TORONTO — Canada does not try to hide its war dead. They’re honored in a now too familiar ritual, from the “ramp” ceremony with flag-draped coffins at Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan to a solemn procession along a stretch of road near Toronto renamed the Highway of Heroes.
Yet Canada has no collective concept of heroes outside the hockey rink. They don’t populate our history books. In war, the national image is not of the immense sacrifice of Canadian soldiers in World War II and Korea, but of blue-helmeted peacekeepers. The ritual for those Canadians who have died in Afghanistan, in other words, stirs far more grief and concern than patriotism.
Three more Canadian soldiers — victims of a roadside bomb in what had been a more peaceful part of Kandahar province — were given such honors last week. A fourth received them on March 9th. This brings the number of Canadian soldiers killed in the conflict to 112.
The ritual became all the more poignant when the wife of one of the dead mustered the strength to face reporters and urge the government to press ahead with the Afghan mission.
“We may not be able to beat the Taliban," Mishelle Brown said. "There's lots of things in our life we can't beat. But do you give up? Do you stop? Absolutely not.”
The heartfelt plea was a direct response to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who two days earlier told CNN that the war in Afghanistan could not be won.
“Quite frankly, we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency,” Harper said. “My reading of Afghanistan history (is) it's probably had an insurgency forever of some kind. What has to happen in Afghanistan is we have to have an Afghan government that is capable of managing that insurgency.”
The admission was a jarring about-face for Harper, who has long linked safety from terror to defeat of the Taliban. In September 2006 he suggested victory was nigh: “The Taliban is on the run,” he said. Harper now seems to think “managing” the insurgency is as good as it can get.
Dwindling public support for Canada’s combat role — as well as the shaky minority status of Harper’s conservative government — pushed the prime minister last year to agree to a withdrawal in 2011 of the 2,500 Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. Still, his CNN statement sparked heated reaction.
Jim Davis, the father of a soldier killed in the conflict, denounced Harper as “a defeatist” and accused him of demoralizing the troops. Thomas Walkom, the national affairs columnist for Canada's biggest newspaper, the Toronto Star, drew a different conclusion: “The prime minister of Canada thinks that a war in which Canadian soldiers are dying cannot be won. Period. What then are we doing there? Why wait until 2011 to pull out? Why not leave now?”
Harper’s government released its quarterly report on Afghanistan three days after he made his statement. It painted a bleak picture.
“Throughout Afghanistan, civilian and military casualties reached numbers higher than in any previous autumn quarter since the removal of the Taliban regime in 2001,” said the report, which is titled Canada's Engagement in Afghanistan.
Stating that the transition to a secure and stable society will take decades, the report described the process as a “long, hard undertaking with no easy or certain outcomes.”
The assessment jibes with a December report by the Paris-based International Council on Security and Development, which said the Taliban now has a permanent presence in 72 percent of Afghanistan, up from 54 percent a year ago.
Both reports make Harper’s pessimistic assessment sound realistic. He delivered it to an American audience, one that will soon see President Barack Obama send another 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. It might make some wonder whether the surge is doomed to fail.
Many Canadians are relieved Obama is making Afghanistan a priority after his predecessor left the conflict to NATO and redirected America’s military to the neo-con adventure in Iraq. Obama’s stated strategy also gets good reviews: He emphasizes a comprehensive approach, one that adds development and regional diplomacy to military might, and he has opened the door to striking deals with moderate elements of the Taliban.
But some are suspicious. Political analyst Lawrence Martin wonders if the president is getting tough on Afghanistan to make sure he doesn’t look weak when exiting Iraq.
“Having made this commitment to Afghanistan, there's a good chance Mr. Obama could get bogged down in that war for his entire time in office,” Martin wrote in the Globe and Mail. “He was the candidate of change. On war, his change is an exchange — one battlefield for another.”
The betting is that the Obama administration will eventually ask that Canadian soldiers remain in Afghanistan beyond 2011. Harper’s comments about an unbeatable insurgency make that a much tougher sell. In the meantime, the Highway of Heroes awaits its dead.
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