MELISSA BLOCK, host:
U.S. forces have lost by far the most lives of any NATO country in Afghanistan - more than 400. Of the other countries with troops there - Britain, Germany, France - it is Canadian forces that have suffered the second highest death toll - 66. The Canadians are in the south of Afghanistan where the Taliban is the strongest, and their mission has stirred major debate at home. After six more deaths yesterday, the political opposition declared there will never be consensus to extend the mission beyond 2009 when it is currently set to end.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Joining us from the Canadian capital, Ottawa, is Alan Freeman, who writes about defense and foreign affairs for the Canadian paper The Globe and Mail. Welcome to the program, Mr. Freeman.
Mr. ALAN FREEMAN (Reporter, The Globe and Mail Newspaper): Thanks very much.
SIEGEL: How would you describe Canadian attitudes toward the country's involvement in Afghanistan?
Mr. FREEMAN: Well, I think that public opinion, particularly since last summer when casualties started to increase, has been extremely soft. Remember, Canada - we may be close to the U.S. but we have a very different military history. Canadian soldiers haven't really died in combat since Korea 50 years ago. So the Afghan mission, as it's termed here, has been quite a shock to Canadians who have seen themselves as peacekeepers, boy scouts, whatever.
Canadians are very proud of their soldiers. There's a sense that these are our best and brightest young men and women, but that the toll has been too high. Opposition to the war is quite widespread, particularly in Quebec, but in the rest of the country as well. And with these increasing casualties and especially we had six being killed in one day in April and another six yesterday, it's quite a threat to the current government.
SIEGEL: When Canadians express a loss of support for the mission in Afghanistan, what typically do they say, what is the dissolutionment out there?
Mr. FREEMAN: I mean - I think for a certain portion of Canadians there's a conflation of the Afghan mission with the invasion of Iraq and back to George Bush. There is this - what you sort of saw in Britain with Tony Blair, this feeling among some Canadians that basically Stephen Harper, our prime minister, is doing the work of George Bush. Even though this is a mission that has, you know, NATO backing, much broader support from a much broader coalition. So there's that. There's also this idea that somehow this is a mission where we can't win.
SIEGEL: You say these days, for Canadians, would be the worst loss of lives in combat in more than half a century.
Mr. FREEMAN: That's right. Canadian soldiers have died in, you know, various peacekeeping missions, but the Canadians have been - were slow to understand is that this was a combat mission against the Taliban. There's been a lot of talk about reconstruction, but essentially, it is war fighting.
SIEGEL: Just a bit over a year ago, though, the then Canadian defense secretary was saying that you weren't fighting a war. That it was, in fact, a multipurpose mission, essentially, peacekeeping and nation building and dealing with the violent elements was just one feature of that.
Mr. FREEMAN: I know. But in the end, what we've found is that, particularly in Kandahar where the Canadians are, you can't really do a reconstruction unless you first pacify the area.
SIEGEL: Well, given those facts and given Canadian public opinion, what are the prospects of Canada's mission in Afghanistan continuing, say, for more than another year?
Mr. FREEMAN: Well, there has been a parliamentary resolution passed that extended the mission to February 2009. And as of now, once February 2009 rolls around, Canadian soldiers are presumably out of there. It's complicated politically in Canada because it is a minority government. Mr. Harper, who's the conservative leader, does not have the majority in Parliament. So he needs to bring in the opposition parties and he has already stated that unless he gets some sort of consensus from the other political parties, he's not going to extend the combat mission.
So I think right now, the prospects for Canada - certainly, for Canada remaining in Kandahar are very, very slight. There are probably negotiations going on to see whether or not the Canadians could move to perhaps another part of the country.
The problem there, of course, is that the Germans who are up north, have no interest in going to a more - the more volatile south, likewise, the French, et cetera. So it is a real challenge, I think, not just for Canada, but for all of NATO, because public opinion in most of the NATO countries is really waning for this Afghan mission.
SIEGEL: Well, Alan Freeman of The Globe and Mail in Canada, thank you very much for talking with us today.
Mr. FREEMAN: Always a pleasure.
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