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Canada nears 100 dead in Afghanistan

Canada nears 100 dead in Afghanistan

When Canada's prime minister commented on the death of 10 French soldiers in Afghanistan this week, he said Canada knew France's pain all-too-well.
Since Canada sent soldiers to Afghanistan after Sept. 11 attacks, 93 of its soldiers and one diplomat have died in Afghanistan _ including three soldiers who were killed by a roadside bomb on Thursday in the deadliest attack on Canadian forces in the country in more than a year.
But as the death toll approaches the grim milestone of 100, it threatens to re-ignite a debate that dissipated since Parliament voted in March to extend the mission to 2011. The condition set _ in a bow to a recommendation by an independent panel on Canada's mission _ was that NATO send more forces to the volatile south where Canadian forces operate.
France agreed to send troops, but sent them to a region east of Kabul. The U.S. then sent more troops to help the 2,500 Canadian troops stationed in Kandahar province, the former Taliban stronghold that has again emerged as the epicenter of the violence.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper reiterated his support of the mission after the French troops were killed Monday, saying a stable Afghanistan is needed to protect its citizens and people elsewhere in the world.
"Obviously, we in Canada have understood over the past several years how difficult this mission is," Harper said.
But the comments have done little to allay concerns about the mounting toll in a battle that for years had been eclipsed by the war in Iraq.
This year will likely be the deadliest for international troops since the 2001 invasion. Some 184 soldiers from international forces, including about 96 Americans, have died in Afghanistan this year, according to an Associated Press count. At that pace, the year's total would far surpass the record 222 troop deaths in 2007.
At least 500 members of the U.S. military have died in Afghanistan since the U.S. invaded the country of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
The mounting toll in the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban has exacted an emotional, if not political, price in Canada _ a country whose traditional role as peacekeeper has left its citizens unaccustomed to seeing soldiers die.
Polls since 2002 have shown support for the mission roughly split 50-50 in Canada, with French-speaking Quebec strongly against it.
But a poll last month by Angus Reid Global Monitor found that 58 percent of respondents disagree with the decision to extend Canada's mandate to 2011, up four points in two months. The poll, which interviewed 1,004 adult Canadians online, had a margin of error of 3.1 percent.
Mel Greenglass, 65, a retired accountant, said he has mixed feelings about the mission.
"They're dying like it was Vietnam. There's no result," Greenglass said.
"There's no sense in reading about it because it's basically the same story. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, they were attacked, they're blown up. I think we've gotten used to it, unfortunately."
Others stress that there is no getting used to the deaths.
Steve Weiner, 53, a dentist, pulled off the side of Canada's busiest highway earlier this week and watched about 100 people on an overpass wait to honor a soldier whose body was being driven from a Canadian air base to a morgue in Toronto.
It was a scene that has been played many times before along the overpasses of the "Highway of Heroes" _ a stretch of Highway 401 that connects the military base in Trenton, Ontario, and Toronto.
"There were about three or four war veterans and there were a lot of young people," Weiner said. "I don't think we're getting accustomed to seeing soldiers die. There were 100 people on the bridge. I left after a while and every bridge all the way home had a 100 people on it. It's a sign of how special each one of these people are."
Despite the mounting toll, retired Maj. Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, the commander of a U.N. force in the Balkans, said the milestone could easily re-ignite debate about mission, but accomplish little else.
"There will be a lot of attention but I don't think it will cause a change in policy," MacKenzie said. "It's as tragic at 99 as it is at 101."
What could fuel the debate is that some Canadians lump Afghanistan with the U.S.-led war in Iraq, an idea MacKenzie hears repeatedly on the lecture circuit.
"Here's a U.N.-sanctioned mission carried out by NATO and you still have people referring to it as Bush's war and we're the lackeys of the Americans," MacKenzie said. "That's just knee jerk anti-American, anti-Bush rhetoric. It has legs, it sticks, it really does. When I'm out taking questions after a speech that's the type of stuff I get from some people."
But public protests are rare in Canada, and MacKenzie said Canadians are now prouder of their military than they have been in a long time.
Harper _ facing mounting domestic pressure _ urged several key NATO allies earlier this year to contribute more soldiers for the south. But the refusal by some major European allies to send a significant number of troops opened a rift within NATO, as some countries have restrictions on where and how they can fight.
"Canada has done its part," MacKenzie said. "At least we're living up to our obligations within NATO."
In all, there are some 53,000 NATO-led troops from 27 countries serving in Afghanistan. But it has been Canadian, British, Dutch and U.S. forces _ with support from Denmark, Romania, Estonia and non-NATO Australia _ that have borne the brunt of the Taliban's attacks.
But even with the U.S. providing 32,000 troops, including 14,000 serving with NATO and another 18,000 conducting training and counterinsurgency operations, MacKenzie does not believe that the alliance has enough troops in the country to accomplish its mission.
Brig. Gen. Denis Thompson, the commander of Task Force Kandahar, said the Taliban is becoming much more aggressive. And, at least some of their focus seems purposely directed at Canada.
Taliban fighters killed three Western humanitarian workers last week, including two Canadian women. The Taliban later released a letter addressed to the Canadian people, urging them to convince their government to pull out of Afghanistan and threatening similar attacks against Canadian civilians.
The employer of the workers, the New York-based International Rescue Committee, announced it would suspend its aid programs in Afghanistan indefinitely.
"It defies belief that we are actually making progress when our aid people have to pull out because it is so dangerous for them," said Stephen Clarkson. a political scientist at the University of Toronto.
Clarkson thinks hitting the 100th death could rekindle a debate about the Canadian mission in Afghanistan.
"I think a lot of people have just tuned out because there's no longer political conflict about it," said Clarkson, who noted that Canada's main opposition Liberal party in Canada supported the extension.
"It could bounce back and become a major debate," he said. "It could be politically explosive."


Updated : 2021-06-13 03:48 GMT+08:00