After Deadly Week, Canada Debates Role in Afghanistan

SARNIA, Ontario, April 20 — The sound of bagpipes and drums and the slow footsteps of 1,200 mourners marked the beginning of the journey from church to cemetery here on Friday for the body of Cpl. Brent Poland, who was killed in Afghanistan on April 8.

Those at the rear of the procession had barely left the church parking lot when the hearse at the front reached the end of the route two blocks away. Mourners, including a group of Vietnam veterans from the United States, lined the street carrying Canadian and American flags.

The outpouring of grief that forced organizers to move the service to the largest church in this city on the shores of Lake Huron played out again and again, after the deaths of eight Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan in the deadliest week for Canada’s military since the Korean War.

Corporal Poland, 37, and five other Canadian soldiers were killed on April 8 when a roadside bomb exploded under their lightly armored vehicle. Two more soldiers died three days later in separate attacks. Another died the following Wednesday in a fall from a communications tower, bringing the total for a 10-day period to nine.

The deaths brought the cost of the war home to a country mostly determined to contribute to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. But the toll also led many to say that it may be time for other NATO countries that have suffered fewer casualties to assume greater responsibilities there.

Critics say that Canada continues to send troops to Afghanistan without a domestic debate over what the country wants to achieve, and they say there needs to be more planning for an exit strategy.

Canada, with 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, has been active in the United States-led mission since the war began there in 2001. Last spring, Canadians took command of NATO operations around the city of Kandahar, an area in southern Afghanistan where casualties have been high because of aggressive Taliban insurgents.

Columns and editorials have appeared in newspapers since the latest round of casualties with headlines like “Where Is Afghan Mission Heading?” “A War of Diminishing Returns” and “A Military at War with Peacekeeping,” a reference to a shift for Canada, a country that has long viewed its military role abroad as one of peacekeeping, not combat.

The Canadian commitment was to end in February of this year, but the Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, narrowly won a vote last spring to extend the mission for two more years.

After the recent deaths, the opposition Liberal Party, which was in power when Canada first sent troops to Afghanistan, introduced a motion in Parliament calling on the government to withdraw Canadian troops from Afghanistan when the current commitment expires in February 2009.

The Liberals say that by then, Canada will have been in Afghanistan for seven years and that other NATO countries should assume more responsibilities in the region. France and Germany, for example, have forces in Afghanistan but have not agreed to send soldiers to more volatile regions.

“I would like to see more of the pressure in some other European countries,” Denis Coderre, a Liberal critic of the current policy, told reporters on Wednesday.

Conservatives rejected the argument, saying that they plan over the summer to debate Canada’s role in Afghanistan beyond the current commitment.

“We see some unfortunate casualties and they are back to attacking the mission,” Mr. Harper said Thursday.

The Liberal and separatist Bloc Québécois parties are expected to support the nonbinding motion, but without the support of the third opposition party, the New Democratic Party, it is expected to fail.

Nevertheless, the motion has opened the debate over Canada’s commitment in Afghanistan and whether the country should begin drafting an exit plan.

“There is a sense, including among people who support the mission, that it is time for someone else to step up to the plate and time for Canada to have a break from the mission,” said Michael Byers, professor of global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia.

The Canadian toll in Afghanistan since 2001 — 54 soldiers and one diplomat — is a quarter of the foreign casualties there in that period and second only to that suffered by the United States.

In what appeared to be an attempt to control negative images, Mr. Harper last spring ordered that the government stop flying the flag at half-staff for Canadian troops killed in Afghanistan and limited news coverage of the return of bodies from the conflict.

But the soldiers’ deaths were covered extensively, and some of the recent funerals were nationally televised.

Not everyone believes that the coverage will cause great opposition to Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. “We have seen a numbing of that nerve,” said Scott Taylor, a military journalist. “Now we had the most in one week, so the next time it’s, say, three or four, people are going to be more complacent about it.”

Canada had had only eight deaths in Afghanistan before 2006. But the mission has become more dangerous since Canadian troops took control of the base in Kandahar.

The government recently said it purchased 120 tanks for use in Afghanistan. The news raised eyebrows among those who argue that lawmakers have not spent enough time debating the balance of resources spent on combat and aid for Afghanistan.

“There is a slow awakening that is happening when you see the casualties and the escalation that comes with sending more tanks to Afghanistan,” said Steven Staples, director of the Rideau Institute, a public policy group in Ottawa.

In this small city of 74,000 on Friday there was little talk of the politics, though. The focus was on the loss of a local young man. “In a community this size, it definitely has an impact,” said the city’s mayor, Mike Bradley.

In a letter Corporal Poland wrote to be opened in the case of his death in Afghanistan, he made it clear he supported the mission and was willing to die for it.

The letter, read by his brother Mark, himself a major in the Canadian reserves, began, “If you are reading this, then I bought the farm in Afghanistan.”