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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 September 2006, 12:05 GMT 13:05 UK
Canada divided as losses mount
By Lee Carter
BBC News, Toronto

Pallbearers carry coffin
Canada's direct combat role - and death toll - has made some uneasy

Canadians are becoming used to the sight of coffins coming home from Afghanistan.

Each grief-stricken ceremony, almost always accompanied by the mournful sound of military bagpipes, is given extensive coverage by Canada's TV news.

On Sunday, four Canadian soldiers died in a major Nato-led anti-Taleban campaign called Operation Medusa. They were killed during fierce fighting with Taleban insurgents.

Then on Monday, another group of Canadian troops preparing to launch operations from a temporary camp, found themselves strafed, without warning, by two American A-10 Thunderbolt warplanes.

In the so-called "friendly-fire" incident, one of the Canadian soldiers died and 30 more were injured, five of them seriously.

Map

But Canadian military officials have insisted that despite the losses, the Nato operation, aimed at purging Taleban and al-Qaeda rebels in Panjwaii, has been a success.

They point out that an estimated 200 Taleban insurgents were killed and 80 captured during the weekend operation.

Nevertheless, the five deaths are the highest number sustained by the Canadian military, in a 24-hour period, since its troops were first despatched to Afghanistan in 2002.

Since then, one Canadian diplomat and 32 Canadian soldiers have died, many during the last year.

Hazardous mission

About 2,500 Canadian military personnel are currently based in southern Afghanistan, near Kandahar.

Canadian soldiers in Panjwayi, Afghanistan, after hearing of a "friendly fire" incident
Canadians are the third largest foreign presence in Afghanistan

They represent the third largest international military presence of the 9,000-strong Nato contingent, behind the United States and the United Kingdom.

The deployment there has become a foreign policy cornerstone of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's minority Conservative government, which took over the reins of power in Ottawa at the beginning of 2006.

The government has shown its determination to demonstrate that Canada can be a reliable Nato ally and a partner in the US-led "war on terror".

But Canada's direct combat role has made some uneasy, in a country that over several decades, has been traditionally known for its peacekeeping efforts in conflict zones as diverse as Cyprus, Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti.

Opinion polls reveal steadily declining support for the increasingly hazardous Afghan mission.

Mr Harper has made it clear he has no intention of abandoning the fight against the Taleban, a sentiment that was robustly backed by the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay.

"You either take them on or surrender to them," he told CBC television this week.

Opposition divided

But as the casualties mount, many opposition politicians say they are frustrated by what they regard as a lack of discussion over Canada's expanding role in Afghanistan.

I think we should stay in but we need to have a proper debate about whether this is the right course of action in the future
Ken Dryden
Liberal MP

In an official parliamentary debate in May, the Harper government narrowly won parliamentary approval for a two-year extension of Canada's mission. As the country's parliament prepares to reconvene after a summer break, some opposition politicians want to re-open that debate.

They include Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the French-speaking Bloc Quebecois, who is demanding an emergency debate on the direction Canada's foreign policy is taking, including whether Ottawa should pull its troops out of Afghanistan.

But the country's official opposition, the Liberal Party, can't hide its internal divisions over the issue. It has been hard for the Liberals to oppose the Canadian mission, when it was they who originally sent Canadian troops to Afghanistan in the first place.

The party is also rudderless, in the throes of a leadership race that will not be completed until the end of the year.

Liberal MP Ken Dryden acknowledges the divisions but says they simply reflect public opinion.

"I think we should stay in but we need to have a proper debate about whether this is the right course of action in the future. What is our best role in the world? Is our only security, military security?" Mr Dryden said.

'Muted response'

Only the left-wing New Democratic Party has unequivocally demanded that Canadian troops to be brought home. Its leader, Jack Layton, says the objectives of mission have not been well-explained.

Support the troops sign
Many Canadians are immensely proud of their troops' role

"The prime minister won't even use the word 'war', even though it's obvious that's what Canada has now declared. There is no exit strategy that's ever been offered and there's no comprehensive plan to achieve peace."

It is difficult to assess how much influence any of these stands are having on Canadian public opinion because it tends to be nuanced.

For instance, polls appear to show that while Canadians may have some misgivings about their soldiers engaging in direct combat, most are immensely proud of the mission.

And there appears to be a gradual shifting of sentiment.

Monday's mistaken US attack on Canadian soldiers immediately provoked memories of another similar incident in April 2002, when an American F-16 pilot dropped a bomb on Canadian troops conducting night-training exercises, killing five of them.

That incident caused widespread outrage in Canada and a chill in relations with the US.

This time the response has been much more muted.

It could be that Canadians are developing an immunity to the once-shocking sight of coffins draped in the maple leaf flag, and the mournful sound of those military bagpipes.




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