11/12/2011 08:23 EST | Updated 01/12/2012 05:12 EST

As Afghanistan War Ends, Will Harper Abandon Troops?


One hates to say it during Remembrance weekend, but is the Canadian government thinking about retreating back to the old days when it put the military on the back burner and starved it of funds and support?

One wonders.

With our combat role in Afghanistan a thing of history, there's a feeling that Ottawa (i.e. the Harper government and most politicians) want to wash their hands of the military. Bring the boys and gals home, leave a token force there, and forget about 'em.

Word from the 750 to 1,000 members of 3 PPCLI in Afghanistan is that morale is difficult and frustrations high. A combat unit reduced to training and caretaking duties is difficult for all involved -- especially if there's a feeling that the government has lost interest in the mission.

Understandable if the Americans have also lost interest in Canadians now that our troops are out of the front lines and scattered across the country involved in non-combat functions.

Canadians have long been involved in helping train the Afghan National Army (ANA) which is intended to double in size to 350,000 over the next three years.

Training Afghanis to be soldiers (as we understand soldiering) is difficult if not impossible. The bulk of recruits are illiterate. Training people who cannot read or write to understand maps, cope with map references or gauge artillery fire verges on the hopeless.

Effective soldiering today involves a lot more than a willingness to fight. The fighting qualities of Afghans has never been questioned.

But persuading Afghan recruits that an automatic weapon has to be aimed to hit a target, and not just fired randomly in hopes that Allah will guide the bullet to an appropriate target, can be difficult.

As one Canadian involved in training Afghans has pointed out, for many Afghans counting consists of "one, two and many."

But that's only part of the dilemma for Canadian troops.

What's unclear is what equipment is being brought home, and what is destined to remain forever in Afghanistan? DND isn't issuing press releases, but it's hard to see vehicles that have suffered rough use in Afghanistan being salvaged. Afghanistan is a graveyard of abandoned Russian vehicles.

In order to make the Canadians into an effective fighting force, armoured vehicles and equipment were stripped from other units and sent to Afghanistan. Replacements are needed, but that's unlikely. No funds.

DND is notorious for changing its mind. Before we decided to rent Leopard tanks from Germany for use in Afghanistan, the army decided to abandon tanks altogether and concentrate on light armoured vehicles.

Canada sold some of its fleet of Chinook helicopters to Holland, then NATO rented helicopters from Holland to serve troops in Afghanistan. We disbanded the Airborne Regiment a decade before they would have been an ideal fighting force for Afghanistan.

Now all the talk in Ottawa is for F-35 jet fighters. And Defence Minister Peter MacKay is on record implying the navy needs nuclear submarines. Very little talk of up-scaling the army.

One of the problems is the civilianization of DND, where high-ranking civilians make decisions and tend to ignore voices from the field. This imbalance is stressed by retiring Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie.

Put crudely, what the powers in Ottawa and DND relish are Canadian casualties. They wish no one dead, but maximize coverage whenever a soldier is killed. The public and media invariably respond positively.

These days, the walking wounded worry about help from a grateful country. There is unease that those with debilitating, life-changing injuries may be shunted aside and neglected. This is not the declared intent of government, but concern exists based on historical precedence.

Canada does not have a stellar record of looking after veterans. It's up to the media and the public to ensure that veterans aren't forgotten, now that our fighting role in Afghanistan is over.

Stay tuned.