Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper reflected the mood of Canadians when he announced at last week’s NATO Summit that troops will leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. While supportive of the original engagement in 2001 and proud of the work of our Canadian troops, Canadians generally want out of this seemingly never-ending conflict. No longer involved in combat operations on the battlefield, and recently engaged in the training of security forces for post-war Afghanistan, Canada will continue to contribute a significant financial commitment to the efforts beyond 2014.
When 9/11 occurred, then-Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien supported American efforts through the UN, the Security Council and NATO to remove the Taliban government in Afghanistan and work in a concerted effort to stop Al Qaeda terrorism. This has often been referred as the “smart” war, as opposed to the “dumb war” in Iraq—terms used by a young Illinois politician called Barack Obama. Events showing that Osama Bin Laden was able to act with impunity and with state cover from the Taliban justified that Canada join with their international allies and overthrow the government of the day.
The goals then were clear: defend our national interests, show our leadership in the world community and contribute to stabilizing and rebuilding Afghanistan. In the decade that followed, however, the war lost favor with the Canadian public. Canadians’ support for the war effort declined consistently to the point where Canada announced its intention to withdraw the bulk of its troops by 2011.
Overall, Canada’s participation was quite significant in scope and sacrifice. Canadian troops were intensively engaged in the volatile Kandahar province for a number of years. To date, 158 Canadian soldiers have been killed with most dying in hostile circumstances. The war has cost Canada more than $10 billion. The courage of our fallen ones and their families remains a matter of pride to Canadians.
Prime Minister Harper indicated Canada’s training mission will end in 2014 at a time when U.S. combat forces will have withdrawn. In so doing, the Canadian government will still commit $110 million annually for three years beyond 2015. It is clear that Canada is now resigned to the fact that no one country can declare victory and mission accomplished in this conflict.
Canada and the U.S. may have had their differences on whether to go to war in Iraq but not in Afghanistan. We can recall that Canada had serious doubts when the Bush Administration believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
But the course in Afghanistan was an example of two allies sharing objectives and sacrifice. Now that Canada has signaled the end of its commitment, and the U.S. has outlined its exit strategy, other NATO nations are beginning to gradually disengage. Still, it is fair to say that significant progress was made in reducing the impact of Al Qaeda. But the overall outcome sadly remains inconclusive and uncertain.
John Parisella is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently an invited professor at University of Montréal’s International Relations Center.