Thursday, February 14, 2008

Time to Face The Facts

We can't arm our troops with daisies and candy

For decades, Canadians have been proud of the peacekeeping tradition Lester Person has been credited with innovating -- and rightfully so.

Yet recent revelations by a Canadian soldier returning from Afghanistan dropped a bombshell yesterday by noting that the equipment being provided to Canadian troops in Afghanistan are better suited to peacekeeping than combat missions.

Among other issues, Corporal Danniel Beaulieu noted that vests issued to Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan are only equipped with pockets for four extra ammunition magazines. In a combat mission such as in Kandahar, troops should be equipped with 10-15 extra magazines.

According to Corporal Beaulieu, troops in Afghanistan aren't being issued enough extra ammunition for their sidearms (pistols), or proper boots for the conditions.

Naturally, the Canadian Forces have refuted Beaulieu's claims.

"We have to field 2,500 soldiers, so the equipment, by default, is generic a bit. It's not entirely specific to one soldier. Is it perfect? No. Does it satisfy the vast majority of soldiers? Yes," insisted Colonel Jean-Marc Lanthier, the Canadian Forces' director of land requirements.

Poor choice of equipment for the mission has long been identified as a cause of Canadian casualties in Afghanistan. In particular, armored personnel carriers equipped to detect and disarm roadside bombs are only being deployed by Canadians in Afghanistan this year.

And while we have both the sitting Conservative government and preceding Liberal government to hold to task for this unacceptable failure, there is one other culprit to finger: that is a decades-long institutional preference for peacekeeping missions, and a lack of preparation for combat missions.

In a recent speech at the University of Alberta, Liberal party deputy leader Michael Ignatieff spoke, in particular, to some of the shortcomings of the Pearsonian model of peacekeeping, and how it's effected our preparation for the unfortunate eventualities that we may -- as we find ourselves now -- have to fight a war. Sometimes, it's even affected our ability to peacekeep effectively:

"One of the things I have learned in 15 years out there in the killing fields of Africa and the Balkans, is that you can't protect human beings with blue berets and a sidearm," Ignatieff said. "I'm fiercely proud of our peacekeeping tradition. Where peacekeeping of the traditional Pearsonian sort can be practiced we must practice it. But in a lot of cases now, in situations where you want to protect human beings, you want to prevent them from being ethnically cleansed or massacred because of their race, religion or ethnicity, you've got to have bulked up capabilities. You gotta go in there with flak jackets, you've got to have armour, you've gotta protect them."

When we examine the current situation on the ground in Afghanistan -- wherein Canadians seem ill-equipped to do the job they've been trained for in the first place, we clearly need to reevaluate our priorities in terms of our military.

As JL Granatstein notes in Who Killed the Canadian Military?, Canada's peacekeeping tradition -- while a proud tradition, and rightfully so -- has led to a devaluation of our military's ability to fight a war if need be. Apparently, the Canadian Forces have become so bogged down in peacekeeping-related institutional enthropy that we're sending troops out on combat missions equipped as if they're going to be peacekeeping.

In fact, if anything, the opposite should be true: we should be sending troops out on peacekeeping missions as if they were combat missions.

Especially since so many peacekeeping missions in the future will be combat missions (just as Somalia actually was and Rwanda should have been).

The denials of Colonel Lanthier aside, so long as our troops remain engaged in combat in Afghanistan, it's the duty of every single Canadian to pressure the government to ensure that our troops on the ground are properly equipped for the job.

Whether or not a historical military culture of peacekeeping has impeded this is immaterial. We owe our fighting men and women this solemn responsibility.

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