Canadians balk at extending Afghanistan mission

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper invoked Canada's "international responsibility" to resolve the conflict, but polls show concern for casualties is taking a toll on support at home.

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As the Canadian prime minister called Wednesday for continued support of the nation's military mission in Afghanistan, new polls indicate that Canadians may be losing faith. Citizens feel their commitment to Afghanistan is "disproportionate." At the same time, a new report commissioned by the British House of Commons has echoed Canadians' complaints and called for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries to commit more troops to the restive nation.

A new poll finds that Canadians would be more likely to support the Afghan mission if their forces were less involved in combat operations and focused more on humanitarian efforts. Sixty-five percent of Canadians see the role of their military operations overseas as peacekeeping, not enforcing peace, reports the Globe and Mail. The poll – conducted by the Strategic Counsel, a market-research team, for the Globe and Mail – indicated that 81 percent of Canadians think one of the most important factors in considering extending their military commitment in Afghanistan is the rights of women and children. Sixty-eight percent listed preventing a terrorist attack as another important factor.

"There's resonance with our own vulnerability – the kind of arguments that were used with the original deployment," [Peter Donolo, a partner with the Strategic Counsel] said. "But what's interesting is that what doesn't [have resonance] is the reputational stuff – that it will hurt our international legitimacy or reputation."
That means that Mr. Harper's argument of a year ago – that Canadians don't "cut and run" – probably won't sell. The poll finds that 59 per cent of Canadians oppose sending troops to Afghanistan, up four percentage points from May.

Presently Canada has 2,500 troops stationed in Afghanistan, predominantly in the southern region of Kandahar. Canadians have complained that they are doing a "disproportionate" share of the fighting compared with other NATO countries, reports Reuters. To date, Canada has lost 66 soldiers in Afghanistan.

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On Sunday, an Ipsos-Reid poll for the CanWest chain of newspapers showed that support for the mission had slipped to 50 percent from a high of 57 percent at the end of 2006.

The casualties, which last year were the highest per capita of any NATO country, have been taking a toll on support of the war for months now, reported The Christian Science Monitor last November.

The Canadian mission is scheduled to end in February 2009. Government officials must notify NATO by this fall whether they will extend their presence in Afghanistan. Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, has strongly advocated keeping troops in Afghanistan until the mission is completed, but he says that he will ultimately abide by the parliament's decision, reports the Toronto Star.

"I don't think it's actually an option for Canada or anybody else ... to simply close our eyes and believe there aren't severe problems in other parts of the world. If we don't take our international responsibility seriously these problems will come back to haunt us," Harper said.
"If we're not successful in Afghanistan, that threat will return."

Harper has argued that Canadians oppose the Afghan mission largely because of the casualties and not because of its purpose, reports the CanWest News Service. Speaking to reporters during a trip in Latin America, Harper said "I don't see in the Canadian population any substantial resistance to the purpose of our mission in Afghanistan." Harper also said forces in Afghanistan would continue to carry out combat operations, despite Canadian Gen. Rick Hillier's comment last week that they would instead focus more on training local forces.

"I don't see a kind of a moral opposition to this mission. What I see is a growing concern of Canadians of the burden that we are carrying and the level of Canadian casualties," [said Harper]. "I obviously share that concern. I talk to the families who lose loved ones. I understand the pain and I understand the difficulties that this causes the Canadian population. That's the real controversy."

The Canadians are not alone in their sentiment that other NATO countries have failed to contribute enough to the Afghan mission. Although a British official praised Canadian forces for their "extraordinarily good" work, he said more NATO forces will be needed to ensure success in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, the British House of Commons defense committee published a report saying they were "deeply concerned" about other nations' reluctance to the 37,000 NATO soldiers in Afghanistan, reports the Canadian Broadcast Corp.

"There's a number of NATO countries that have significant capabilities on the ground and they should be encouraged to help out and pull their weight" in the south and east, said retired Rear Admiral Ken Summers, a Canadian military analyst in Victoria.
In particular, he pointed to France and Germany.

While the authors of the House of Commons report understand that NATO countries have their "own national reasons for not giving the same levels of commitment," James Arbuthnot, the committee's chairman, warned of grave consequences if the mission fails, reports the British Broadcasting Corp.

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