Afghan-Canadians conflicted over Canada's mission in Afghanistan

TORONTO - Canada's role in Afghanistan is creating increasingly conflicted emotions among Afghan-Canadians, with strong support for the military effort tempered by both sadness and anger at escalating civilian casualties.

TORONTO - Canada's role in Afghanistan is creating increasingly conflicted emotions among Afghan-Canadians, with strong support for the military effort tempered by both sadness and anger at escalating civilian casualties.

They also fret that reconstruction aims have taken a permanent back seat to brute and bloody force despite government contentions to the contrary.

"When the military mission shifted from reconstruction to combat, a lot of people were disappointed because that would create agony in the country," said Jamal Kakar, executive director of the Afghan Association of Ontario.

"As an Afghan, I prefer our troops stay there but the mission should be reconstruction, rebuilding Afghanistan."

During a visit to Kandahar last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the infusion of thousands of American soldiers in the coming months would help Canada refocus on more defined "civilian objectives."

"We are in the process of transforming our mission to focus on reconstruction and development," Harper said.

In the interim, the bloodshed continued.

The International Committee of the Red Cross in Kabul last week reported the deaths of dozens of civilians in U.S. air strikes against suspected Taliban insurgents in western Afghanistan.

It's that kind of "collateral damage" that darkly colours otherwise strong support among Afghan-Canadians for Canada's role that has cost 118 Canadian military lives - the highest casualty rate among all foreign forces in the war-torn country.

"We are 100 per cent behind our troops; we express our sympathies to the families who lose their loved ones ... it's very sad," Kakar said.

"But when it comes to the (civilian) casualties in Afghanistan, we are equally sad."

Sanga Achakzai, a Toronto settlement worker from Kandahar, where Canada has focused its military effort since 2006, said Afghan-Canadians are most concerned about the spiral of violence created by civilian deaths.

"One innocent person who dies in a bombardment or from a Canadian or American soldier creates 10 more Taliban," she said.

Canada's Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk acknowledged the dilemma as American troops prepare to flood Afghanistan's south.

"When you bring in a lot more forces with the purpose of interdicting the Taliban," Natynczyk said, "there will be violence in those areas."

Also, the violation of cultural and religious sensitivities by foreign troops with searches of homes and women, along with foreign support for corrupt, violent or weak political leaders, have created further rancour.

Estimates vary on the number of Afghan-Canadians, most of whom live in the Toronto area. Statistics Canada figures based on place of birth put the number at close to 40,000 - with about half of them coming since the U.S.-led invasion.

Others, however, suggest the number is higher because many newcomers may have been born outside Afghanistan to refugee parents.

Those who visit their homeland also report less warmth - even hostility - because of their connection to Canada, a country once seen as a peacemaker, but now as a combatant.

"We cannot run away from being blamed," said Kakar, whose father-in-law died in a suicide bombing last month in Kandahar.

Adeena Niazi, executive director of the Afghan Women's Organization who returns to Afghanistan regularly to check on a Kabul orphanage her organization supports, said she has noticed less friendliness for those from Canada.

"People were really loving Canada," she said of her visits there in the early part of the decade.

"It is not exactly the same (now) but people still like Canadians."

Harper's government has promised to end Canada's combat mission by 2011.

Canadians did not go to Afghanistan "as permanent occupiers," but to leave the country under the control of its people, he said last week.

Still, Afghan-Canadians worry a pullout will inevitably mean more civil strife and bloodshed. However, they are also adamant Canada's presence must have a broader scope.

"The focus should not be only on military and not only on Taliban," Niazi said.

"There should be a balance between military, development and trying to establish good governance."

Afghans, especially those in rural areas, are suffering from extreme poverty and hunger, she noted, a grim fact of life that has dashed their high hopes for the Canadian mission.

 
 
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