• U.S.

Keeping Canada in Afghanistan

4 minute read
Samantha Power

The U.S. does not often look north to gauge its own security prospects. But over the past few months, Canada has been quietly embroiled in one of the most revealing political and international-security debates since the end of the cold war. It’s a debate critical to the future of NATO. And its outcome may tell us a lot about the fate of the U.S.’s struggle against terrorism.

At issue is Canada’s military role in Afghanistan. Canada is one of 26 NATO countries in the International Security Assistance Force, which is attempting to stabilize Afghanistan and neutralize the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But Canada is one of only a handful of NATO countries that have embraced the task of actual war-fighting. The Canadians, who have 2,500 troops on the ground, have suffered 82 fatalities, a death rate that is higher than the U.S. military’s in Iraq. In an increasingly two-tiered NATO alliance, Canada occupies the fighting tier, alongside the U.S., Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands.

The Bush Administration has praised Canada’s conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, for his commitment to the war. But its toll has unnerved Canadian citizens and opposition leaders. A recent poll showed that 47% of Canadians wanted their soldiers to leave Afghanistan immediately, and only 17% supported maintaining a combat role.

The Afghan war had broad public support in Canada in 2002, but is now seen as one front in George W. Bush’s hugely unpopular “war on terror.” The discontent also has deeper roots. Since World War II, when Canada sent more than a million troops to fight (and lost 45,000 lives), the country has stuck mainly to U.N. peacekeeping missions–a practice invented (as Canadians are fond of reminding visitors) in 1956 by Canadian Foreign Minister Lester Pearson. Having taken few casualties in the past half-century, Canadians have found it jarring to watch flag-draped coffins return to what can feel like a very small country. A public that has long seen its military as innocently patrolling the peace has had trouble adjusting to its forces engaging in a full-fledged, unconventional war.

Perhaps most important, Canadians do not see the Afghan conflict as directly relevant to their own security. Al-Qaeda has never staged an attack on Canadian soil. And although 24 Canadians were among the victims of 9/11 and terrorists were planning to blow up two Air Canada flights in the British terrorism plot of 2006, Canadians worry that fighting alongside the U.S. will increase–not decrease–the risk that they will become a target.

After a heated and long-overdue domestic debate, the Canadian Parliament last month voted to keep its soldiers in Afghanistan until 2011–with the provisos that Canadian forces be reinforced by 1,000 troops from elsewhere and that Canadian forces concentrate less on combat and more on training Afghan security forces. When finally consulted in earnest, Canadians concluded that the financial and human costs of the mission were in fact worth bearing, at least for now. That’s the good news. The bad news is that unlike Canada, few other NATO countries have begun to grapple with the urgency of 21st century threats or the sacrifices needed to deal with them. The avoidance of these topics allows European politicians to shirk tough questions and deprives them of the opportunity to educate their people about the security and humanitarian stakes in Afghanistan and beyond–stakes that will need to be embraced if collective security arrangements are to remain more than notional.

The U.S. alone can’t succeed in Afghanistan. But Canada’s example shows that even our closest allies need to be convinced that the fight is theirs too. Before countries like Macedonia, Albania and Croatia gain admission to NATO, they should be reminded that membership carries responsibilities as well as rewards. NATO rules should be rewritten to ensure that countries that invest disproportionate military and financial resources (as Canada has done) should have some of their costs subsidized by the alliance. If a government does not want to send its troops to fight, it should still be obliged to contribute funding and civilian expertise, which remains in short supply.

There is no military solution to Afghanistan’s woes any more than there is a military solution to Iraq’s. But we’ll probably face similar problems in the years ahead. Meeting the challenge will require Western democracies to rethink the identities and priorities they forged in a very different world.

Power is the author of Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World

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