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Afghan war takes a toll on Canada

January 29, 2007|Laura King and Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writers

MASUMGHAR, AFGHANISTAN — 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 02, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Canada: An article in Monday's Section A referred to Canada's government as a "coalition." A coalition involves a formal agreement among two or more parties in Parliament to form a government. The Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has 125 of the 308 seats in the lower house of Parliament; after Canada's last elections it formed a minority government, not a coalition.

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.

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