Saturday, January 14, 2006

Canada needs to brace itself for more combat casualties

As Dave as pointed out in his post below, Canada is about to increase its military presence in Afghanistan and although Canada has been there for the last several years, this deployment will be different.

Canadian troops have been deployed in Afghanistan since 2002 when 800 soldiers were sent to Kandahar to help remove Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. In 2003 when NATO took over the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, Canada’s contribution was almost 2,000 soldiers, the largest contingent of forces to the mission. In August 2005, Canada established a Provincial Reconstruction Team of about 250 people in Kandahar for the purpose of helping the local authorities with security, governance, and delivering basic services. And next month Canada will see its role in Afghanistan expand again.

With the pullout of 4,000 American forces, other NATO countries will jump into the breach to fill a dangerous vacuum left by the US. Along with the British, the Australians, and the reluctant Danes, Canada will be sending about 2,000 men and women (as well as members of the elite JTF-2 force) to one of the most unstable and dangerous regions of Afghanistan…Kandahar. Make no mistake about it, this is not a peacekeeping mission, it’s a combat mission. The dangers are myriad:

The Taliban
It was in Kandahar, a southern province bordering Pakistan, that the Taliban first established their stronghold. Although many were routed out in 2002/2003, the Taliban have never truly vacated the area. And they want it back. As an example, in just a mere four days in August 2005, the Taliban along with their al-Qaeda allies killed two American soldiers, wounded another two, bombed a police bus, and three days later killed another four American soldiers.

Kandahar’s proximity to Pakistan means that the Taliban are not the only combatants in the region for the NATO forces to worry about. Pakistan is still home to large numbers of al-Qaeda members and cross-border infiltration into Kandahar is commonplace. Not only do the Taliban and al-Qaeda form a co-operative team in their attacks, al-Qaeda comes complete with sophisticated armaments and training. British military officers say

Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in southern Afghanistan are preparing
for a large offensive soon after the Canadian and British troops arrive

Between the two of them, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are a dangerous force to reckon with.

Drug traffickers and warlords
Kandahar is prime real estate for growing poppies and despite repeated attempts to reduce the number of poppy fields, the end result can be described as, at best, a stalemate, at worst, a losing battle. Afghanistan produces almost 90% of the world’s opium and the crop makes up more than half of the country’s domestic product. After more than two decades of war and recent droughts, Afghani farmers are returning to the lucrative poppy farming as a means of earning a living. For many it is"the difference between modest prosperity and destitution".

The vast majority of the opium profits end up in the hands of warlords and drug traffickers, many of whom are actively involved in the Afghan government. In fact, it has been estimated that as many as 70% of Afghan government officials are active in the drug trade. The profits made by the warlords are used to finance their own private armies for the protection of the poppy fields. Another group that won’t be happy at seeing NATO forces in the area.

Canadians have no problems differentiating themselves from Americans, but the rest of world lumps us all into the same group. Afghanis don’t make any distinction between Canadians and Americans. It is their feeling that the United States controls NATO and therefore NATO personnel are the equivalent of Americans. Our “Canadianism” will offer Canadian troops no particular protection.

The Canadian army, while very small, has had to punch above its weight for the past 35 years. It has the distinction of having some of the best trained soldiers in the world. Those headed for Afghanistan have been prepared physically, mentally and professionally for what lays ahead. They will arrive well-briefed, ready and with everything that can be made available to make their role successful. They will also go with wishes of a nation that would have every single one of them come home unscathed. That may be too much to hope for.

Canadians need to brace themselves for the possibility of numerous combat casualties during this new expedition into Kandahar. We are a country that is not emotionally prepared for military funerals and we take combat deaths very hard. When we lost four soldiers to USAF “friendly fire” in 2002, the entire country mourned. The memorial services were attended by the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence, the Governor-General and the services were nationally televised. Canada has suffered eight deaths in Afghanistan since 2002 and each death has made national headlines.

We may be in for more.

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