Afghan War Taking Toll On Canada
MASUMGHAR, Afghanistan -- Canadian forces who arrived in August to this wind-blown desert were stunned by their initial encounter, a full-blown battle with thousands of insurgents.
Their 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.
For the past six months, Canada's will and determination have been undergoing a harsh test, and its government is bearing the political cost.
The task of confronting insurgents in volatile Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan has fallen largely 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 percent of the allied forces in Afghanistan, Canada absorbed nearly 20 percent of the coalition's combat deaths last year, losing 36 soldiers.
A Canadian diplomat also was killed, by a suicide bomber.
"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.
In the United States, the Afghan conflict receives far less attention than the war in Iraq. But in Canada, it gets top billing daily in newspapers and on TV.
And unlike in the United States, the public is allowed to see soldiers' bodies returning home in flag-draped caskets.
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.
The deployment is a strain for military families. Moreover, the Canadian mission points up the stresses and strains caused by unequal burden-sharing within NATO.
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, Belgium, on Friday brought a pledge from the United States 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.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, at the head of a coalition government, is vulnerable to political attack because of the Afghan mission.
"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, Ontario.
He said that there was a strong desire to see NATO allies share more of the perilous duty.
"We have stepped up and taken part in action while some of our NATO allies have been polishing their fingernails up in Kabul," Heinbecker said.
Military leaders are mindful that Canada's combat losses, although small compared with the number of U.S. deaths in Iraq, loom large in a country with a population of 33 million.