Canada hit hard by war on Taleban

Soldiers of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry arrive for action in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan Picture: Getty Images
Soldiers of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry arrive for action in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan Picture: Getty Images
 Published Date: 11 October 2008
By Tristan Stewart-Robertson

NEXT week's Canadian federal election has thrown up the usual issues of the economy, the environment and national unity.
Yet simmering in the background is Canada's contribution to the war in Afghanistan, where it is paying a higher price than any other Nato ally.

The casualties of this country of 32 million people rose to 98 on the day the election was called – 7 September – with the death of a fourth soldier in less than a week, giving Canada the highest ratio of deaths for any Nato nation in Afghanistan.

While the United States has lost 510 soldiers out of 14,000 troops, and the UK 120 out of 8,500, Canada has just 2,500 men and women on the ground, largely in Helmand province.

Both the ruling Conservative minority government and the opposition Liberals agreed earlier this year to extend Canada's mission until 2011, but the war is increasingly unpopular with ordinary citizens.

August was one of the deadliest months, with two solders and two Canadian aid workers killed. It has kept the issue of the country's contribution to battling the Taleban on the front burner, with the federal election vote on 14 October.

On Thursday it was revealed the cost of the Afghan mission could cost $18.1 billion by the end of 2011. The figure is $10 billion more than conservative estimates of the cost so far, but $10 billion below calculations by an Ottawa think-tank a day earlier.

Stephen Harper, the prime minister, campaigning ahead of the federal election, said: "Look, we've been clear the cost is high. We are doing important work there as part of the international effort. We're certainly not alone in spending money."

Many cars sport a yellow ribbon sticker of support for the troops. The question is whether that support matches significant trends in votes during the last Canadian federal election, and if it will be repeated.

Liberals refused to join the Iraq war, yet initially allowed the deployment to Afghanistan in 2001 while in power. Once in opposition, they opposed the mission's extension, only to back a new deadline of 2011.

In 2006, Liberals took every seat in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

The Conservatives, who extended Canada's presence, drew their support from suburban and rural centres, enough to form a minority government.

Polls last week suggest the Conservative administration could be on the verge of winning a majority in the parliament.

Yet support for the war is not high. A February poll found that 61 per cent of Canadians felt Mr Harper's government had not effectively explained the mission in Afghanistan.

His early reaction to the war was widely criticised – the Canadian flag atop Parliament Hill in Ottawa was no longer lowered when a solider died, and the filming of flag-draped coffins returning home was banned.

The survey found 58 per cent of people opposed extending the country's mission in Afghanistan beyond February 2009.

The deadline of 2011 has now been criticised, most notably last week by former Canadian commander of UN forces in the Balkans, retired Major General Lewis MacKenzie.

He said: "I don't like announcing deadlines to an enemy force that now says to themselves, 'Well, we're getting rid of the Canadians, so let's turn our strategic attack on some other country'."

Family man who died on a 'million to one' chance

MASTER Corporal Colin Bason was one of six Canadian soldiers killed in a single attack in July 2007, the worst toll since Canada joined the war in Afghanistan in 2002. He told his fiancée, Katrina Blain, 26, that the chances of him going to war were "a million to one". She's now bringing up their child alone.

Their daughter, Vienna, is now 18 months old, having only seen her father in person for the first four days of her life. Ms Blain shows her photos of him every day so she will grow up knowing who he was and what he stood for.

Master Cpl Bason was a history buff, with 500 books on the subject. And when he met Ms Blain for the last time, in Paris in April 2007, they travelled to the sites of Canada's other great sacrifice of soldiers, and the First and Second World War battlegrounds in northern France and Belgium.

After four years together, only two and a half of them full-time, Ms Blain knew the life of a soldier's partner, but also finally understood her partner's attitude to Afghanistan.

She said: "Canada has been trying to keep the peace for a long time. Colin viewed Afghanistan as part of the history of Canada, helping others enjoy the freedoms we have.

"We had a big talk about it, and he was of the opinion, as am I, that he was doing something for his family – looking out for us."

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