No Peace to Keep

by Catherine Hart:

Every year in early November, Canadians don red flowers on their winter overcoats. The poppies, worn in honor of Remembrance day, recognize the wartime service of the armed forces and civilians. These simple flowers, which once only symbolized conflicts long past, have taken on a new significance after seven years of fighting in Afghanistan with Canadian casualties steadily accumulating.

In the second half of the 20th century, Canadians maintained a comfortable relationship with their military. Under predominantly liberal governments, the country’s armed forces functioned primarily as a peacekeeping force at the United Nations’ disposal, regularly bringing humanitarian aid to conflict zones. Canadians have been proud of their military’s international service: after all, it was Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Lester B. Pearson who first devised the concept of “peacekeeping” in 1956, winning a Nobel Prize for his efforts.

A Canadian official part of Canada's peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan (Flickr).

Few Canadians questioned Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s decision to send troops to Afghanistan in October 2001; the attacks of September 11, in which 25 Canadians died, had shaken Canada as well as the United States. At the time, Chrétien promised that the small force of 100 troops in Afghanistan would be home by 2003.

But Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan, a mission presented to the citizenry in 2001 as another simple but valuable humanitarian venture, has resulted in more casualties than Canada has seen since the Korean War. Seven years later, the death toll of the war has reached 98. While conservatives applaud what they see as a violent but necessary conflict, left-wingers are uncomfortable with Canada’s continued aggression.

Some argue that the limited humanitarian model customary of the Canadian military is inappropriate for the increasingly violent Afghanistan mission. Barry Cooper, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary, claimed that casualties have had a large impact on the direction and perception of the conflict. “In the past, the peacekeeping model had almost a monopoly over what Canadians thought their soldiers were in the business of doing,” he told the Globalist. “When you have combat deaths, things change. Canadians have realized that the peacekeeping model was a bill of goods that did not properly reflect what militaries are for.”

“ The move toward a more combat-ready military has been advocated by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party. The Conservatives’ October 14 reelection gave them a mandate to continue initiatives begun when they were first elected in 2006. These initiatives include increased defense spending and sustained support for the mission in Afghanistan until 2011, the date set by Parliament for the pullout of Canadian troops.

But the reelection of the Conservatives does not reflect widespread popular support for the war. A poll by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation News conducted in early September showed that support for the war had hit a record low, with 56 percent saying they disapproved of the military action, and only 28 percent responding that they believed the mission would be successful. The second figure is down from 36 percent in a November 2006 poll.

Echoing this concern, Irene Mathyssen, a member of Parliament representing the oppositional New democratic Party, said the concern over the mission was not a criticism of the military but rather of the policies behind the engagement. “People are expecting more explanation,” she said. “They want to know what we are doing in a war that many of us don’t understand and have no idea what the reasons behind it are.”

As much as Canadians have been shaken by the casualties in Afghanistan, the public may also be responding to recent reports from Ottawa that the mission will likely cost the country upwards of 18 billion Canadian dollars (over $14 billion), double the amount Harper had predicted in the past. This cost, especially during the dire domestic and global economic conditions that dominated the lead-up to the October 14 election, could play a significant role in the future of the mission.

Harper’s government has pledged to abide by the 2011 pullout date, but in a war that has already lasted six years longer than originally intended, nothing is certain. As the death count nears 100, with leaks from British NATO commanders expressing doubt of victory, the war in Afghanistan has transformed the Canadian humanitarian military into, for the first time, a controversial force.

Catherine Hart is a junior History major in Morse College.