08 March 2006

The young Canadian soldier

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An' go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Rudyard Kipling, The young British soldier

In another time, Kipling's cynicism about Afghanistan and soldiers rang true.

A series of deaths and serious injuries in Afghanistan prompted public comments calling for a debate on Canada's military presence in Afghanistan or, in some instances, for the withdrawal of the Canadian soldiers altogether.

Mike Duffy has gone so far as drawing a comparison to the Soviet experience in the central Asian country from 1979 to 1988 as proof that we should think about getting out. The idea is that bigger and more powerful countries have failed before us.

But here's the difference, Mike.

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan over Christmas 1979 with a force that ultimately numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The Soviets invaded after engineering the assassination of the pro-Soviet leader they didn't like in order to replace him with one they did like. A widespread insurgency developed, largely of radical fundamentalists opposed - as Afghans have traditionally opposed - a foreign invader.

For the first five or so years of the Soviet occupation of the country, fatal casualties ran at around three per day in what were, at times, heavy combat operations involving thousands of soldiers. Those numbers are important since they reflect the sort of military calculations that are done to determine how successful an operation is going. A loss of three soldiers per day, most to local disease and accident, is hardly burdensome when the country was deemed important strategically to the Kremlin and the army was able, in return, to show that it was killing dozens if not hundreds of Afghan insurgents in exchange.

Fast forward to the current day. The international presence in Afghanistan came after the American attacks on the major operating bases for the people who slaughtered more than 3,000 Americans in an unprovoked terror attack on the World Trade Centre. There is no insurgency comparable to the one from the 1980s.

Countries like Canada and Germany are not looking to occupy and control Afghanistan for themselves or on behalf of anyone else. This is an operation that directly links our security at home to the efforts to stabilize a country that, until now has been ripe to support fanatics and radicals bent on killing civilians in other parts of the world. Through their killing these fanatics, though small in number, have too often been able to intimidate others or, in the case of places like Afghanistan, subjugate entire countries.

The international presence in the country is limited and has been largely successful in keeping the Taliban and al Queda at bay and at restoring the domestic infrastructure in Afghanistan that was destroyed by 20 years of international and civil war. Afghanistan is on the road to recovery with an Afghan government of some kind.

In short, there is a huge difference between what happened in the 1980s in central Asia and what is happening now.

This past year Canada moved its military contingent to Kandahar province, an area which remains dangerous but where the military presence is likely to be successful in its anti-terror and civil reconstruction missions.

It is in that context that Canadian soldiers have come under attack recently from the handful of fanatics who want their secure base of support back, the Afghans be damned.

Since first deploying troops to Afghanistan in 2002, Canada has suffered nine fatal casualties - nine deaths. That's it. While one death is tragic, nine is hardly cause for national panic, given the larger goal Canadian soldiers are achieving both for Canadians and for Afghans. Don't take my word for it. Ask Canadian men and women who have served there. Let them tell you the story.

Some have questioned the training and equipment of our military, including the current administration just a few short weeks ago.

Well, here are the Afghan facts.

Since deploying to Afghanistan, the Canadian Forces have acquired a series of new vehicles and other equipment that have already proven their value and their effectiveness. Whether we are talking about the G-wagen or the Nyala, Canadians are well-equipped for their task.

The LAV-III, seen recently is a tough, capable piece of kit. The most significant deaths and injuries this week came in a straight-up vehicle crash - not a terror attack - and resulted from the vehicle rolling over. That's always likely to be nasty.

But, when a vehicle was struck by a suicide bomber, the vehicle and most of the passengers were scarcely hurt. Take a look at the picture, right.

Some scuffed paint.

One shredded tire and two that need replacement.

Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan have the best equipment for the tasks they are doing.

They need helicopters, as chief of defence staff General Rick Hillier has proposed.

Rather than debate the mission, let's see Gord O'Connor, the new defence minister, get off his duff and put the order through.

Overall, Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan are doing the mission we need to see done in that country for our own security and for the security of Afghans. We have all shared the sorrow of watching some of men and women coming home in caskets or with serious injuries.

We asked them to take a risk and they did so willingly. Let's not make a mockery of their deaths or injuries by running away well before the job is finished or until we know the job just can't be done.

The concerted efforts of a handful of terrorists - like the one who ambushed Captain Trevor Greene - shouldn't intimidate an entire country.

The young Canadian soldier deserves better than the misinformation on which much of the recent discussion has been based.

The young Canadian soldier deserves our support.