Five years after the Taliban regime’s demise, Afghanistan is back on the brink. Early successes, such as the much vaunted presidential and legislative elections, have been overshadowed by a growing insurgency in the south, a dramatic increase in poppy production, a persistently feeble central government and an uneven economic recovery. The internationally backed plan for the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan seems to have malfunctioned and fostered the same conditions that led to the takeover of Afghanistan by Islamic extremists in the mid-1990s.
Entangled somewhere in the middle of all this, Canada has paid dearly for the setbacks. One of Washington’s best troopers in the “war on terror,” it has staked a lot on Afghanistan. Of the approximately 3,000 Canadian troops deployed worldwide, 2,300 are in Afghanistan, a proportion that has been relatively constant in the last few years and is at odds with Canada’s more typical sprinkling of troops in a number of operations. Relatively little noticed until 2005, this fact has been dramatically emphasized by the substantial military casualties suffered in 2006. Following the takeover of the Kandahar region, Canada has sustained more casualties per capita than any of its NATO partners including the United States and Britain, making its combat toll the highest since the Korean War.
Jean Chrétien’s Liberal dynasty originally sent a significant number of troops into Afghanistan. The succession of minority governments that followed Chrétien has led to much dithering about Canadian policy in the country. While there has certainly been more continuity than rupture on the issue through the different governments, an inevitable sense of uncertainty and state of flux hangs over the work of Canada’s representatives in the field and policymakers in Ottawa.
Events both in Afghanistan and in Canada help explain a downturn in public opinion toward the mission. Sceptics generally ask two questions: why are we in Afghanistan, and when will we leave? Before we can examine the goals set for Canadian policy, we must first understand the present situation in Afghanistan.