Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Canada’s Achilles’ heel

Private Simon Longtin, Master Warrant Officer Mario Mercier and Master Corporal Christian Duchesne, the last three Canadian soldiers to die in Afghanistan, had one thing in common: they all came from the French-speaking province of Quebec, a province that historically has always been more reluctant to participate in wars abroad than the rest of Canada.

A Canadian Press-Decima Research survey conducted in July showed that 67 percent of Canadians viewed Canadian casualties in Afghanistan as unacceptable. In Quebec, that number was 76 percent — and that was before the three soldiers killed on Aug. 19 and Aug. 22. Judging from the coverage those deaths received in Quebec newspapers (I happened to be in that province when the deaths occurred) and the soul searching that ensued, it can be expected that opposition to Canada’s participation in Afghanistan will increase in Quebec. And casualties from that province could grow as well, as its Francophone Royal 22nd regiment — known as the Vandoos (a corruption of “vingt-deux,” or 22 in English) — took over the lead of the battle group in Kandahar earlier this month. Within weeks, three of its soldiers had already fallen.

From the looks of it, the killing of those three soldiers — one by improvised explosive device and two by landmines — was random and was not the result of specific targeting by the Taliban or other Afghan rebels. But if I were a Taliban intelligence officer bent on pressuring the Canadian government to pull out its troops before the mission ends in 2009, I would ensure that future attacks focused on soldiers from that regiment. The more soldiers from the 22nd Regiment are injured or killed, the greater the outrage in the province of Quebec will be and, consequently, the greater the pressure on the Conservative government — whose survival relies to a large extent on Quebec votes — will become to pull the troops out or shift their role from a combat mission back to support, as was initially the plan, for provincial reconstruction.

With Canadian soldiers dying at more than three times the rate of soldiers from other countries in Afghanistan — including troops from the US and the UK — the Taliban could now break Canada’s back by turning to a war of polls. All they need to do is kill or injure as many Quebec soldiers as they can and then log on the Internet, or contact friends back in Canada, to get the latest polls. Should the Taliban adopt this strategy, it won’t be too long before the growing opposition in Quebec becomes politically untenable for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

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