Should I be more concerned that I don't know what Canadian troops are doing in Afghanistan, or that so few people - in the press, at least - have even bothered raising the question?
We know that the 2,000 troops deployed to boost the Canuck contingent in fiery Kandahar last month were treated to a live jazz ensemble as they left, and we know what brand of SUV one of the injured homecomers drives. But what else do we really know about what our forces are doing there?
While it's taken peace activists a while to respond to Canada's confused mandate of development support and stepped-up fighting capacity, they're now definitely on the case. "As we share our condolences with [the families of the injured Canadian soldiers]," said Matthew Behrens of Homes Not Bombs at a protest of 30 outside a Defence building at Yonge and Sheppard Friday, January 27, "we should also share those condolences with the [families of the] thousands of Afghanis who have been killed by occupation forces."
Behrens also wonders what effect an expanded Canadian mission in the south will have when results from reconstruction efforts in the north are unclear. "We've been told that the mission has been to rebuild," he said. "In Kabul, thousands are still homeless."
The two major roadblocks to development, says Sam Zarifi, research director for Human Rights Watch's Asian bureau, are insecurity in the region and lack of international funding .
"Despite the rhetoric, the international community has been really stingy," says Zarifi, who recently returned to New York from Afghanistan. "Right now most aid is part of 'winning hearts and minds' as an annex of security. It's not driven by development strategy."
However, he believes the American-led war in 2001 destabilized the country and has made a foreign presence crucial. "Without NATO security," he tells me, "Afghanistan would go to hell, to put it bluntly. But the benchmark is not troops, but whether there's security. And security is measured by whether children can go to school, whether women can walk outside the home."
Is that kind of non-military security growing?, I ask John Watson, CEO of CARE Canada, who's been involved in a widows and orphans project. "I'm maybe not the best person to ask," he chuckles. "[CIDA] just cut the program we do."
He seems used to it. "That's what's happened repeatedly in the past in Afghanistan. [Governments] make commitments, then lose their focus or change their mind."
He is, however, adamant about the shift toward military-run development by the so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams that Canada is part of. "It gets very dangerous for us if military personnel start doing humanitarian-like work."
Zarifi sees further problems. "There is little evaluation of the work the PRTs are doing. The militaries are running the PRTs, and they're following military opacity," he says. "Unfortunately, it's development that's been thwarted by lack of security in the south. There were no attacks on humanitarian workers under the Taliban."
He notes that Afghanis see U.S. coalition forces and NATO forces as very different. But now that the NATO mission is under Canadian command, filling the vacuum left by U.S. troop withdrawals, and the Canadian government is seen as eager to appease Washington, will things change?
"That's the question," says Zarifi.
He says NATO still relies heavily on U.S. forces' aerial and logistical support. Also, NATO soldiers are not authorized to keep prisoners, a fact that raises concerns about Canadian troops handing prisoners over to an American military that has been shown to have a high tolerance for torture. The U.S. currently operates an extra-legal prison in Kandahar, where Canadian troops will be stationed.
"It's an area of real confusion," Zarifi muses.
While the most active resistance in the south comes from remnants of the Taliban, he says, the deployment of troops could put soldiers in conflict with everyone from regional warlords, drug lords and petty criminals to tribal communities who see them as invaders."
While the feds insist the Kandahar deployment is a "peace support" mission, Steven Staples of the Polaris Institute reminds us of the drop-off in Canada's participation in blue helmet missions. In 1994, nine out of every 10 defence dollars were spent on peacekeeping. Last year, it was 30 cents out of every $10.
The more Canada appeases the U.S. by increasing defence funding, the more pressure there will be to join its ventures, he tells me. "Military spending is the fuel for defence integration with the U.S."
And while the press has found plenty of ammunition in Harper's views on the military, the Liberals and NDP were responsible for the largest military funding increase in memory: $12.8 billion over the next five years. Harper's post-election pledge of $4.2 billion is just a top-up.
"You can wish we were spending $18 billion over the next five years to make us a better peacekeeper," says Staples, "but that's not the case."