Canadian soldiers returning home from Afghanistan. Photo by Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images
Canada is ending its combat mission in Afghanistan and shifting over to training Afghan forces ahead of a planned handover of security responsibilities in 2014. In the eyes of some Canadians, the transition couldn’t have happened soon enough.
Throughout the war, polls consistently showed that a majority of Canadians didn’t like that their soldiers were in a fighting role, said Sandro Contenta, GlobalPost’s Toronto correspondent and a features writer for the Toronto Star. It went against the country’s traditional role of peacekeeper in military affairs since the Korean War.
“Now that we’ve gone back to a training role, that’s more in line with the peacekeeping mission that Canadians are quite proud of,” he said.
Over its nine-year involvement in the Afghan war, Canada has deployed 3,000 troops, mostly to Kandahar province in the south, and lost 157 soldiers.
“Proportionately speaking, that’s a huge loss,” Contenta said. In addition, more than 600 soldiers were wounded in battle, many of them seriously.
“There’s been a lot of attention on that, and therefore quite a relief that the combat mission is over,” he added.
Canada felt the losses acutely, renaming a span of the trans-Canada highway where the bodies of soldiers were driven back to Toronto “the highway of heroes.”
Despite the general disapproval of the mission and emotion involved, however, Canadians never took to the streets in mass protests seeking a withdrawal, said Contenta. “Canadians just grinned and bore it the whole time. They were dissatisfied with the mission and preferred that the soldiers get out, but they weren’t actively demanding it.”
Over the next few weeks, the combat troops will exit Afghanistan. About 950 soldiers and support staff — based mainly in Kabul — will remain to train Afghan police, military and medical workers.
Some Canadians also were concerned about the lack of clarity of the mission, originally stated as hunting al-Qaida and getting rid of the Taliban, then it was rebuilding the country, and then it turned to counter-insurgency, Contenta said. “In the end there’s a sense that not much actually changed on the ground,” he added, and now there seem to be negotiations with the Taliban on taking part in whatever future form Afghanistan takes.
With Canada supporting the U.N. Security Council’s no-fly zone in Libya, the debate has turned to that part of the globe. “Now, there’s fear in Libya that there will be mission creep … and the next thing you know we’re going to have boots on the ground,” Contenta noted. “People are saying ‘look we were always unclear what the goals were in Afghanistan, let’s not make the same mistake with Libya.'”