In the wind-scoured high desert that was once the heartland of the Taliban movement, the will and determination of a little-heralded American ally have been undergoing a harsh test.
For the last six months, the task of confronting insurgents in volatile Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan has largely fallen to Canada, whose troops have participated in myriad peacekeeping missions in recent years but had not seen high-intensity combat since the Korean War.
Although its nearly 3,000 troops account for less than 10% of the allied forces in Afghanistan, Canada absorbed nearly 20% of the coalition’s combat deaths last year, losing 36 soldiers.
A Canadian diplomat also was killed, by a suicide bomber.
The disproportionate casualty count in a region that Taliban commanders have pledged to seize this spring has triggered debate at home about whether Canada is finding itself in a quagmire of American making.
The deployment is a strain for military families. Moreover, the Canadian mission points up the stresses and strains caused by unequal burden-sharing within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Already, alliance unity has been frayed by what commanders describe as an insufficient overall troop commitment and rules that sharply limit the combat capabilities of some participants.
“Would I be happy if there were more nations in the south? Yes,” said Lt. Gen. Michel Gauthier, commander of Canada’s expeditionary forces, who toured Canadian outposts in Afghanistan in mid-January.
“Would I be happy if there were fewer caveats?” he added, referring to rules that limited the combat missions of many NATO troops to emergency sorties to aid other alliance forces. “Yes.”
A NATO meeting in Brussels on Friday brought a pledge from the U.S. for more troops and an additional $10 billion over two years, but only vague promises from other alliance members.
Canadian military officers in Afghanistan sidestep questions about the safer tasks given to French troops in the capital, Kabul, or to the German deployment in the relatively calm north.
They point instead to others in the line of fire: American troops’ front-line engagement with insurgents in the east, the battles that British forces have waged to the west in Helmand province, or other contingents serving alongside Canadians in Kandahar, including Dutch troops.
Even so, Canadian forces who arrived in August were stunned by their initial encounter, a full-blown battle with thousands of insurgents.
Canadian troops took the lead in NATO’s Operation Medusa, a September confrontation with Taliban fighters who had entrenched themselves in and around the Panjwayi district, southwest of the city of Kandahar.
“Everyone here has seen someone die,” said Cpl. Luke Winnicki, a 26-year-old combat engineer in the Royal Canadian Regiment, gesturing toward dozens of troops in a drafty tent at Masumghar, a hillside outpost about 15 miles southwest of Kandahar.
All eyes on Afghanistan
In the U.S., the Afghan conflict receives far less attention than the larger war in Iraq. But in Canada, it gets top billing daily in newspapers and on TV.
And unlike in the U.S., the public is allowed to see soldiers’ bodies returning home in flag-draped caskets.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, at the head of a coalition government, is vulnerable to political attack because of the Afghan mission.
Public support for it dropped to 35% at the end of 2006, one poll said.
In response, popular Foreign Minister Peter MacKay visited Afghanistan this month to reframe the government’s message. He said Canada’s mission was reconstruction, but it could not be completed without security.
After MacKay’s visit, another poll said public support had rebounded to 58%.
One of the country’s smaller opposition parties, the New Democratic Party, argues that Canada should focus on diplomacy and reconstruction, and it paints the Afghanistan mission as an attempt to curry favor in Washington.
“Mr. Harper, just like George Bush on Iraq, keeps saying that this war can be won, and that it is going well. It is not going well,” party leader Jack Layton said in a speech at the University of Quebec last week. “The violence is escalating, opium production has skyrocketed. Most of our 25 NATO allies are refusing to send soldiers to join in the counterinsurgency mission in southern Afghanistan. And yet, Mr. Harper refuses to see what is happening.”
Harper has maintained the backing of his party’s main challenger, the Liberal Party, which started the Afghanistan mission in 2001.
“People see the necessity of the war but are not persuaded about the effectiveness,” said Paul Heinbecker, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations who is director of the Center for Global Relations at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada.
He said there was a strong desire to see NATO allies share more of the perilous duty.
“We have stepped up and taken part in action while some of our NATO allies have been polishing their fingernails up in Kabul,” Heinbecker said.
In a speech this month to troops preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, Defense Minister Gordon O’Connor pledged that Canada would commit more artillery and aircraft in 2007 but not more troops.
“We will support this mission until progress in Afghanistan becomes irreversible,” O’Connor said.
