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CANADA/AFGHANISTAN-9/11: An Increasingly Muddy Mission

Paul Weinberg

TORONTO, Sep 8 2006 (IPS) - One of the lasting legacies of the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on Canada’s southern neighbour is the involvement of 2,300 Canadian troops as part of a NATO contingent in Afghanistan.

Although Canadian soldiers participated in the U.S.-led military campaign in late 2001 to overthrow the Taliban regime in Kabul, linked to the hijackings by Islamic fundamentalist extremists and destruction of landmarks in New York City and Washington, the then-government of Jean Chretien did not automatically support the subsequent U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003.

Like many other governments around the world, Ottawa did not buy the argument by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush that the Saddam Hussein-led government in Baghdad was connected to the events of 9/11.

Canada chose instead to support a rebuilding process in the Afghan capital of Kabul under the NATO International Security Assistance Force, while the U.S. military engaged in a mop-up operation to eliminate the remnants of the Taliban.

Five years later, the Taliban are on the resurgence in their stronghold in the southern Pashtun region. NATO commanders who took over the international force this summer from the U.S. are conceding that the task of defeating the insurgents is proving to be more of a challenge than had been previously contemplated.

“We cannot eliminate the Taliban,” Canadian Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor told a Reuters reporter in Australia this week, “not militarily anyway. We’ve got to get them back to some sort of acceptable level.”

Recently, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper has sought to ramp up recruiting for the Canadian Forces. One leading newspaper, the Globe and Mail, revealed a draft of the advertisement, which characterises going to Afghanistan as an exciting opportunity “to fight terror.”

But the continued unpopularity of Canada’s Afghan mission as demonstrated by recent polls – one in July found that 55 percent of Canadians opposed the country’s presence in Afghanistan, while another in August found 46 percent opposed – indicates that the invocation of “9/11” by leading politicians here lacks the same resonance it has in the U.S., said Scott Taylor, editor of Esprit de Corps, a magazine aimed at the Canadian soldiers.

While the spectre of 9/11 keeps the U.S. tied down in Afghanistan, citizens in the other NATO countries feel less of an emotional commitment to battling Islamic extremism in the form of the Taliban, says Taylor. He questions how long the NATO-led command can last as the casualties mount in the various national armies of the international mission.

Thirty-two Canadian soldiers have died since 2002 – half in the last three months. Last week alone saw the deaths of 19 British soldiers in Afghanistan.

“We have been told by a Canadian officer on the ground that every time we kill one of [the insurgents] they attract 15 more recruits just because it is setting an example. These guys become martyrs,” he told IPS.

Nobody in Canada wants to see Afghanistan turn into the equivalent of the quagmire experienced by the U.S. forces in Iraq, notes Steve Staples, a defence analyst with the Ottawa-based Polaris Institute.

“That is what people are looking at. It seems like a pointless cycle of attacks and counterattacks and claims of victory, which are then responded to [by the insurgents] with more suicide bombs. And Canadian troops are being put in a position where they are shooting at teenagers on motorcycles, and killing 10-year-olds because they are so afraid for their own safety,” he said.

Canadians have trouble getting their minds around the idea that their soldiers are engaged in a counter-insurgency, adds Staples, who says the Harper government has tried to rectify that by selling the current Canadian mission as “aid workers with guns”.

“I think they are banking on public opinion to support the mission if they believe it has a humanitarian aspect. They are basically trying to use the humanitarian aspect to replace peacekeeping,” he said.

But the provincial reconstruction teams, led by the various NATO armies, are having difficulty getting their job done in the volatile south of Afghanistan as long as there is a war going on, says John Watson, who heads Care Canada. He says that the major aid agencies, including World Vision and Save the Children, are staying out of the area because they do not want to be seen locally as siding with the U.S. and NATO-led counter-insurgency operation.

“You get caught in a situation where you end up building schools and they end up blowing up schools because the actual building of the schools becomes your project to win the hearts and minds. So the other side decides, if that is the main purpose of it, let’s get rid of them,” Watson told IPS.

Some military analysts place much of the blame for the rising insurgency on the kill-the-Taliban focus of the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom military force, which critics say leaves no room for either offering security to the villages or reconstruction in Afghanistan.

NATO’s broader mandate was supposed rectify some of these errors, but John Siebert, executive director of the group Project Ploughshares in Waterloo, believes that “the rules of engagement will not be changing, that they will be continuing to engage the counter-insurgency and [taking] aggressive action, going out to hunt down the Taliban.”

This strategy did not work when it was undertaken by the U.S.-led Operation force, adds Sam Zia-Zarifi, the Asia division research director for Human Rights Watch.

“You don’t beat an insurgency anywhere just by killing the enemy and as [Afghan president Hamid] Karzai pointed out, very rightly, each of these people who are being killed are Afghans and they have family and you don’t win hearts and minds by killing so many people,” he said.

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