As I was doing my radio show yesterday, I read from an article on the trouble that President Musharaf of Pakistan was causing NATO troops by not making much of an effort to stem the flow of Taliban fighters into Afghanistan. In fact, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri recommended that NATO go ahead and surrender now by making a deal with the Taliban on establishing a coalition government in Kabul and leaving. He also sagely recommended against sending any more troops to bolster the 33,000 troops already serving in that theater.
Leaving aside Musharaf’s perfidious Foreign Minister, the fact is that NATO troops have generally performed brilliantly in Afghanistan. And while the US has far and away the most troops serving in the NATO contingent, I was somewhat surprised to learn that of late, the US has not been doing most of the fighting. In fact, it has been our neighbors to the north who have demonstrated once again that when duty and honor call, the Canadian soldier has always stepped forward, front and center, to be counted as a true friend and ally of the United States.
Despite viewing our northerly neighbors with either a bored indifference or a condescending big brother-little brother attitude, the Canucks seem able to shrug off our beastly treatment of them and when crunch time comes, deliver. This says a lot about the character of Canadians who, after all, are a proud, fiercely independent people, resentful at times of an American culture that threatens to overwhelm them and American tourists who tend to view Canada as a gigantic 51st state. In fact, it is a wonder that Canadians are as welcoming of Americans as they are when we visit. That also says a lot about the Canadian character.
For despite all the jokes about the Canadians taciturnity, I have found them to be a warm, open people, fiercely protective of the great expanse of natural treasures found in their beautiful lakes, rivers, forests, and mountains as well as being practical stewards of the land. It is a balance that we here in the United States should aspire to although, given the current political climate, is probably not in the cards.
As for the Canadian armed forces, I was amazed to learn, for instance, that Canada sent nearly 620,000 men to fight in World War I. At the 2nd Battle of Ypres, the Canadian 1st Division was sent in to hold a bulge in the line directly opposite a German division dug in on a low hill. Following a short but fierce artillery bombardment, the Canadian troops – holding the center of the salient – saw a green mist waft toward them. It was the very first use of poison gas in World War I, a deadly cloud of chlorine gas which was designed to sink to the lowest point on the battlefield; in this case, the trenches of the Canadian 1st Division.
Not equipped with gas masks, the Canucks nevertheless stood their ground. Coughing and spitting, the Canadians beat back the German infantry charge and then launched a counterattack of their own. Of course, such attacks and counterattacks were ultimately self defeating. The area around the small Belgium town of Ypres – “Flanders Fields” – is considered one of the most heavily fertilized places on the planet due to the nearly half million dead from both sides, most of whom disappeared into the mud never to be found and buried.
No one has questioned the toughness of Canadian troops since.
In Afghanistan, the Canadians have distinguished themselves both as warriors and in reconstruction efforts. The Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team (KPRT) has a hundred projects either in development or completed. The Canadian government has earmarked over $600 million for reconstruction over the last 5 years, making them the 4th largest contributor to the effort. Needless to say, in order to defeat the Taliban, it will take both the efforts of NATO combat forces and the reconstruction teams.
In combat operations, only the United States has suffered the loss of more men. In the last year alone, 36 Canadians have died (Canada has suffered a total of 44 dead since 2001). This is due to the fact that the Canadians have taken the lead combat role in one of the hotbeds of Taliban activity; Kandahar Province. Specifically, the southern part of the province where the Taliban regularly crosses the border in strength from their bases in Pakistan. Prime Minister Harper has increased troops strength to nearly 2,500 and the government has extended Canadian participation in Afghanistan for another two years.
In July of this year, the Canadians spearheaded an attack on the Taliban stronghold of Panjwaii. Operation Mountain Thrust involve nearly 2,000 Canadians and several hundred of their Afghan allies. It was designed to destroy concentrations of Taliban fighters who had been gathering strength in the area. The Canucks waded in and, after several days of fierce fighting, sent the Taliban flying, scattering their forces.
