In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, most of the world offered the United States sympathy, the promise of assistance and support in its determination to bring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida to justice. Unfortunately, President George W. Bush failed to define the attacks as criminal acts subject to the censure of the world's legal institutions and chose instead a military response.
The United States, the president averred in his best Texas manner, would wage a war on terror in Afghanistan against the Taliban, which had protected bin Laden, and would capture the latter dead or alive. The global goodwill felt for the United States soon cooled, however, as the administration commenced another war in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. The Bush administration had embraced a pre-emptive, unilateral policy, ignoring realistic warnings that freedom and democracy American-style had never travelled well in the Middle East.
Canada, to then-prime minister Jean Chretien's everlasting credit, rejected Washington's call to join in the Iraq war. Save for several dubious cases that demonstrate the Harper government's complicity in the American practice of subjecting suspected terrorists to extraordinary rendition and torture, this country has remained outside the Iraq inferno.
Nevertheless, Canada did join numerous countries in NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Since the fall of the Taliban late in 2001, Ottawa has steadily increased its military participation and its financial outlay.
By 2006, Canada had assumed a key role in the treacherous southern region of the country. By mid-January 2008, Operation Athena ranked as the largest of three Canadian undertakings, boasting 2,500 troops, with a battle group in Kandahar and representation with brigade headquarters, national command, national support, a medical unit at Kandahar airfield, a provincial reconstruction team in Kandahar and a clandestine special force of 200 in Joint Task Force Two.
The Canadians comprise a vital part of the 31,000 troops from 37 nations serving in Afghanistan. In addition, as part of the larger American operation called Enduring Freedom, under Operation Archer 30 Canadian soldiers were helping to train the Afghan National Army and Police. Operation Argus, meanwhile, put 15 soldiers with the strategic advisory team working with the government in Kabul to develop national strategy.
All told, by mid-January 2008, more than 13,500 Canadian soldiers had served in the Afghan theatre. The outlay of men and materiel has burgeoned. As the recent Manley commission concluded, prior to Ottawa's decision to extend its mission deadline from 2009 to 2111, costs had risen sharply. Still, by no means does Canada's war bill come close to the gigantic outlay in the United States. That expenditure - totalling billions of dollars tossed more at Iraq than Afghanistan - leaves the U.S. in danger of a financial meltdown.
Canadian costs for the Afghanistan mission nonetheless leave many observers wondering whether the maple leaf can bloom in a region dominated by desert, high plateaus and impenetrable mountain ranges. In recent months, Canadians have given up their historic role within NATO and the United Nations of peacekeeper and bearer of humanitarian assistance. Under the direction of Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier, the closest Canadian personification of Rambo we have seen in 50 years, Canadians are now seeking to subdue a resurgent Taliban. They are fighting, dying and sending home soldiers in body bags.
Champions of Canada's mission support it vigorously but now find themselves in a minority. Pro-war academics, headed by Jack Granatstein at York University and David Bercuson at the University of Calgary, argue the need for a more powerful military, assert the continuing significance of NATO for Canada and the world, and rail against anti-war arguments as shortsighted and unpatriotic. Harper's Conservatives support the creation of a modern and far more expensive Canadian Forces.
But is Afghanistan the right cause around which to achieve this goal? Costs for the mission reached $2.6 billion in March 2007, or nearly $1.3 million per day. The price tag is projected to hit about $4.3 billion by February 2009.
Canada's expenditure for Afghan development, meanwhile, stood at $466 million through March 2007. By 2011, this figure will reach $1 billion.
Canada's death toll in Afghanistan has hit 82, a far cry from the 4,000 Americans who have died in Iraq. Yet, like the carnage in Iraq, each Canadian death prompts the question, "For what purpose did that soldier die?" For friends of the late Jason Boyes of Napanee, the question became especially poignant. Gung-ho to help the Afghans rebuild their country when interviewed by CTV in 2006, Boyes came home in a coffin last month. His is a story similar to that of many small-town Canadians who chose the military as a way out and up.
We've spent $1 million on funerals so far ($100,000 less than the cost of establishing a Tim Hortons in Kandahar), and each time a soldier dies, the questions get tougher to answer.
What is the Canadian interest in Afghanistan? Does NATO remain a shield against attack or has it become a means for Washington to get proxies to fight its wars? To what extent do the American war on drugs and often indiscriminate bombing in Afghanistan exacerbate local hatred for the West? What of the failure of Western aid donors to match promises of funding ($25 billion) with performance ($15 billion - and much of it returned to donor countries in consultant fees and corporate profits). How does the International Security Assistance Force distinguish between friend and foe in a strange land whose history of ethnic antagonisms and warlord rule beggars any hope for instilling Western democracy and freedom?
The questions remain.
This article appeared in the Kingston Whig Standard 11 April 2008.