Exploding a myth; Canada's defence policy

Politique étrangère et Militarisation du Canada

The Americas - Echoes from Afghan battlefields
EVER since Lester Pearson brought home Canada's only Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his work on UN peacekeeping, Canadians have embraced the idea that their armed forces exist to keep the peace rather than to wage war. In the 50 years since, Canadian soldiers wearing UN blue berets have become as central to the national self-image as hockey and maple syrup. They even have their own monument in Ottawa. But the notion that Canadians do peacekeeping has become largely a myth. Among the 68,000 troops deployed on UN peace missions around the world, fewer than 60 are Canadians. Canada's biggest force abroad-some 2,300 troops-is in Afghanistan. It is fighting a war.
At the end of 2005, the then Liberal government moved Canadian troops from Kabul to the unstable southern city of Kandahar to join an American-led mission to impose security in the face of attacks from the reviving Taliban. Canadians are slowly waking up to the reality of war: 17 soldiers, including the first Canadian woman killed in combat, have died so far in Afghanistan.
Having decided to extend the deployment until 2009, the Conservative minority government elected in January is now splurging on extra kit for the armed forces. In late June, it announced purchases worth some C$15 billion ($13 billion). They include three new support ships, transport aircraft and 2,300 supply trucks. This comes on top of promises in the previous budget of an extra C$5.3 billion for defence spending over the next five years.
Military men are delighted that Stephen Harper, the prime minister, is honouring promises previous governments made and forgot. This will put the "spine" back in the armed forces, declared General Rick Hillier, chief of the defence staff. But while Canadians want their troops well equipped, they do not necessarily want them to fight. In one poll in early June, 48% supported sending troops to Afghanistan, whereas 44% were opposed.
The high level of public opposition may reflect not just a tradition of pacifism in French-speaking Quebec, but disquiet at the mission itself. Anti-American feeling-and hostility to George Bush in particular-has been strong north of the border since the invasion of Iraq, which Canada refused to join. There are many Canadians "who can't stomach the notion of helping Mr Bush," says David Rudd of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies.
Mr Harper, who chose the Canadian base in Afghanistan for his first trip abroad, is well aware of these attitudes. Imitating a measure by Mr Bush, he banned the media from military airfields when coffins were returning home. He was forced to rescind this order when the families of the dead protested. Mr Harper also talks a lot about reconstruction efforts, although fewer than 200 of the troops are involved in these.
The debate on the home front about the Afghanistan mission is far from over, particularly after a report this week by the Senlis Council, a European think-tank, saying that Kandahar was turning into "a suicide mission" for Canada. Afghanistan has become a central issue in the campaign for the leadership of the opposition Liberal Party. Two of the candidates, Michael Ignatieff and Scott Brison, voted in parliament to extend the mission; the other nine hopefuls are all opposed. The coming months will show whether Canadians will embrace peacemaking with the same enthusiasm they have for peacekeeping.

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