by Alex Wilner,
AIMS Security and Defence Intern

A recent CBC poll provides some disconcerting evidence regarding the breadth of Canadian misperceptions concerning the mission in Afghanistan. Although more than a few grains of salt should be absorbed prior to reading any public poll, the CBC’s latest venture nonetheless highlights the unhealthy state of the collective Canadian mind.

The poll illustrates that eighty percent of respondents are blissfully unaware as to the international context within which Canada’s evolving foreign policy posture, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, is rooted.

When asked to explain why Canadian soldiers are active in Afghanistan, a whole slew of answers betray how badly Canadians misinterpret both the evolving international security paradigm and the manner in which it has impacted our collective security in complex and uncertain ways.

Here are the leading delusions: Twenty-four percent of respondents told the CBC that Canadian activity in Afghanistan is based on “peacekeeping”; twenty-two percent agreed that Canadian involvement rests on “support” for American troops, US foreign policy, or in order to “help George Bush”; eighteen percent argued that Canada’s activity is based on “humanitarian assistance”; and another twenty-three percent replied that Canada’s mission is based on restoring peace, stabilizing, or democratizing Afghanistan.

In a multiple-choice exam, each of these answers would have been marked with a zero. While all are accurate in perhaps quarter-truths, none is based wholly on a representative appreciation of Canada’s evolving foreign and defence policy.

There are three principal reasons for Canada’s active engagement in Afghanistan.

First, Canada is, to be blunt, upholding its treaty obligations. As a founding member of NATO and a signatory to its guiding principles, Canada, in unison with her 18 Allies, declared war on the Taliban, al Qaeda, and their supporters, by invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty in the hours following the felling of the Twin Towers. “An armed attack on one,” the Alliance forewarned, “shall be”, and indeed was, “considered an attack on them all.” A call for collective defence resulted in concrete military action against Afghanistan. Canadian soldiers have been at the forefront of this conflict ever since.

Second, Canada’s engagement is influenced by the fact that global terrorist activity must first emanate from a territorial safe-haven. The diffuse nature of modern international terrorism, structured by a globalised economy, hi-tech communications, and decentralized leadership, still requires physical land upon which to base operational development. Terrorists who wish to mastermind global acts of indiscriminate violence need a warren that allows individuals to rendezvous, organize, train, equip, and plan. During the Taliban’s malignant reign of Afghanistan, al Qaeda was given a territorial base upon which it constructed a network of training facilities that pumped out thousands of elite terror operatives. In like fashion, Canada’s own al Qaeda-inspired terror cell also needed a base of operations in planning the wave of violence it longed to unleash on Canadians. Members trained for weeks at an improvised camp in the backwoods of Ramara Township, 150 kilometres north of Toronto.

Afghanistan was, and in some regards remains, Ramara, writ large.

And third, Canadian soldiers fight in Afghanistan to defend our national interest and to protect Canadian citizens. Al Qaeda has threatened Canada specifically and repeatedly, with mass terrorism. Considering Osama bin Laden’s own interpretation of the rules of modern military engagement, “In today’s wars, there are no morals…We do not have to differentiate between military or civilian…they are all targets,” we can well envision the type of violence he wishes upon us. Lest we forget, twenty-four Canadians died on 9/11, and in 2002 and 2004, Canadian citizens were listed, alongside our European allies, as priority targets. And again this Fall, Canadians have been marked, first by bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who referred to Canada as a “second-rate crusader,” and later in an al Qaeda document which threatened Canada with a terrorist “operation similar to New York, Madrid, London and their sisters.”

That al Qaeda has proven its willingness to follow through with its many threats against our allies should be of great concern to all Canadians. We are at war. Canadians should expect to be attacked by our enemies and should demand that their government continue to pursue a rigorous policy of offensive and defensive preparation. Thankfully, Canadian soldiers and security personnel have been at the forefront of that campaign as well.

Alex Wilner, a doctoral candidate at Dalhousie University, is the Intern in Security and Defence Policy at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.