For their sacrifices, are we ahead in Afghanistan?

Pte. Kevin McKay, the son of a Toronto firefighter, came home from Afghanistan May 16.

By George Brown, editor

Pte. Kevin McKay, the son of a Toronto firefighter, came home from Afghanistan May 16.

A couple of days earlier, his military buddies in the Edmonton-based 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry had teased him and celebrated his good fortune.

Two days before packing for the flight back to Canada with 100 other soldiers, McKay, 24, was killed by a roadside bomb while walking on a night patrol outside of Kandahar City May 13.

Part of Canada’s mission since last October, McKay is the 144th Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan since 2002.

For almost three years, a 180-kilometre stretch of Highway 401 along Lake Ontario has been known as the Highway of Heroes. The highway is spanned by more than a dozen bridges upon which patriots perch to pay their final respects to fallen Canadian soldiers.

Last Sunday afternoon, after a week at the Canadian Community Newspapers Association (CCNA) annual convention in Toronto and a few days reminiscing with high school friends, I found I had a lot of time to consider Canada’s role in Afghanistan while travelling one of the busiest highways in North America at 100 km/h; an unwitting addition to the funeral procession that ferried Pte. Mckay from CFB Trenton to downtown Toronto.

McKay’s father is a Toronto Fire Services captain. On the bridges along the way, in communities such as Brighton, Port Hope and Oshawa, I observed Mckay’s repatriation motorcade being greeted solemnly by fire trucks and firefighters decked out in dress uniform, Royal Canadian Legion colour parties, RCMP and other police officers, cadets, scouts, patriots and one fellow with a shiny vintage army truck. With hundreds of Canadians wearing red and waving flags, it was a moving show of support for our troops.

But according to a recent poll, only 28 per cent of Canadians would support extending our mission in Afghanistan beyond July 2011. More than half of Canadians oppose the war, with just better than one-third in support of our soldiers’ efforts.

Certainly, you have to wonder about the effectiveness of our efforts in Afghanistan since we’ve told the enemy when we plan to pull up stakes. Will we have met our objectives or are we pulling out to appease politicians who are concerned about opinion polls and winning the next election? Has Parliament put our boys at greater risk by announcing to the world when we’re leaving?

Does that not embolden the Taliban, which has everything to gain simply by waiting us out and re-asserting control next summer?

Earlier this year, the Dutch government’s coalition collapsed under the weight of the debate over when to abandon the war in Afghanistan. The same thing could happen in Canada if we had an opposition party capable of governing.

How do we, and should we, continue to prop up an unpopular, corrupt government that is in bed with drug warlords? It’s hard for soldiers to tell the good guys from the bad guys in Afghanistan. Canadian soldiers are trying not to lose but this is a civil war with terrorism and the drug trade at its roots.

Parliament, national media and political junkies have been blinded by the Afghan detainee torture fiasco. That bad guys we turned over to Afghan security services halfway through this war were then tortured has overshadowed what Canada will do to leave Afghanistan in a better position once international forces start to withdraw next year.

Why have we been there for eight years? If an international military presence is no longer required or no longer effective, what will Canada do next to advance democratic reforms, establish health care and educational systems, train police forces and build communities with Afghan municipal leaders?

Will we have made no advances in Afghan society at the cost of our fallen soldiers?