Uniformed Casualties
© 2007 FrontLine Security (Vol 2, No 2)

The next time a Canadian soldier is killed, in Afghanistan or anywhere else, think about his or her death, and ask the following two questions:

  • When a police officer is killed in the line of duty, do Canadians want the police to stop protecting their ­communities?
  • When a firefighter dies on the job, do Canadians ask them to stop fighting fires?

Canadian troops don’t understand those who get squeamish or question Canada’s contribution to rebuilding Afghanistan when soldiers are killed or wounded by the Taliban.

Photo: MCpl Yves Gemus

They accept that risking their lives in the war against terrorism is part of their job and that casualties are an inevitable fact of war.

Given the limited number of NATO troops, they also understand the importance of Canada’s contribution of more than 2,500 troops to NATO’s fight against the Al Qaeda-supported Taliban.

Compared to NATO’s past reconstruction effort in the Balkans in the 1990s, the 37,000 NATO soldiers currently in Afghanistan is a relative drop in the proverbial bucket.

After the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord between Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the international community responded with some 60,000 troops in Bosnia to enforce the peace effort among a population of 3.9 million Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

If the international community had responded to the UN-approved NATO mission in Afghanistan (with a population of 31 million) on the same per capita basis, there would now be some 476,900 troops in Afghanistan fighting the insurgents and creating the stability needed for reconstruction, not 37,000.

This fact underscores the challenges NATO faces in Afghanistan and helps explain the cause and effect of certain military responses to the Taliban insurgents.

For example, the dearth of troops has forced the United States to rely on air strikes against the Taliban that threaten to turn Afghanistan’s civilian population against NATO.

Some 132 Afghan civilians have been accidentally killed since March last year. At least 21 civilians were recently caught between 200 Taliban fighters and pinned-down U.S. Special Forces who called in air strikes when their mortars could not take out the militants.

As one senior NATO official told The New York Times: “without air [support], we’d need hundreds of thousands of troops.”

Unfortunately, Canadians have also caused civilian casualties, mostly as a result of soldiers firing upon vehicles whose drivers ignored commands to keep back from their convoys. But, in combat situations, the Canadians are now using their Leopard tanks to provide direct fire support against Taliban positions, which greatly reduces the politically-charged risk of civilian casualties.   

In the past, Canadian troops relied upon either U.S. air support or their own heavy artillery to attack hardened enemy positions. While artillery is now much more accurate than it was historically, it remains very much an area weapon.

Canada’s Leopard tanks, which arrived in Afghanistan in October 2006, went a long way to minimizing the potential for unintended civilian casualties.   

With a muzzle velocity of 1,067 metres per second, their laser sighting system is so accurate that, at 1,200 metres, they can fire an armour-piercing round through the same hat-sized hole left in a target by the previous shot. Some of their other rounds are effective at distance of 4,000 metres.

Still, war is war. The risk of casualties, whether collateral or Canadian, can be minimized but not completely eliminated – as the deaths of 54 Canadian soldiers and one diplomat since 2002 so painfully illustrate. The majority of those deaths were caused by suicide bombers, improvised roadside bombs and mines.

Those ground threats would be reduced by replacing much of the ground travel needs with Chinook helicopters that can carry up to 30 combat-ready soldiers or some 12,700 kilograms of cargo.

Canada once had eight Chinooks, but Brian Mulroney’s cash-hungry Conserva­tive government sold them to the Netherlands in the 1990s. Although Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has earmarked $4.7 billion for 16 new Chinooks and their maintenance for 20 years, it’s not likely that the first will be put into service before the end of Canada’s current Afghanistan mission in February, 2009.

In the meantime, Canadians depend on our allies for helicopter transport, which limits independent operations or, failing that, forces us to use ground transportation, exposing them to great risk.

And don’t think it’s just the combat troops whose lives are endangered.   

Consider the fuel-truck-driving transport soldier who is every bit as exposed to rocket attacks, suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices and mines as the combat troops.   

Together, those soldiers are winning Canada newfound respect around the world by doing this dangerous but vitally important work.   
If one of them dies, think of the police; think of fire fighters.

Mourn the loss, make sure we have the right equipment, but don’t ask the rest to stop doing their jobs.  

Bob Bergen, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow with the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI) in Calgary. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of CDFAI, its Board of Directors, Advisory Council, Fellows or Donors. Learn more about the CDFAI and its research on the Internet at www.cdfai.org
© FrontLine Security 2007