It was inevitable that rising combat deaths in southern Afghanistan would lead a growing number of Canadians to question whether Canada's military is playing the right role in that benighted country and, increasingly, whether our soldiers should be there at all. It was just as inevitable that opposition politicians would seek to use the tragic losses of Canadian soldiers to score political points.
Such was the case after three days of heavy fighting left another five Canadian soldiers dead. One of them, Private Mark Anthony Graham, a former Olympian, was killed when a U.S. warplane mistakenly strafed a Canadian position. Like their other fallen comrades, these were fine young people of considerable promise. Many left behind young families in order to take part in a mission in which they strongly believed.
Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe is calling for an emergency debate on the direction of Canadian foreign policy. NDP Leader Jack Layton said last week that Canada should withdraw its troops from Afghanistan next year and restated his party's position that Canadian soldiers should be spending their time on development and their traditional role as peacekeepers. The problem is that first there has to be a peace to keep.
The Liberal leadership hopefuls are divided on Canada's military role. The latest to weigh in is Ken Dryden, who has joined the chorus of voices calling for a renewed debate on that role, although he would wait six months to do so. "The question for us is the basic one: whether we should be there in the first place. We need the thorough review that we did not have last spring. And there is no indication that we are going to have that review."
The public is right to be upset over the deaths of Canadian soldiers in combat and to ask tough questions of its government. Is our military getting all the help it needs? Are the tactics being deployed the best ones? Are communications among the allies and with the Afghan forces all they could be? Is our $100-million in annual aid going where it belongs?
But this is not the time to reopen a parliamentary debate on Canada's role or to confuse the progress of the mission with the mission itself. Mr. Dryden's own party was in power and he was in cabinet when the decision was made to send troops to southern Afghanistan as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's broader effort to root out the Taliban, stabilize the region and give millions of people a chance to live a decent life in relative security. It was not then, and is not now, a peacekeeping exercise. Nothing has changed. The deaths of soldiers do not alter the nature of the mandate or its importance.
How vital is the Canadian combat role? On the page opposite, Afghanistan's ambassador to Canada, Omar Samad, notes that "while the rest of Afghanistan is experiencing relative normalcy after three decades of turmoil, the provinces adjacent to the tribal regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan are targets of terrorist and insurgent attacks by a force of new and former Taliban and foreign militants." They seize hostages, kill teachers, moderate clerics and aid workers, and burn down schools and hospitals that accept Western assistance. They also target NATO and Afghan troops "to influence Western evening news reports and prevent us from creating an environment conducive to better economic and security conditions."
This is not a fight Canada can afford to abandon.