.

The newly extended, now so-called humanitarian mission, will have four main goals, at least according to the Canadian government: “investing in the future of Afghan children and youth through development programming in education and health; advancing security, the rule of law and human rights, including through the provision of up to 950 trainers for Afghan security forces; promoting regional diplomacy; and helping deliver humanitarian assistance.” The government elaborates its goals on a website called “Canada’s Engagement in Afghanistan.”

Now that our mission no longer appears to be a combat initiative, I believe it is less likely that the general public will find reasons to be opposed to Canadian military presence in Af- ghanistan.

Humanitarian missions and development initiatives are currently so popular with liber- als-wanting-to-be-leftist/Free-the-Children-but-go-fair trade/hippie/hipster youth culture that converting the mission mandate from war to development was probably the most clever PR move yet.

By playing up the “bring our troops home (preferably not in body bags)” angle, those op- posed to foreign occupation garnered much support. However, if people start to think that the newly extended post-2011 mission is a friendly and safe expedition, then it may become hard to convince them otherwise.

On the other hand, it appears the Canadian public is hardened by a decade of the “War on Terror.” A recent Canadian Press/Harris-Decima poll shows that the majority of Canadians are opposed to a continued military presence in Afghanistan, and will only tolerate the extended humanitarian mission if it there is no combative engagement.

Of those that responded to the poll, 60 per cent were opposed to having Canadian troops in Afghanistan. The poll also brings to light another reason why public opinion – and making our voices heard to the powers that be – is so important.

From this poll, we can see that once again the Harper government (this time supported by Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff ) is “paddling against the tide of public opinion.”

“It’s a rare instance…” says Harris-Decima chairman Allan Gregg, “where the two major parties have come together, knowing that they’re probably on the wrong side of public opinion, to do what they believe in their heart of hearts is the right thing.”

My question is this: how much longer can our government make excuses for a mission so obviously opposed by the majority of Canadians? While this would not be the first time public opinion is ignored for the sake of war and political power, we have to believe that our elected government will only be able to oppose us so openly for so long.

At the very least, Harper only has two years left in his term, and let’s hope opposition to his global affairs strategies will translate into general opposition at the ballot box.

Most Afghans want troops to leave their country. Read about the poll here: bit.ly/gPYnPZ

as published in the Ryerson Free Press, December 2010

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