Op-Ed by Michael Byers – When trainers become targets

When trainers become targets
Toronto Star
Sep 28, 2011

Canadian “trainers” were involved in a firefight in Afghanistan earlier this month, according to Brig.-Gen. Craig King. The battle occurred when insurgents attacked the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, killing 16 people.

During the general’s testimony before a parliamentary committee last week, he also revealed that Canadian trainers are spread over a dozen locations in Kabul — a city that he described as an “extremely violent” environment.

It is hard to believe that just 10 months ago, then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was asking: “Can the Prime Minister guarantee that this (new engagement) is not going to involve combat, that it is going to be out of Kandahar and that the training will occur in safe conditions in Kabul?”

“The answer is yes to all those questions,” Stephen Harper replied. “As the minister of national defence, the minister of foreign affairs and others have said, we are looking at a noncombat mission that will occur. It will be a training mission that will occur in classrooms, behind the wire, in bases.”

Of course, any training mission carries some risk. The first four Canadian deaths in Afghanistan came during a training exercise, as the result of a friendly fire incident involving an American F-16. Then, in February 2010, another Canadian soldier was killed and four injured during an accident at a shooting range.

Yet the risks associated with the current training mission are unusually high.

The Taliban are seeking to constrain the growth of the Afghan army and police force by attacking recruitment centres. On a single day last December, insurgents attacked two such centres, killing 10 Afghan soldiers and three police.

Insurgents are also infiltrating the Afghan security services before turning their arms on western trainers. In the last two years, 45 NATO soldiers have been killed in this way.

For example, in November 2009, five British soldiers were shot by an Afghan police officer. In July 2010, three more British soldiers were killed by an Afghan soldier, while two American contractors were shot by an Afghan trainee. In November 2010, six American trainers were killed by another Afghan recruit.

The trend has continued this year: on April 4, two American trainers were killed by an Afghan border police officer; on May 28, a NATO commander was wounded and two German soldiers killed by a suicide bomber wearing a police uniform. Just last Sunday, an Afghan employee of the U.S. government killed one American and wounded another in an attack on the CIA station in Kabul.

Harper must have known of these risks. Way back in October 2009, former chief of defence staff Gen. Rick Hillier told Maclean’s magazine: “You can come up with all kinds of schemes to hide away in a camp and train people for the Afghan army or police, but they lack credibility. If you try to help train and develop the Afghan army or police in . . . Afghanistan, you are going to be in combat.”

Sadly, it seems that Harper’s characterization of the new mission as noncombat was driven by a desire to avoid a full parliamentary debate.

Parliamentarians had been allowed to vote on the two previous two extensions of the Afghan mission, in 2006 and 2008.

However, a December 2010 poll conducted by Angus-Reid showed that 56 per cent of Canadians disagreed with the continuation of Canadian military operations in Afghanistan. Significantly, only 44 per cent of Canadians opposed keeping soldiers there in a “strictly noncombat role to help train the Afghan military.”

The Prime Minister would have had access to similar government polling. He would have calculated that avoiding a parliamentary debate would reduce media coverage and therefore public awareness of the risks.

And so, when asked whether there would be a vote on the third extension, Harper replied, “when we’re talking simply about technical or training missions, I think that is something the executive can do on its own.”

The Prime Minister may have dodged a few political bullets then, but this doesn’t change the fact that our soldiers are dodging real bullets now.

At what point should political expediency give way to moral responsibility? How will Canadians react when — as is almost inevitable — some of our “trainers” are killed?

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.

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