Every nation tells itself stories to make itself feel better. Canadians seem to be better at this than most, tending to define themselves in opposition to their more powerful southern neighbour.
So while the United States is seen as a bellicose, aggressive superpower, many Canadians view their nation as the leading peacekeeping force in the world. For example, in a 6 October 2006 editorial about Canadian troops in Afghanistan, Canada‘s largest circulation national daily, the Globe and Mail, noted that "the real Canadian mission" is "painting schools and drilling wells."
This quaint picture of nation-building and development work sits uneasily with the cold facts of the Canadian deployment, with Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang, authors of The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar, noting Canada‘s "development assistance is only one-tenth of what it is spending on the military effort in Afghanistan."
In reality since their deployment to Afghanistan in 2001 Canadian forces have been involved in offensive war fighting operations – against "detestable murderers and scumbags", according to the tactful Canadian General Rick Hillier. The violent character of the Canadian mission is supported by figures released by the Canadian Defence Department recently, which showed Canadian troops fired an incredible 4.7 million bullets between April 2006 and December 2007, including over 1,650 tank shells and 12,000 artillery rounds.
The intensity of the fighting increased dramatically in September 2006, when Canadian forces launched Operation Medusa to clear Pashmul, an area of vineyards near Kandahar, of an estimated 1,500 – 2,000 Taliban insurgents. Corporal Ryan Pagnacco from Waterloo, Ontario took part in the offensive – the biggest operation Canada had participated in since the Korean War – which started with a huge aerial bombardment by NATO warplanes and included the deployment of the controversial chemical weapon White Phosphorous. "After watching bomb after bomb drop on these targets, I wondered how anything could survive. I figured that when we went in, we‘d be walking into a ghost town", remembers Pagnacco. According to Antonio Giustozzi, an academic who has visited Afghanistan 15 times since 2001 and written a book on the insurgency, although NATO invited villagers to leave the area, "substantial numbers of civilians had opted to stay." Despite the bombing – which included the dropping of 2000lb bombs – Taliban insurgents put up a staunch fight, firing an estimated 400,000 rounds of automatic ammunition and 2,000 rocket propelled grenades and losing over 1,000 men according to NATO.
The supposedly peaceful nature of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan is further dented by the 2007 revelation that Canadian forces had been handing over prisoners to Afghan security forces, in the full knowledge they would be tortured. Interviewing 30 men who had recently been captured in Kandahar, the Globe and Mail uncovered stories of systematic torture, including beatings, whipping with cables and electric shocks. Under intense pressure the Canadian Government halted the transfer of detainees in November 2007. However, the Globe and Mail recently reported these had resumed, with Canadian officials saying they were satisfied the Afghan authorities had implemented new safeguards.
It is important to remember that rather than being a benign influence, Canada, along with Britain, is an indispensable part of the US-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan which has led to thousands of Afghan deaths and many more refugees. Following field research in Helmand and Kandahar, the Senlis Concil, a respected (pro-war) thinktank, estimated that 2-3000 Afghan civilians may have been killed in Southern Afghanistan by NATO air strikes during 2006 alone.
With the Taliban growing in number and popularity – as evidenced by the recent prison break that freed over 400 Taliban fighters – it is clear there is no military solution to the problems facing Afghanistan. Even the British Defence Secretary Des Browne admits the very presence of NATO troops in the country has "energised" the Taliban. Giustozzi concurs, noting that "victims of abuses by both Afghan and foreign troops and of the side-effects of US reliance on air power" now form an "important source of recruits for the Taliban."
It seems most Afghan citizens have reached a similar conclusion, with 74 per cent favouring negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban and 54 per cent supporting a coalition government with them, according to a September 2007 Environics Research poll.
Back in Canada, the political climate in Ottawa mirrors that of London, with both main political parties fully supporting the continuation of their nation’s occupation of Afghanistan. Even the New Democratic Party seem to base their opposition to the war on tactical issues – the mission "is not clearly defined" and "there is no exit strategy" argued party leader Jack Layton in 2006 – rather than a principled, moral stand.
However, like Britain, opinion polls show the majority of Canadians want to bring the troops home – 53 per cent supporting a withdrawal by February 2009 according to a December 2007 Angus Reid Strategies opinion poll.
And the similarities with Britain don’t end there. Unless the Canadian military role in Afghanistan ends in the near future, it is likely Canada will face the grim milestone that the UK passed recently – 100 military deaths from the ongoing conflict.
Ian Sinclair is a freelance journalist based in London, England. [email protected].