A spike in military casualties, a political debate over proposed withdrawal timetables, and plummeting public support for the war effort—all these factors fuel a partisan debate in the capital. Yet the capital in question is Ottawa, not Washington, and the war in question is not Iraq but Afghanistan. Canada’s parliament on April 24 narrowly defeated (NYT) a measure aimed at withdrawing Canadian troops from Afghanistan, in the face of fervent opposition from the country’s Liberal Party. But despite the vote, the debate does not seem likely to go away. As in America, Canadian lawmakers face a public that has turned increasingly anti-war in recent months as they grope for an exit strategy from Afghanistan. Polls show two-thirds of the Canadian population favor a negotiated settlement that would bring the troops home by February 2009, while only a slim majority currently support Canada’s role in Afghanistan.
Opposition to the war reached a crescendo after the deaths last week of eight Canadians in Afghanistan. Unlike in the United States, Canadian television is allowed to broadcast the funerals of fallen soldiers, and these broadcasts have struck home (CBC). Officials in Ottawa say other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), especially the Europeans, should shoulder more of a burden in Afghanistan. Since 2002, Canada has suffered over fifty casualties (ICasualties.org), including one diplomat, ranking it second after the United States. Aside from the human costs of war, Afghanistan has emerged as Canada’s biggest recipient of bilateral development aid, with over $600 million allocated since 2001 (mostly toward microfinance, education, and reconstruction projects).
Some Canadians have expressed concern that the military mission in Afghanistan diverges from the Canadian military’s historic role as an altruistic peacekeeper. Eric Wagner of Ontario-based Queens University, writing in the Canadian Military Journal, debunks this so-called “peacekeeping myth.” Another divisive war issue is the human rights situation. Canadians look askance at apparent human rights violations like the transfer of detainees by Canadian forces to the Afghan military, whose custody puts them at risk of torture (Globe & Mail). All this has Canadians wondering: Should a timetable be set to pull out the 2,500 soldiers, as well as enact stricter benchmarks to gauge progress in Afghanistan? The earliest exit date for Canadian troops appears to be February 2009. But the public’s support may not hold out that long (Economist).
Nor is the casualty count likely to drop as the snow melts in southern Afghanistan and the Taliban regroups. Last week was Canada’s deadliest for the military since the Korean War. Indeed, Canadians have grown used to their military being deployed in noncombat, rear-guard missions like reconstruction, peacekeepers, and food distribution. This timeline looks at Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan since 2001. A fact sheet from Canada’s defense department lays out the government’s reasons for its involvement in the mission.