Afghan mission: As vets are honored, concerns grow

Since May, Britain has lost more troops than in Iraq; Canada's per capita casualties are NATO's highest.

When 3,000 British troops headed to Afghanistan in May to lead efforts to secure an unruly southern province, the government said the aim was to accomplish the three-year mission "without a shot being fired."

Since then, more British soldiers have died in Afghanistan than in Iraq, in what commanders say is the fiercest fighting Britain has faced in more than 50 years. Canada, meanwhile, has sustained more casualties per capita than the US, Britain, or any of the other NATO partners, making its combat toll the highest since the Korean War.

As both countries prepare to remember their fallen on Armistice Day this weekend – now known as Remembrance Day in Canada – there is a growing realization that the task they face in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar will prove far tougher, deadlier, and longer than originally projected.

"If we are going to achieve what we set out to achieve – a stable society with a democratic government – we will be there for 15 to 20 years," warns Mark Lancaster, a British Member of Parliament and reservist who completed an eight-week tour with the Army in Helmand Province this summer.

The dramatic escalation of conflict in the area is straining NATO, which has overall command of security in Afghanistan. And in both countries, it is sharply changing public commitment to the mission. Now, less than half of Canadians and Britons are in favor of their troops' involvement in Afghanistan.

Originally, the mission in southern Afghanistan launched in May was billed as an exercise in "reconstruction and stabilization," an effort to help the Kabul government extend its writ into the lawless south and deal with the poppy cultivation that fuels the heroin trade at the same time. NATO troops would stay until Afghan forces were capable of assuring security themselves.

But between the resistance that military commanders say was far greater than anything they anticipated, a now-regrouping Taliban, and the vast, hostile terrain, both countries are having to adjust to a mission significantly different in both nature and scope.

"For 40 years, we've been thinking of the Canadian forces as peacekeepers," says Tim Woolstencroft, managing partner of Toronto-based polling firm The Strategic Counsel. "This is clearly peacemaking, with an emphasis on war."

With that shift in emphasis has come a noticeable uptick in casualties: Forty-two Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan, all but 10 of whom were killed this year; 32 British soldiers have been killed since May. Such tolls have stirred considerable debate in recent months on both sides of the Atlantic, though the Afghan mission is still largely perceived as more justifiable and worthwhile than the Iraq war.

In Canada, public support reached a mid- summer low of 37 percent but has since climbed to 44 percent as the conservative government has focused on reconstruction efforts benefiting women and children and emphasized Canada's role as part of a larger NATO effort.

"Canadians are a lot more comfortable if it's characterized as a part of a multilateral mission,' Mr. Woolstencroft says. "Unlike the US, we don't like to go on our own."

Both Britain – whose presence has nearly doubled from 3,000 troops to almost 6,000 – and Canada, which has more than 2,200 soldiers on the ground, have been insisting on troop reinforcements from other NATO countries. But although other countries do have contingents in southern Afghanistan – notably Denmark, Estonia, and the Netherlands – there is frustration that bigger allies like France, Germany, and Spain have been reticent about supplying frontline troops. The issue is set to dominate a NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, at the end of November.

"If you look at the number of troop-contributing nations, the number of nations fighting are relatively few," notes Mr. Lancaster. "It's one thing contributing troops to send a message of unity, but there is frustration that others aren't doing more."

Britain can hardly supply any more boots on the ground. With more than 7,000 troops in Iraq and contingents in the Balkans and Northern Ireland, army commanders have warned of overstretch.

While Canadian troops aren't spread as thin, there is nervousness at a perceived quagmire. Just this week, the deputy commander of the international assistance wing of the Kabul Military Training Centre said it would take at least 10 years before Afghan troops are ready to handle national security unaided by foreign soldiers.

"Canadians are wondering, 'When is this going to end?' And they're seeing no outcome for it," says Desmond Morton, a military history professor at Montreal's McGill University "There's a massive disillusionment."

But Professor Morton also criticizes Canadian naivete about the rigors of peacekeeping.

"One of the great myths in Canada is that peacekeeping is lovely and sweet and nonviolent," he says. "That's a civilian illusion. The illusion of our exceptional wonderfulness is, like most nationalist illusions, deeply held and stupid and immune to reason."

For now, the combat in southern Afghanistan has eased, though some argue that it's just a lull.

"It's too early to say," says one British officer, speaking by phone from southern Afghanistan. "It could be the onset of winter. Or it could be that the Taliban suffered a lot of attrition in the last four or five months, and have realized their tactics of trying to take district centers is not going to work. Maybe they are just changing tactics."

Lancaster adds: "The true test will come in March or April, when next year's fighting season starts again. Most are hoping the worst is over, but we will have to wait and see."

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