With the Taliban regrouping in the area in the early fall, the Canadians once again attacked Panjwaii, this time with the help of some Dutch and Americans as well as a crack regiment from the Afghan army. Operation Medusa, commanded by Canadian General David Fraser was a bigger, bloodier action than the July operation with twice as many Taliban having infiltrated across the border. This apparently didn’t faze the Canucks a bit. Aggressively attacking the well dug in Taliban, the Canadians rooted them out, killing more than 200 and once again scattering their forces to the four winds. This was a more costly enterprise with 4 Canadians sacrificing their lives and 50 others wounded (a friendly fire incident involving an American A-10 killed one and wounded 30).
The reason that the Canadians had to return to the scene of their July victory in Panjwaii was because of a lack of NATO forces who could enter a combat zone and risk casualties. There was no way to hold the area and prevent the re-infiltration of the Taliban without the substantial presence of NATO forces, something that simply wasn’t possible. That’s because most NATO nations have put severe restrictions on their troops going into harms way. Called “caveats,” these restrictions have made the Canadian army’s life difficult in Kandahar since operations there began.
This, however, may be changing. NATO ministers meeting in Riga have agreed to lift some of these caveats which should free another 1-2,000 NATO troops for combat duties in the south.
A statement from NATO indicated that the leaders had agreed to remove some of the “caveats” that countries had placed on the use of their troops, though exactly how much will change remained uncertain.
Though Germany, France and some others have maintained restrictions that will largely keep their troops in the relatively calm north, the Netherlands and Romania removed limits on how their troops can be used. Some other countries offered more troops and equipment for the effort, officials said.
During a news conference, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that about 26,000 of the troops in Afghanistan were now “more usable” in combat and noncombat operations and that all member countries had agreed their troops could be called on in a crisis by British Lt. Gen. David Richards, NATO’s Afghanistan commander.
Lately, the Canadians have been involved in the most dangerous reconstruction project in Afghanistan; the building of a road from the Panjwaii district to Kandahar City. Numerous IED’s and landmines not to mention ambushes by Taliban and tribal irregulars have claimed 14 more Canadian lives. The Taliban has begun to target Canadian soldiers believing that they can knock Canada out of the war by turning the Canadian public against the mission.
There is little doubt that the Canadian people are, at best, ambivalent about Canada’s combat role in Afghanistan. Polls show a bare majority wish the government to bring the troops home now. A large and growing peace movement – fueled by a desire not to sully Canada with the perceived sins of Abu Ghraib and Bagram – has recently become more active. But the government of Stephen Harper has remained firm – so far. NDP leader Jack Layton has called on Harper to open “peace negotiations” with the Taliban and to pull Canadian troops back out of harms way. And many in Canada are questioning why their little country – which has suffered 25% of NATO deaths – should give so much while France and Germany give so little:
NATO’s Dutch Secretary-General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, has taken aim at the big countries whose troops are kept from combat by political restrictions.
“We need to better configure our forces in Afghanistan,” he wrote in a German newspaper last week. “That also means removing the limitations individual nations have placed on their troops.”
Pleas from top NATO commanders for more troops or the loosening of tight leashes that keeps most European soldiers from the fighting have fallen largely on deaf ears.
“Only a handful of NATO members are prepared to go to the south and east and to go robustly—mainly the U.S., U.K., Canada, the Netherlands, Romania, Australia and Denmark,” the International Crisis Group concludes in a blunt report published this month.
“Hard questions need to be asked of those such as Germany, Spain, France, Turkey and Italy who are not, and who sometimes appear to put force protection, not mission needs, at the fore.”
A senior Canadian officer is more blunt. “How many battalions does it take to protect Kabul airport?” said Colonel Fred Lewis, the deputy contingent commander.
The French and Germans were not among the countries that lifted their caveats to allow their troops to engage the Taliban (the French have 200 Special Forces operating in the north).
But it doesn’t seem to faze the Canucks. They continue to soldier on, taking the hard jobs that others eschew. It is safe to say that without the Canadian contingent in Afghanistan, the mission there would be in greater danger of failing, given that the US and British troops are already stretched to the limit. Their willingness to take on more than their fair share of the burden of this war should be recognized and applauded by every single American.
So here’s to our neighbors to the north. And the next time you’re knocking back a few, buy yourself a Molson or Labatt and toast the boys who wear the Maple Leaf patch so proudly on their shoulders.
And here’s hoping more Americans begin to realize what a tremendously important job Canadian boys and girls are doing to help Afghanistan resist tyranny and find a way to peace and freedom.