The Liberal government has forged a new link in the chains that increasingly bind our Canadian Forces to the Pentagon.
Last week, the first Canadian soldiers departed on Canada's new, more aggressive role in Afghanistan under U.S. command as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Their mission is to prepare the ground in the strife-ridden southern city of Kandahar to receive the more than 2,000 Canadian troops and secret commandos who will arrive over the next 12 months.
The irony is that Canadian soldiers are deploying with the American war effort at a time when even the Pentagon acknowledges there may be no military solution in Afghanistan, but only a political one. This admission has opened the door to U.S. negotiations with the Taliban.
This new mission for the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan could be a ticking time bomb for the Liberals.
If things go badly, many soldiers could be returning in coffins, killed in a war that has little, if any, meaning for most Canadians. Even worse, it could result in Canada becoming the target of a major terrorist attack here at home.
The car bombs and suicide attacks so commonplace in Iraq are now spilling over into Afghanistan. The CIA acknowledges that Iraq has become a magnet for terrorist organizations and serves as a recruiting, training and staging ground for operations throughout the region. Taliban and al Qaeda attacks are becoming more frequent, and Canadian troops may find themselves in the same quagmire as the Americans in Iraq.
Without doubt, the government is taking a big risk. As a Foreign Affairs official told reporters, Canada is opening a new chapter in Afghanistan, and Defence Minister Bill Graham is warning Canadians to expect casualties.
The U.S. has lost 36 soldiers in Afghanistan already this year, the highest death toll since the invasion. Seven Canadian soldiers have been killed there since 2001.
There's little doubt that terrorists seeking revenge for Canada's occupation of Afghanistan will see our country as a target. That's why, in the wake of the terrible attacks against London, Public Safety Minister Anne McClellan took every opportunity to remind Canadians that we could be next.
In effect, the government is trying to prepare Canadians for the worst, in the hope that if something awful, such as a bomb exploding on the TTC, does happen, Canadians won't hold the Liberals responsible.
To be sure, the average Canadian has little idea what the government is getting us into. Andrew Sullivan from the polling firm EKOS Research said recently, "We still subscribe to the anachronistic view of [our soldiers as] peacekeepers . It's an image that people cling to pretty tenaciously."
And this is the dilemma the government faces. On the one hand, Paul Martin wants to push Canada toward deeper security integration with the U.S., a move applauded by his big-business backers and Canada's defence lobby.
But to get the Canadian public to embrace the aggressive U.S. approach to warfare, taking on its risks, the government will have to convince Canadians to give up the notion of Canada as a peacekeeper.
Canadians won't be able to fight alongside Americans and still maintain the aura of peacekeepers.
Peggy Mason, Canada's former ambassador for disarmament and arms control affairs at the United Nations and an expert on peacekeeping, says the differences between U.S. war-waging and Canadian peacekeeping are irreconcilable. "The American war fighters operate on the basis of overwhelming force and making deals with local warlords where it is deemed expedient to do so," says Mason. "These forces were not helping to build the peace.... Their objective is the elimination of the Taliban and serving the perceived security interests of the United States."
James Dobbins, President Bush's first envoy to Afghanistan, agrees with Mason. He says the U.S. suffers from "a generally negative appreciation of peacekeeping and nation building as components of U.S. policy, a disinclination to learn anything from Bosnia and Kosovo." Furthermore, "the U.S. focus on force protection and substitution of firepower for manpower creates significant collateral damage [i.e., civilian deaths]."
It is the adoption of the U.S. attitude by Canadian soldiers that should be most alarming for the Liberals, and indeed all Canadians.
We were given an insight into this shift when Martin's choice to lead the military, General Rick Hillier, explained his views on the upcoming peacekeeping mission to reporters: "We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people."
Hillier's controversial remarks won high praise from newspaper editorialists and political leaders alike - even NDP leader Jack Layton.
If the day has arrived when the NDP agrees with the Conservatives, then perhaps Paul Martin has little to worry about as he closes the book on Canadian involvement in UN peacekeeping and instead links arms with the Pentagon and the global war on terrorism.