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Peacekeeping efforts demand more support from Canadian citizens

Photo by CanadianAfghanistan (CC)

After 12 years and the loss of 158 Canadian soldiers, Canadian forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan. Canada leaves behind a country that has been embroiled in war for the last 50 years, a nation with a legacy of conflicts being prompted by the interference of foreign powers. It should then come as no surprise that all Canada may be leaving behind is scepticism for future foreign intervention.

Canada entered Afghanistan hoping to carve a unique identity for itself in the eyes of the Afghan people, so as to distance itself from the reviled United States. To the people of Afghanistan all western forces were essentially the same, and it was only through years of effort that Canada managed to demarcate itself from other national contingents participating in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) initiative.

In retrospect, much of the difficulties faced by western forces in Afghanistan were the result of a wrong-headed approach to the conflict. Airstrikes that often failed to sufficiently distinguish between enemy combatants and civilians galvanized opposition among civilians both within Afghanistan and back at home.

Where Canada and other countries were most successful in Afghanistan was providing training to local security forces and assisting with developmental projects, although for the most part this lesson was learned too late.

The war in Afghanistan is the largest mission ever attempted by NATO outside its own territory, and it proved a failure. Even with the departure of the alliance’s forces the war continues, and many of the tactics employed during its mission increased opposition within the country.

If there is one lesson to be learned from the war in Afghanistan, it is that wars to stabilize a region are not fought against an enemy like the Taliban, they are fought for the hearts and minds of the people within the region. NATO forces entered the region to defeat the Taliban, and ironically overlooked the only real way of doing so: undercutting their support by showing the Afghan people a better alternative.

In Canada, the government will most likely use the withdrawal to go looking for a “peace dividend,” an excuse to weaken our already haemorrhaging military through budgetary cuts. Our military will become even more impotent, and our ability to act internationally will be crippled. Many Canadians claim they have a desire to see Canada as a force for peace in the world, but when it comes time to put their money where their mouth is, they lose their nerve.

Afghanistan was an imperfect mission from the start, but so is every mission. If Canada wants to be a force for peace in places like Afghanistan, it needs to reassess its defence and foreign policy accordingly. The political will to do so must come from the public.

As Canadians we have to be willing to invest in a military capable of seeding peace in far-flung places, but not allow military strength to translate into a belief that mere force can accomplish anything. Afghanistan would have benefited from a stronger and smarter Canadian policy. Going forward, Canada needs to decide either to fully commit to peace or avoid these foreign commitments altogether.

When the sake of people’s lives hangs in the balance, we cannot go half-way. We must either choose to stay home, or answer “ready, aye, ready.”