'I suppose most Canadians support the war in Afghanistan?"
The German professor looked at me, an eyebrow raised.
"No, actually," I replied. "About half of us are opposed."
Travelling through Europe this month, I've been struck by how national debates in different NATO countries take place in isolation from each other. Many Germans, for instance, assume Canadians support the counterinsurgency mission in southern Afghanistan. Similarly, many Canadians assume the 3,000 German soldiers in relatively safe northern Afghanistan aren't going anywhere soon.
In fact, 54 per cent of Germans think their soldiers should be withdrawn. In the Netherlands, 58 per cent want the 2,000 Dutch troops brought home by next year. Even in Poland, where the government strongly backs the mission and none of its 1,100 soldiers have been killed, a staggering 78 per cent oppose the Polish presence in Afghanistan.
Governments have fallen because of their support for the mission. In Italy, Prime Minister Romano Prodi resigned in February after losing a Senate vote over a foreign policy that included keeping 1,800 troops in Afghanistan. Although he was asked to form a new government, Italy's commitment to the mission remains tenuous at best.
Other governments are teetering on the edge. The Dutch will decide next month whether to extend their deployment. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, who heads a fragile three-party coalition, finds himself on the wrong side of public opinion. This might explain why his government recently said that, even if Dutch troops were to stay, the mission would be scaled back because of financial limitations.
During the recent French election, presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy suggested that he would pull all 1,000 French troops out of Afghanistan. Having won office, he now says any such move is not "imminent."
Other governments are setting limits on their contributions. Spain, with 650 soldiers deployed, lost 17 of them in a single helicopter crash in 2005. Two months ago, Defence Minister Jose Antonio Alonso made it plain that more soldiers would not be sent. "We do not plan to augment our troops and it is not necessary."
For a few European countries, Afghanistan provides an alternative to an even more unpopular mission in Iraq. In February, the British government announced 1,400 more British troops for Afghanistan at the same time it was releasing plans to withdraw 1,600 soldiers from Iraq. And Denmark is bolstering its small Afghan deployment by 200 soldiers at the same time it is pulling its entire 500-strong contingent out of Iraq.
Around Europe, concerns about the Afghan mission occupy a prominent place within mainstream public discourse. Last week, the former chief of the British defence staff told the House of Lords that "the situation in Afghanistan is much, much more serious than people want to recognize." This week, The Daily Telegraph reported that British troops on the front lines in Afghanistan were experiencing almost as high a casualty rate as British troops during the Second World War.
Two months ago, former Dutch defence minister Joris Voorhoeve warned that the Dutch involvement in Afghanistan would be an "endless mission" unless the country set clear limits on the availability of its troops. "If we do not make it clear to our allies that they cannot count on us indefinitely, then things will go wrong. We should not be the victim of our own idealism."
From country to country, support for the NATO mission is wearing thin. The roughly 15 million Canadians who want our soldiers brought home are part of a multinational majority. When we speak up, we are not alone.
MICHAEL BYERS, Holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC
Michael Byers is the author of Intent for a Nation.