Canada's contribution to the campaign was multifaceted. In late 2001, as US and other NATO forces were toppling the Afghan regime, Canadian ships in the Persian Gulf conducted interdiction operations to prevent the escape of al-Qaeda and Taliban members. In February 2002, Canada sent an infantry battle group to the southern Afghan province of Kandahar to operate as part of a US Army task force. Canadian troops were involved in combat against al-Qaeda and Taliban forces and provided protection for humanitarian relief operations and for Afghanistan's new interim government. The Canadian contribution to the coalition also included special forces, as well as airlift and long-range air patrol detachments.
The bulk of Canadian ground forces returned home in July 2002 to great public and media acclaim. The rousing welcome was a clear sign that the Canadian military efforts in Afghanistan had helped improve the reputation of the Canada's ARMED FORCES, which had suffered repeated blows in the 1990s.
Though their troops worked together successfully in Afghanistan, relations between Canada and the United States began to deteriorate in 2002. Many Canadians were troubled at the death of 4 Canadian infantrymen in April after they were bombed by a US pilot, who thought they were hostile forces and acted before confirming their identity. In early 2003, the focus of US policy shifted from Afghanistan to the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, which the American administration claimed had weapons of mass destruction. The Americans went to war to overthrow Saddam in March, but Canada refused to take part, choosing to send a large contingent of troops back to Afghanistan instead of to Iraq. Chrétien's decision was popular in Canada, but earned him a public rebuke from the US ambassador in Ottawa.
From 2003 to 2005, 2000 Canadian troops served with the NATO-led International Stabilization Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul. They maintained security in the Afghan capital and assisted the government in disarming and decommissioning units under the command of local warlords. From February to August 2004, a Canadian, LGen Rick Hillier, was in command of ISAF. In February 2006, approximately 2000 Canadians troops were deployed to Afghanistan, working under US operational control until July, when they were assigned to ISAF, this time in Kandahar.
By the beginning of 2007, several thousands of Canadian Forces personnel, both regular and reserve forces, had served in Afghanistan, with more than 2000 Canadians deployed at any given time during most of the conflict. This meant that Canada usually had the third-largest foreign troop contingent in Afghanistan, after the US and Britain. A total of 45 Canadians had died, many from suicide or roadside bombs, or during ground offensives.
In addition to the military effort, Canada worked to rebuild Afghanistan. Canadian governments pledged to spend $1 billion in development assistance from 2001 to 2011, making Afghanistan the largest single recipient of bilateral Canadian aid. In August 2005, Canada sent a provincial reconstruction team (PRT), consisting of 200 military and civilian personnel, to Kandahar, the original home of the Taliban. The PRT assisted in establishing a secure environment and in reconstructing the war-torn province.
Canada's role in Afghanistan became a heated Canadian political issue in 2006. That summer, Afghan insurgents began a military offensive in the south. In a pitched battle in September 2006, 300 militants and 5 Canadians died. As casualties continued to mount, Canadian opposition parties called for reassessment of the mission. At the same time, public support for the campaign, which was high in the early days of the conflict, began to wane. By the fall of 2006, the public was evenly split on Canadian participation in the multinational coalition. Support for the Canadian Forces remained high, but now more than half of Canadians thought the military campaign in Afghanistan would not succeed.
In May 2006, the government of Prime Minister Stephen HARPER extended Canada's mission in Afghanistan to 2009. Both the BLOC QUEBECOIS and the NDP called for Canada to end military activities in that country, while continuing to provide humanitarian aid and personnel to assist with reconstruction efforts. After becoming LIBERAL PARTY leader in late 2006, Stéphane DION suggested that the coalition should shift focus from combat against the Taliban to rebuilding the Afghan economy.
Afghanistan's challenges are staggering. The site of violent conflict since the late 1970s, the country is one of the poorest in the world. Most children do not attend school and illiteracy rates are high. Though the government of President Hamid Karzai is struggling to provide services, the country still lacks basic infrastructure and civil institutions. Many local officials are corrupt or incompetent. Warlords and tribal leaders exert substantial power in large areas of the country. Opium production continues, providing drug money to warlords and the Taliban. Although forced from Kabul, the Taliban has been able to regroup in southern Afghanistan, creating an effective insurgent force that ambushes foreign soldiers, aid workers and local government officials. Many Afghans are distrustful of all sides in the conflict: the foreign troops, the Taliban, the warlords and their own government.
Author STEPHEN AZZI