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Looking for a decisive turn in battle

by Archives November 18, 2008

The war in Afghanistan still involves some 2,500 Canadian troops, seven years after Canada’s humble beginnings in the south-central Asian country. And by all accounts, it looks like we’re staying put another three years, at least.
Since just after 9/11, Afghanistan has been a recurring subject of debate in the House of Commons, in classrooms and in kitchens, from coast to coast. In recent weeks, talk of the mission has once again spiked, stemming from opposing promises by a re-elected Prime minister and a newly elected President.
But to understand where we are going, we must first understand where we have been.
The mission’s most important part to date has been the fight against the Taliban government, says Gil Troy, a political history professor at McGill. “The removal of that Neanderthal regime should have been done before 9/11,” said Troy.
The Manitoba-sized country’s first democratic election followed in 2004, resulting in the current administration of President Hamid Karzai. A democratically elected head of state isn’t a clear indication of good fortune, however. Afghanistan tops the UN’s List of Least Developed Countries, based on factors such as economics, health and education.
Paradoxically, the country’s economy has seen great growth since the Taliban’s downfall in 2001, thanks in large part to financial aid from the United States and abroad. In 2007 alone, real gross domestic product grew seven per cent.
A significant portion of the country’s few riches, however, is obtained through the illicit opium trade. Even substantial amounts of legitimate funds are siphoned to warlords with strong public sector connections. Hence, the rich stay rich and the poor remain poor.
The statistical snapshot of children in Afghanistan tells the story of a battered land. Education only reaches half of school-aged children. One in five do not live to see their fifth birthday.
But Canadians who have been to the country remain positive about the progress that has been made. The capital Kabul has become “a thriving city of culture where universities and schools are back opened and [where] women can go to school if they want,” said retired Master Cpl. Aaron Deck, a 23-year-old soldier who spent 10 months in Afghanistan in 2006.
However, successes in Kabul and other urban centres, serve to highlight the stark underdevelopment of much of the country side. In the city, half of all school-aged girls attend school. Elsewhere, that figure stands at nine per cent.
A 2007 poll by Canadian firm Environics showed the majority of Afghan people to be supportive of the role foreign soldiers are playing in their country. But on the ground, Afghans largely misunderstand what troops are there to do, says Deck. “[They] see the Forces as people trying to take over,” he conceded.
As time goes by, it seems, fewer and fewer are seeing hope in their nation’s plight.
Over the past two years, the percentage of Afghans who trust the country is headed in the right direction has slid from 44 to 38, according to data from The Asia Foundation. Nearly as many (32 per cent) believe the country is being led down the wrong path.
Looking ahead to the future, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised during the fall election campaign to pull out Canadian troops in 2011. Yet critics cautioned Harper’s words left much “wiggle room.”
South of the border, continuing the Afghan mission is finding support with the new President-elect.
Barack Obama’s wind of change swept through the United States two weeks ago, bringing plans to intensify efforts in Afghanistan. Conversely, Obama had opposed the United States’ bigger, more resource-consuming war in Iraq from the beginning.
He announced on the campaign trail his plans to transfer some 12,000 troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, calling the situation in the latter country “urgent.” And Obama has been unequivocal in his plans to request more troops from allies.
The mix of Obama’s popularity and plans for Afghanistan worry activists such as Raymond Legault, of the organization Échec

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