Canada's future in Afghanistan

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Canada's military mission to Afghanistan began soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Initially, Canada's military operations in the rugged and volatile south were part of a US-led coalition. The first deployment of regular soldiers occurred in January 2002 with the Princess Patricia's Regiment shipping 750 infantry to Kandahar. They were part of a counter-insurgency task force directed by the US. However, early on, the bulk of Canada's military operations were part of a NATO contingent that centered on Kabul.

About 6,000 Canadian soldiers were assigned to Kabul between 2003 and 2005, as part of a NATO-led force backed by the UN. The aim of the international coalition was to provide security as a foundation for elections. The transitional leader, President Hamid Karzai, was initially chosen by anti-Taliban allies until elections could take place in October 2004.

In 2006, NATO expanded its military efforts and took command of the south, the Taliban's birthplace, in order to relieve the US. The international coalition ramped up its military presence from 9,000 to 20,000 personnel so that the US could focus on providing security for the mid-term elections in Iraq. The south has been a bloody battleground with higher casualty rates as a mountainous border with Pakistan allows the Taliban to strategically switchback in and out of Afghanistan and evade the enemy.

Canadian Parliament debated if the Afghanistan mission should continue past its February 2009 commitment. Whether the war was worth fighting was debated due to the high death tolls exacted on Canadian soldiers and, on the Conservative side, the danger of letting a safe haven for terrorism re-emerge.

In October 2007, an independent panel assessed Canada's future military role in Afghanistan. The Manley report recommended that the Canadian military remain in Afghanistan but on two conditions. NATO allies needed to assign 1,000 more soldiers to reinforce Canadian troops in Kandahar and the federal government needed to provide new, medium-lift helicopters and unmanned intelligence aircraft before the 2009 deadline.

The Manley report stated “an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan would cause more harm than good.” Moving beyond 2009, the report recommended the Canadian military shift in focus from combat to training Afghan National Security forces.

NATO met Canada's demand for more troops with France offering to deploy additional troops to the east, which freed up US troops for southern Afghanistan.

A confidence motion passed that extended the mission and kept Canadian soldiers in Kandahar until 2011. Canada's exit date parallels the date that US forces are expected to pullout.

Of the 29 NATO countries, Canada has deployed the third largest number of foreign troops, after the US and Britain. More than 2,800 Canadian troops are in Afghanistan and a large majority is stationed in Kandahar.

Canada's military operations in Afghanistan became the subject of scrutiny when Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin testified before a parliamentary committee that Afghan detainees captured by Canadians and turned over to Afghan authorities were being tortured in Afghan prisons. Colvin alleged that he warned senior government officials and military brass about the abuses with little change. The Prime Minister and Defence Minister Peter MacKay maintain that they did not know about the abuses.

Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan, William Crosbie, commented on the blurring boundary of justice shortly after Colvin’s allegations of Canadian complicity in human rights abuses. “The reality in this country is that the crimes have been committed by so many people from many different sides [to the point] where it’s difficult to separate the bad guys from the good guys,” he said on April 19. 

Since the war in Afghanistan began in 2002, 147 Canadian soldiers have been killed mainly by improvised explosive devices. Nine of these fallen soldiers called BC home. Two soldiers from the 39 Canadian Brigade have died in Afghanistan, Bombardier Myles Mansell and Master Corporal Colin Bason.

According to the UN, 2009 marked the highest number of civilian casualties with 2,400 deaths.

A government report found that the military mission could cost Canadians up to $18.1 billion by 2011. This works out to $1,500 for every Canadian household. The report headed by parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page noted the lack of transparency in military spending for Afghanistan and concluded that any estimate would be conservative.

Canada’s military exit from Afghanistan is the largest redeployment of troops and equipment since the Korean War.

Canada’s future role in Afghanistan will transition to a civilian and development mission, Harper has said. The Provincial Reconstruction Team, made up of individuals from Foreign Affairs, the Canadian International Development Agency and the RCMP, will continue to focus on Afghanistan’s development after 2011.

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