This weekend, Canada's 850 troops began their journey home from Kandahar, where they have guarded the US airbase and led combat operations for the first time since the Korean War.
On the long flight back, they had time to reflect on the untimely death of four comrades mistakenly targeted by a US F-16 jet, and their participation in Operation Anaconda during which snipers got their first shot at fleeing Al Qaeda forces.
But the fact that Canadian troops had to hitch a ride home on US aircraft underscores the gap between Canada's global peacekeeping commitments and a shrinking military budget.
After years of serving as peacekeepers for the UN in remote nations such as Eritrea, East Timor, and Bosnia, the Canadian Army is now stretched to its limit. Many Canadians are asking whether Canada, despite its reliable track record, can maintain its historic military role. Many European countries are facing the same dilemma, decrying US unilateralism but lacking the resources to steer the global agenda.
"We are ready to fight with no capability to sustain," concluded a Canadian Senate report in February. The size of the Canadian forces has shrunk from 85,000 to 57,000 over the past 10 years.
"This far into World War II, Canada had 200,000 soldiers in uniform," notes Scott Taylor, editor of Esprit de Corps in Ottawa. "Right now there are 3,000 fewer people serving than as of 9/11."
To support troops in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's Liberal government doled out a one-time 2 percent increase for the military. But pundits insist that to restore its full capabilities, the military's annual budget needs to increase from its current C$12 billion (US$7.75 billion) to C$16 billion or C$17 billion (US$10.25 billion to US$11 billion).
The most serious deficiencies are in manpower and equipment. Doctors, technicians, and engineers top the Army's most wanted list. And with its regular forces involved in peacekeeping and war-on-terror duties, the country needs to rely more on its reserves, but that pool has shrunk as well. Canada's reserves once swelled to 50,000, but the number today is close to 18,000. For the first time since it began peacekeeping duties, Canada will dispatch a full infantry reserve company to Bosnia later this year.
Canada recently built a new class of frigates and acquired three attack submarines from Britain. And its Air Force maintains a capable fleet of CF-18 fighter aircraft. But other vessels and aircraft are regularly being cannibalized for spare parts. Its Sea King maritime helicopters badly need replacement. And some 50 percent of the Hercules tactical transport aircraft can't fly due to lack of spare parts, according to a Parliament source.
With the threat of terrorism lurking in North America, the poor state of Canada's armed forces is becoming a national concern. A recent poll shows that 66 percent of Canadians think Ottawa hasn't done enough to ensure the military has what it needs, while only 28 percent think enough is being done.
"We're hoping that the groundswell of public support will eventually lead the government to do more for defense," says Jack Granatstein, chairman of the Council for Canadian Security in the 21st Century, a 250-strong lobby group that launched a letter-writing campaign inviting the prime minister to focus his attention on defense issues.
The military itself is starting to acknowledge the deficiencies. The chief of defense staff announced last week that 300 troops would be brought back from Bosnia, leaving only 1,300 there. Canadian forces have been deployed to the Balkans six times in the past 10 years, which many argue is now taking its toll.
"It's time to stop deploying overseas and get our Army back into shape," says Senator Colin Kenny, chair of the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defense. "We can't keep stressing the same people over and over again."
One of the quandaries the government faces is to figure out exactly what the armed forces need to fulfill Canada's treaty obligations and UN commitments. Current policy states that Canada should be able to simultaneously deploy two army batallions of up to 900 troops each, as well as necessary support forces, for a period of six months anywhere around the globe.
One option for Canada may be to follow New Zealand's example, which recently remodeled its armed forces to focus exclusively on crisis management and peace support operations.
There are also opportunities for Canada to gain recognition beyond conventional military roles, notes Christopher Sands, an expert on Canada-US relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Although the US can afford to take the lead on "big ticket" items such as ballistic-missile defense, helping out with the production of smallpox vaccines or the evacuation of US cities in times of crisis could be valuable, he says.