Canada's stake in Afghanistan

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MARCO WERMAN: Many US allies are anxious to hear what President Obama decides to do in Afghanistan. Today a top British defense official spoke about the pending announcement. Bob Ainsworth told parliament that the wait for a decision on General McChrystal's request for more troops has hurt the UK's efforts to build support for the war.

BOB AINSWORTH: We've suffered a lot of losses. We've had a period of hiatus while McChrystal's plan and his requested uplift has been looked at into detail to which it has been looked at over a period of some months. And we've had the Afghan elections which have been far from perfect.

WERMAN: Canada is another country with much at stake in Afghanistan. There are some 2800 Canadian troops in the country now. Graeme Smith has long covered the conflict for Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper from a base in Kandahar. He's right now in Toronto. Now Peter Mackay, Canada's defense minister is quoted as saying that Barack Obama's hesitation in his decision about troops in Afghanistan was not helpful because everyone has hit the pause button until the US decision. What has this long decision making process meant Graeme Smith for Canada's commitment to Afghanistan?

GRAEME SMITH: You know it's politically convenient for Mackay to be saying that but in fact Canada hit the pause button a long time ago in Afghanistan. You know when Canada first sent a battle group into Kandahar in February 2006 it was a big deal. It doubled the number of international troops in the south. You know the Canadians were chasing Taliban all over the place � across about 50,000 square kilometers of territory. But the Canadian role has diminished significantly since then. Now with the arrival of a surge of US forces in Kandahar the Canadians are relegated to guard duty essentially protecting Kandahar city and its populated approaches. They're operating in a much, much smaller box. Maybe roughly 100 square kilometers and they're doing their best to hunker down and let the Americans do the heavy lifting at this point.

WERMAN: I mean Barack Obama raises the specter of 9/11 often when justifying the US presence in Afghanistan. But that was, let's face it, nearly 10 years ago. It must really seem like ancient news to Canadians.

SMITH: Well you know Canadians were just as shocked as Americans were I think watching those towers fall. And in many ways our culture is heavily tied in to yours. So you know those scars are still there and that specter is still used as justification for the war. But Canadians are turning against the war. Right now as we speak there's a huge kafuffle going on in Canada's parliament over the treatment of detainees and whether or not Canada violated Geneva conventions by knowingly handing over detainees into torture in Afghan hands. And the whole mood of the country has shifted I think. Canada is no longer as enthusiastic about this war.

WERMAN: Are Canadian commanders looking for the door?

SMITH: You know they'd never say that to you in public but I've had a lot of conversations with Canadian military officials who just don't think that this is a viable mission. You know they're happy to do what they're ordered to do and they will do it professionally but the aims that have been set out for this conflict just don't match with the realities on the ground.

WERMAN: Do you think that means for Canadian commanders that they don't think more American troops would make a difference?

SMITH: There's a real split you know. At the senior levels, the leadership of the military argues in public in favor of the kind of surge that McChrystal's describing. And in fact there are people who say that you need much more than the surge that McChrystal's describing by classic sort of counterinsurgency terms and just frankly looking at the mess on the ground in Kandahar it's obvious that many, many more troops would be needed if you were going to actually do this. But privately I think people have a lot of concerns about whether or not this is actually possible with 40,000 or 60,000 or however many troops you put in.

WERMAN: And Graeme what is this chatter of pullback actually mean to the Canadian public? I mean they've been told for a long time of the importance of the effort in Afghanistan.

SMITH: Canadians were told they were going to help little girls get into school. They were going to help the United Nations you know reach into the districts and improve the lives of ordinary people. And you know [INDISCERNIBLE] those things have not happened. In fact, since the Canadians arrived in force in the south in early 2006 the United Nations own maps show that their access to the rural areas has diminished greatly and Canadians have endured just a barrage of bad news from the battle field. So I think that as a whole Canadians are tired of the war and ready to let the Americans take over.

WERMAN: Graeme Smith who's covered the conflict in Afghanistan for Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper from a base in Kandahar. He joined us from Toronto. Thank you very much indeed.

SMITH: Thank you.