Redefining the mission

A 90-page report released this week recommends Canada stay in Afghanistan and refocus its NATO-led deployment to emphasize diplomacy, reconstruction and training of Afghan forces. The report was written by an independent panel headed by former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley.

Canada’s scheduled mission ends in early 2009, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has indicated it wants to keep troops there for at least another two years.

The report calls for an indefinite extension of Canada’s deployment provided NATO’s International Security Assistance Force deploys another 1,000 troops to Kandahar province and the government obtain medium-lift helicopters and high-performance unmanned aerial vehicles—all by the expected withdrawal date in 2009.

The Afghan mission has been a major initiative for Canadian troops. But Canada’s 78th casualty was killed by an improvised explosive device Thursday, and polls suggest Canadians are increasingly skeptical of this mission. It’s vital the mission be re-evaluated and more clear-cut goals established.

A pullout in early 2009 would have dire consequences for a country and population still fragile from decades of occupations that left a shattered infrastructure and citizens skeptical of international intervention.

At the same time, the mission can’t continue unconditionally. Harper’s government needs to look at the ongoing volatility in Afghanistan and develop a timeline that considers what’s best for both Afghanistan and Canada.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sparked Canadian indignation last week when he said NATO troops are ill-suited to combat Taliban insurgents. Despite having apologized for his comments, Gates seemed to be getting at a very real truth: NATO troops are tired and need additional assistance.

When foreign troops land in a country toting guns and professing to spread democracy, they’re likely to be met with distrust, and rightly so. International troops’ missteps, notably the abuse of detainees transferred to the Afghan police, seriously jeopardize the little faith the Afghan people have left in NATO troops to mend their war-torn country.

Harper has said the deployment will go to a vote later this year. But first, the mission needs to be redefined. Scaling back now would do more harm than good in a place where little visible good has been done at all.

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