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A Canadian soldier with 2nd Combat Engineer Regiment searches an abandoned house during a patrol outside the village of Nakhonay.Reuters

Canadians think it's more important for their armed forces to be peacekeepers than combat fighters, a new poll has found, starkly outlining the political challenge in the future if Canada is called upon to play a part in messy overseas conflicts.

With combat forces scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan in July, Canadians are heavily against sending troops on another mission like it, according to a Nanos Research poll conducted for The Globe and Mail. Peacekeeping topped the list of what they want soldiers to do in the future. And funding the military rates low compared with Canadians' bigger priorities for government spending.

The poll highlights the political challenge facing not just the Canadian government but other Western nations suffering war fatigue after costly expeditions in Afghanistan and Iraq: Will they be able to sell unpopular but perhaps necessary foreign military missions to their voters in the future? And amid economic malaise, will public opinion force them to slash funds for the military capabilities they would need for any mission in the future?

Though years of lethal combat in Kandahar have changed the face and image of the Canadian Forces, the public that awaits the return of the troops sees a future military modelled on its vision of blue-helmeted peacekeepers of years past. Canadians retain a deep vein of interest in internationalism, but not one that gets soldiers into shooting wars - rating combat missions by troops overseas as the least important of five roles for Canada's military.

It may be longing for an iconic role that is largely gone. Canadian peacekeepers with small arms patrolled between former combatants in 1970s Cyprus, but 1990s Bosnia was messier. And now, the missions awaiting in volatile Congo are not static, not passive, and that means fighting. Today's peacekeeping usually involves enforcement, and often all-out combat with warlords and rival militias, and missions without a peacemaking mandate often fail. What will we do in a world where differences between combat and peacekeeping are narrowing?

"The future of peacekeeping isn't going to be like its imagined past. It's not going to be just sitting around handing out candy bars and wearing blue helmets," said Stephen Saideman, Canada Research Chair in international security and ethnic conflict at McGill University. "If the Canadian Forces are sent someplace, it's going to have to be places where they're willing to shoot and get shot at."

The Nanos poll found 52 per cent of respondents rated UN peacekeeping as an important role for Canada's armed forces - a quarter rated it a 10 on a scale of importance from one to 10. Only 21 per cent of Canadians rated overseas combat missions as an important role for the military.

North American security co-operation rated second to UN peacekeeping, with 44 per cent considering it important - ahead of increasing defences in the Arctic and commitments to NATO.

Overall, said pollster Nik Nanos, Canadians still see their military's job as they have for decades, based on two main pillars: UN peacekeeping, and the kind of North American defence co-operation with the United States long done by institutions such as NORAD. "It's kind of like retro hour for foreign policy," he says.

Those views are likely coloured now by an Afghanistan mission they wouldn't repeat. The poll found 66 per cent of Canadians would oppose or "somewhat oppose" another mission like it. Only 21 per cent said they would support or somewhat support such a mission.

Though Canadian troops went into Afghanistan as part of an international stabilization mission under UN mandate, that's discounted now, after what Canadians perceive as years of disillusioning war.

A majority of poll respondents think the Afghanistan mission enhanced the country's reputation in the world, but Canadians are deeply divided on whether it accomplished its goals: curbing terrorism, creating political stability and making Afghans safer.

It is, Mr. Nanos suggested, partly about expectations. Ambitious goals of creating a democracy and rebuilding a nation are seen as unmet. Perhaps, he said, Canadians will one day support a more muscular combat mission if it's perceived to have defined and realistic goals.

No matter what role the Canadian Forces plays, it cannot expect a rush of new money to do it. The Nanos survey found that when Canadians have to choose where they want their taxes to go, they pick other priorities first - 79 per cent said rated health care as important for the government's budget spending, jobs and the economy are important for 73.9 per cent, and the environment and taxes were also rated higher - only 40 per cent considered military spending important.

The poll of 1,002 Canadians, conducted by Nanos Research between Oct. 1 and 6, is considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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