A recent poll suggests that two-thirds (or 67 per cent) of Canadians want the country’s military mission in Afghanistan to end as scheduled in 2009. According to the polling firm Decima Research, this result has been true "in every region of Canada, among men and women, all age and income groups and among both urban and rural residents."
Only 26 per cent of respondents to the same survey thought Canada’s military mission should be extended "if that is necessary to complete our goals there."
But what, exactly, are Canada’s goals in Afghanistan?
Just a few days after the above results were made public, NATO secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, flew to Ottawa to meet Prime Minister Stephen Harper and urge Canada to continue the fight in Afghanistan beyond the country’s self-imposed deadline of February 2009.
"I know how dramatic it is if Canadian soldiers pay the highest price," de Hoop Scheffer said, "But I still say, you are there for a good cause . .. you are there to defend basic universal values."
His plea came one day after three Canadian soldiers were killed, bringing to 60 the number of Canadian troops who’ve lost their lives in Afghanistan since 2002.
But the "good cause" of which he speaks now has a serious credibility problem for many Canadians, who are seeing de Hoop Scheffer as a paid salesman who repeats what George W. Bush has been saying since 9/11 about terrorism, democracy, freedom, etc. And like Bush, de Hoop Scheffer seems to have minimal respect for human lives. This means any human lives – those of Afghani men, women and children, who are killed daily; those of Canadians killed far from home; and those of his fellow Dutch citizens who number among the international forces posted there.
In the meantime, an association of Quebec-based anti-war activists, the War on War Coalition, has sent individual letters to 3,000 Canadian military families urging eligible soldiers to refuse their upcoming deployments to Afghanistan.
The letter says that "the Afghan mission is a web of lies" and exhorts military personnel to reconsider going, because "you are not obligated to go to Afghanistan to become cannon fodder in this unjust war."
The letter goes on to say that it is sent "in the spirit of dialogue and debate" and warns that Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan risk complicity in activities "tantamount to war crimes," such as civilian deaths.
The coalition also set up a protest in Quebec City to coincide with a military parade where 2,500 Canadian Forces soldiers – the bulk of them from Quebec – were bidding farewell to family and friends before going to Afghanistan.
"Our aim isn’t to attack the soldiers or their families; we want to open… the debate on our presence in Afghanistan and why we should participate in this conflict," said coalition spokesperson Joseph Bergeron. "We want them to know that the reasons they’ve been given for going aren’t the real ones … they are not going to instill democracy with the barrel of a rifle. The Afghans don’t want them there."
Faced with such strong opposition to Canada’s presence in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has declared that Canada’s military role in Afghanistan will continue past February 2009 only if there’s a consensus on the home front among political leaders and Canadians.
"I will want to see some degree of consensus among Canadians about how we move forward after that," he said. "I would hope that the view of Canadians is not to simply abandon Afghanistan. I think there is some expectation that there would be a new role after February 2009, but obviously those decisions have yet to be taken."
"This mission will end in February 2009," Harper continued. "Should Canada be involved militarily after that date, we’ve been clear that [it] would have to be approved by the Canadian Parliament … I don’t want to send people into a mission if the opposition is going to … undercut the dangerous work that [soldiers] are doing in the field."
This was a dramatic change for Harper, who has said until recently that Canada will not "cut and run" from Afghanistan, a point he drove home during a visit to Kandahar just a month ago.
"You know that our work is not complete. You know that we cannot just put down our arms and hope for peace," Harper told Canadian troops then.
"You know that we can’t set arbitrary deadlines and simply wish for the best."
But Harper’s change of mind received a cool reception from the opposition.
Liberal Leader StÃ©phane Dion accused the Prime Minister of "creating ambiguity."
If Harper was "responsible," he would give notice to NATO and Afghanistan that Canada would be pulling out in 2009, Dion said. "He should be very clear. He should say that the combat mission in Kandahar ends in February 2009."
And for the majority of Canadians, whose lives have been scarified for too long by the Bush-Harper-NATO war dance, February 2009 cannot come soon enough.