The toll on military families
Military leaders are mindful that Canada’s combat losses, though small compared with U.S. deaths in Iraq, loom large in a country with a population of 33 million.
That is particularly true in close-knit military communities such as those surrounding Canadian Forces Base Trenton, midway between Toronto and Ottawa.
Deborah Goulden, 38, whose husband is a military pilot who shuttles troops and supplies to and from Kandahar, knows little about what’s going on in Afghanistan. She is on maternity leave with her 2-month-old baby, and also has a toddler. She said she couldn’t bear to watch the news.
She doesn’t know exactly what her husband, Mark, does or when he is coming home. In a videophone call this month, she was surprised to see him wearing a gun.
Goulden, a 16-year veteran, has been on peacekeeping missions in East Timor, the former Yugoslavia, Haiti and Somalia.
“I am respectful of what he does, and I don’t think military people get enough recognition for what they do,” Deborah Goulden said at a family center at the Trenton base. “He is there supporting Canadian society and building a very positive environment for a country that needs support. I’m proud that he is a part of that.”
Mark Goulden, 38, interviewed at an airfield in Kandahar, described near-daily missions flying C-130 cargo planes to what he characterized as “austere locations.”
“You get runways that look like roadways, gravel airstrips in the middle of nowhere, always the potential for enemy fire and mechanical failures,” he said.
When he talks to his wife, he said, he tries to “edit it a little. You try not to be dramatic.”
He insisted that his wife’s task was harder.
Patti Leighton, 41, knows all too well what her husband, Rick, is doing in Kandahar as an engineer helping design schools and police stations.
She doesn’t want to hear about the near-misses and gunfights. She already knows the dangers.
She is a military air traffic controller, and time after time this year she has helped guide the planes carrying soldiers’ coffins to the Trenton base.
“There was one woman who was deployed over there at the same time as her husband. She had to come back on the plane with the body. She got off the plane and saw their kids waiting for both of them on the tarmac. That was the last one I watched,” she said.
Leighton’s 17-year-old daughter is tired of her father’s absence; her 13-year-old son wants to be a soldier. She has been in the military for 22 years, but this year has been different.
She described standing at attention at a parade and her eyes welling up when she heard the national anthem.
“This year was the proudest year I’ve ever stood there, because we’re over there. When I heard the music, I felt a moment of pure pride. When I heard it, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s for me. That’s for us.’ ”
Rick Leighton, interviewed at his headquarters in Kandahar, said the hardest part was missing the day-to-day family events like his son’s hockey games or the “butting heads” between his wife and daughter over schoolwork and curfews.
Leighton said with the reconstruction team based in the city of Kandahar, several miles from the main military base, he and his colleagues were closer to the bombings aimed at convoys.
He speaks to his family every morning, he said, but never tells them whether he will be traveling outside the headquarters, a journey that always takes place in a convoy of at least three armored vehicles with everyone in combat gear.
“Every time you hear the boom, it shakes you,” he said. When the Internet and cellphones go dead moments afterward, “you know there’s a communications blackout because someone’s been killed.”
At the sprawling Kandahar airfield, the Canadian military has managed to evoke some comforts of home. There’s an open-air hockey rink and a Tim Hortons coffee and doughnut shop, something of a Canadian institution.
But the near-constant roar of aircraft and the occasional boom of rocket fire leaves little doubt this is a war zone.
On a bare hillside in Masumghar, troops settled in for another wind-lashed night. Powdery dust leaked in through tiny rips in the barracks tent.
“The thing is, you know that your family is in this fight too, and your country,” said Winnicki, the combat engineer. “So you’re not alone. But you feel responsible for them too.”
King reported from Masumghar and Farley from Ottawa and Trenton, Canada.
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More than four times as many Canadians were killed in Afghanistan last year as in the four previous years combined. Canadians, who make up less than 10% of the total forces, suffered about one-fifth of the deaths. Canada’s troop toll in Afghanistan:
Forces and casualties
How 2006 casualties compare in relation to force sizes for the nations with the most troops in Afghanistan:
*--* % of total % of total Country Force force Deaths deaths United States 11,800 35% 98 51% Britain 5,200 16 39 20 Germany 3,000 9 0 0 Canada 2,700 8 36 19 Netherlands 2,200 7 4 2
Note: Force numbers are broad contributions and do not reflect exact numbers on the ground at any time.
Sources: North Atlantic Treaty Organization, icasualties.com