Canada faces Afghan mission strains

Veterans and politicans say Nato allies have left them out in the cold.

Canada troops in Afghanistan

Canada has around 2,500 troops currently serving in Afghanistan [GALLO/GETTY]

Master-Corporal Jody Mitic stepped on a mine, booby-trapped to an artillery shell, while on patrol in Kandahar province on January 11, 2007.

The blast caused him to lose both of his legs. Despite months of rehabilitation, he still suffers, especially when his prostheses cause his leg stumps to bleed.

The former sniper wanted to tell Al Jazeera the story of his new life back home – his rehabilitation and his career prospects and how they illustrate the strains Canada’s Afghan mission is causing its military.

Mitic is back in Canada now, working a desk job at his old sniper unit on an army base in Petawawa, Ontario.

The pain Mitic was feeling that cold snowy day when Al Jazeera visited him in March was a symbol, perhaps, for how Canada feels on the whole about its mission in Afghanistan: Hurting, and left out in the cold by its Nato allies.

Growing debate

Because 80 Canadians that wanted to go over there have been killed, we’re gonna give up?”

Jody Mitic, Canadian veteran

The Canadian military has lost more than 80 soldiers in Afghanistan. Most were killed after a rotating deployment of 2,500 troops started in 2006 in Afghanistan’s violence-ridden Kandahar province.

Big numbers for a country whose military has not seen significant combat since the Korean War.

And they are much more visible than in the neighbouring US.

Television crews are not banned from military funerals or from showing coffins, as the Pentagon requires.

So it is no surprise that a growing debate over the meaning of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan led to a fierce parliamentary battle last year as disagreements grew over what exactly Canada was trying to achieve in the distant country.

It is a debate that angers Mitic.

“Because 80 Canadians that wanted to go over there have been killed, we’re gonna give up?” he asks.

Mitic even has a tattoo on his forearm, reading “Not In Vain” in big letters running down the image of sniper rifle.

He is a strong believer in the mission, and feels betrayed by calls in the political opposition to pull out.

“It’`s worth it for the kids,” he says, “and to give women the right to go to school, to work, to be able to show their faces”.

Mission confusion

The political debate was resolved in a compromise. The minority government finally struck a deal with the opposition by setting an ultimatum for Canada’s allies in Nato: Send 1000 troops to help us in Kandahar, or we’re gone by 2009.

Canada does not have a Cindy Sheehan, the one-time figurehead of the US anti-war movement, a mother who lost her son in Iraq and set up a permanent protest in front of the US president’s Crawford, Texas ranch.

But while there is no major anti-war movement, there is confusion over what the Afghan mission is really all about.

“George Bush is a huge political liability in Canada,” John Manley, the former Canadian foreign minister, told Al Jazeera.

He explains that many Canadians are not aware the mission has UN approval and associate it, somehow, with the United States’ invasion of Iraq and Bush’s so-called “war on terror”.

“If this effort is associated with him, Canadians don’t like it. One of my colleagues joked that some Canadians thought that Afghanistan was a city in Iraq.”

Canada’s ultimatum

At the government’s request, Manley headed a public panel whose findings led to the parliamentary compromise, and to Canada’s ultimatum to Nato.

After lengthy panel discussions with people such as Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, Manley understands better than most the challenges of the mission.

One is better informing Canadian citizens of what is at stake; another is getting other Nato countries to chip in at the Alliance April 2008 summit in Bucharest.

“They tire of bad news,” he says of wavering Canadians. “They are waiting to hear some good news. That’s why Bucharest is so important.”

“It’s time Nato decided that they are going to give their people in all 26 [member] countries some good news and it’s going to require an increased commitment.”

Support waning

Veteran Mitic says if more troops are
needed they should be sent

Public support for the Canadian mission has been wearing slowly down, to about 40 per cent right now, down from as much as 76 in one joint poll by the Canadian broadcaster CBC and Environics.

Overall, Canadians would like to see more money spent on development in the country and more efforts to be made on traditional blue-helmet peacekeeping.

In the meanwhile, some more troops to help out in Kandahar would be welcome.

Mitic, for one, agrees.

“Maybe Nato does have to man up and make the hard decision to send in a lot of personnel,” he says.

“What the area needs is more than a thousand, but a thousand more will make a huge difference.”

Source: Al Jazeera