VAUGHAN, Ont. — As Stephen Harper continues to make the case for war against Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria, the last militant group that was the target of Canada's military firepower is showing a resurgence of its own.
The Taliban have recaptured their first urban stronghold since the NATO-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, seizing the city of Kunduz in a surprise onslaught that caught Afghan and military officials off guard.
While Canada's bloody war in that country was fought mainly in the southern province of Kandahar, Taliban fighters reportedly seized a number of armoured vehicles made with Canadian parts after the siege — the legacy of this country's many contributions to the effort during a 10-year mission.
That mission rarely gets a mention these days in political circles — and didn't surface at all in Monday's foreign policy leaders' debate.
Only time will tell whether global efforts in Afghanistan truly resulted in the ability of Afghanistan to become a stable country, Harper said Tuesday, drawing parallels with what's happening now in the fight against militants in Iraq and Syria.
"Obviously what has to happen over the long term in all of these situations is we have to have effective governance established on the ground by people on the ground," Harper said.
"And obviously the fact that that isn't there is a significant problem."
A scathing report Tuesday from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said the Taliban's offensive is a reflection of a badly planned and poorly managed end to the international war there, laying the blame not just on the U.S., but also the Afghan government and the United Nations.
But Harper still sees a silver lining.
Afghanistan no longer provides a base for would-be terrorists to plot attacks against the world as it did when the U.S. invaded in 2001, he said.
"We do not see that threat emanating from Afghanistan, although we are obviously concerned about the challenges that remain in that country," he said after a campaign announcement in the Toronto-area city of Vaughan.
"Likewise, in the case of ISIS, we're fully aware that ISIS is at best contained but that is also a significant change."
The United States estimates that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIL or ISIS, has lost about a quarter of the territory it controlled at the height of the group's dominance in 2014.
Harper characterized that group as a potentially more dangerous threat to Canadians than the Taliban ever were, saying their goal wasn't to run Iraq or Syria but to wage a global fight against the world.
A rare mis-speak on Harper's part, however, shows how some people might see the two fights as different sides of the same coin.
"That is one of the reasons ... why the Canadian military and others are there making sure we put the pressure on the Taliban — excuse me, on ISIS — keep them pinned down, keep the attack on them."
The Conservatives repeatedly characterize the government's efforts in the war in Iraq as part of a multi-pronged strategy that includes humanitarian support and assistance to refugees.
While the refugee question was barely an issue during the war in Afghanistan, the notion of backing up military might with development was a key part of the strategy.
Millions in Canadian aid dollars were spent on governance initiatives in Afghanistan as well as on programs to shore up the ability of local security forces to keep the peace in the country.
But a recent evaluation of that spending concluded there was little in the way of long-term, sustainable results. In the case of Afghanistan's army and police, they've suffered heavy casualties and have seen their resources spread thin across the country as the Taliban have taken their fight to topple the Kabul government to every corner of the country.
As part of Canada's combat mission in Iraq, there are 69 special forces engaged in training Peshmerga fighters, a model similar to what Canada had done with Afghan police and soldiers.
Most of the focus of Canada's financial support to Iraq is for humanitarian needs and government officials have said in the past that longer-term projects can't be carried out until there is better stability in the region.
The future of Canada's mission against ISIL is a major point of differentiation among the three main campaigns. The NDP wants to completely withdraw from any military commitment and focus on humanitarian aid, while the Liberals say soldiers should be there — but for training efforts, not the air war.
Neither party has explained their positions adequately, said Harper.
"They provide no explanation whatsoever as to how that would be good for our country, how that would do anything other than free ISIS to do exactly what it wants to do, unharassed, plan terrorist attacks against us," he said.
"That's why we're there and I think Canadians understand why we're there."
— with files from The Associated Press
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