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Lewis MacKenzie

Canada will not abandon Afghanistan Add to ...

The headline just about screamed: "Sacrifices will be for naught if we flee Afghanistan." Sensational? Misleading? How about a real insult to Canada's disproportionate contribution to the international community's bid to keep Afghanistan from sliding back to the Dark Ages?

Parliament's decision that Canada will terminate its Afghan combat role in 2011 - that is to say, its battle group of about 1,000 soldiers "outside the wire" securing ground and seeking out insurgents - is already generating more smoke than fire in the media. And we still have two years to go!

It's an embarrassing fact that Canada, a G8 country presumably because of its wealth, is incapable of maintaining 1,000 combat soldiers abroad indefinitely. This, despite the fact that previous white papers called for the capability of maintaining a combat brigade (4,000 to 5,000 combat soldiers) overseas in support of coalition operations.

During the 1990s, the "decade of darkness," a sleeping public paid scant attention to the devastating impact of a 27-per-cent reduction to an already modest defence budget that left only one option to commanders - dramatically cut the number of personnel in uniform. Yet, since March of 2002, Canada has maintained a sizable presence - proportionally larger than any other country - in Afghanistan.

Over Christmas 2005, when the odds were high that the Taliban were in a position to attack and capture Kandahar city, the centre of gravity and birthplace of their movement, Canadian units started their move from Kabul to Kandahar and, during the summer of 2006, soundly defeated the insurgents in a conventional fight. We have been there ever since, in one of Afghanistan's most volatile provinces.

With a deployable full-time army of fewer than 15,000, we now have many soldiers with multiple tours in Afghanistan. By 2011, some will have four and possibly five. Add to each tour a year-long training regime before deployment and you start to understand the challenge of maintaining a modest-sized fighting force in the field.

The infantry that provides the bulk of the battle group's strength is doing so with fewer than 5,000 deployable full-time soldiers. Without augmentation by an even smaller and invaluable part-time militia, we would have been forced to abandon the Afghan mission before now.

During the past eight years, our soldiers have suffered per capita casualties well beyond those of any other country. Using the United States for comparison, our population is about 10 per cent of theirs. Our 127 killed would roughly translate to 1,270 U.S. fatalities; the U.S. number is currently just under 800. This comparison is in no way a criticism of any other country - it merely provides a measurement of our unwavering commitment to the Afghan campaign.

Those who suggest that our departure from the primary combat role in 2011 would render the sacrifices of our dead and wounded "wasted" are respectfully (particularly to surviving family and friends) wrong.

Those sacrifices saved Kandahar city and, for the past four years, the entire province of Kandahar when NATO, at the political level, was incapable of generating anything close to the number of boots on the ground that should have been provided to assist our contingent. When the history of the current Afghan conflict is written, Canada will be credited with playing a major role in the country's survival in the most critical early stages of the war.

As far as Canada's abandoning Afghanistan in 2011, even without reading between the lines, you can bet this won't happen. Afghanistan is the largest recipient of our foreign aid, with a number of signature projects that will continue. An ever-growing civilian presence assisting with governance and other aspects of nation-building also will continue.

The very effective Provincial Reconstruction Team and its protection element will no doubt stay, along with an increased number of mentors to help train the Afghan army and national police. The United States will probably lobby for retention of our outstanding medical facility at Kandahar airfield, along with the recently deployed helicopters and perhaps our artillery unit. The latter two will be controversial and lead to heated parliamentary debate because of their association with that dreaded term "combat."

Let's face it: The Americans know as much about our army as we do, and they're probably surprised that we have been able to maintain a battle group in theatre as long as we have. By 2011, that will have been longer than the two world wars combined. I doubt very much we will be asked to extend a combat task they know we would find exceedingly difficult to do.

Canada will not abandon Afghanistan in 2011, no matter what the headlines suggest for the next two years.

Lewis MacKenzie is a retired major-general who was the first commander of United Nations peacekeeping forces in Sarajevo.

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