Is Canada on the "wrong mission" in Afghanistan, as New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton charged yesterday when six more Canadian troops and an Afghan interpreter were killed by a roadside bomb?
No. Canada is on the right mission, costly as it is, to buy time for President Hamid Karzai's democratically elected government to gather its strength, and hopefully thwart a Taliban comeback that would see Afghanistan again become a haven for 9/11-style terror.
Courageous women and men in the Canadian Forces, including the 66 who have now died, are doing their best in strife-torn Kandahar region, under a lawful United Nations mandate, to ensure the Taliban do not prevail there, at least not on our watch.
They deserve Canada's wholehearted thanks and support.
In Parliament, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives and Stephane Dion's Liberals may spar over just when to serve notice to the United States and other allies that we plan to call it a day in Kandahar when our mission ends in February 2009. But that is a political sideshow, largely. Absent a consensus to extend the mission, it will inevitably wind down. Our allies must accept that.
Yet when Parliament assented to Harper's push, soon after becoming Prime Minister, to extend Canada's combat tour by two years, it made a solemn pledge to Afghans and allies alike that we would break if we heeded Layton's call for an immediate pullout. The Taliban, who aim to shake Canada's resolve with roadside bombings, would like nothing better. But an early pullout would dishonour the nation, and betray those who have fallen in this cause.
If Canadian support for the mission is faltering as our own casualties rise, and concern for Afghan civilian casualties grows, it is little wonder. The Taliban are a stubborn, determined foe. Nearly 3,000 Afghans, most of them insurgents, have been killed this year.
But those who expected an easy victory were misguided. The Taliban were never likely to be "defeated" by 2,500 Canadian troops in Kandahar. They have not been "defeated" by 50,000 American and allied troops from 37 countries. That is a job the slowly developing Afghan national army and police will have to shoulder, over time, unless the Taliban set aside their weapons and join the political process. The insurgency may persist long after our Kandahar tour is over.
By now, Canada already has pulled more than its weight in the strife-torn south of the country, along with the Americans, British and Dutch. Other allies must soon step up to the plate.
When Parliament resumes in the fall, Harper must seek consensus on a new role for our troops. Barring a wholesale Canadian pullout, our forces might usefully help police the capital, Kabul, train the Afghan military or provide security for aid efforts. Any of these roles would reflect our interest in peacekeeping and aid.
As we mourn the loss of our soldiers, let us remember, too, that Afghans are freer than before. They voted in the millions for their new government. Communities are rebuilding roads, clinics, schools, water systems, hydro lines and other services. Slowly, life is improving.
In a recent survey, the Asia Foundation reported that despite the slow progress and insurgency, twice as many Afghans believe the country is headed in the right direction than believe otherwise. And people were more concerned about weak government, unemployment and lack of reconstruction than about security. In many regions, people feel safer than before. Most Afghans know how far they have come.
Canada's troops can take pride in helping make that happen.