Memo to Key: Canadians keen to quit Afghanistan

As the number of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan continues to mount, the latest public opinion poll shows Canadians steadily losing faith in sending troops into that war. John Key should take note

As the death toll mounts, America's allies in AfghanistanBritain and Canada in particular – are losing their stomach for repatriation ceremonies of dead young soldiers, and that’s got to be worrying the American President who needs all the friends he can get if Afghanistan is to be stabilised.

The latest poll in Canada has seen public opposition to having troops in Afghanistan rise from twenty percent to fifty-four percent in the seven years Canadians have been involved in the battle.

In Britain, as the bodies of boys were brought home for burial last week, Prime Minister Brown came under increasing fire himself with accusations he’s trying to conduct the war on the cheap, which is costly in terms of lives.

In the middle, Barack Obama is desperate for both countries to stay alongside his surge of soldiers, but he’s unlikely to be able to schmooze Canuck or British public opinion.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out why. The overwhelming question being asked about the mission is, ‘what's the point?’ Talk of winning in what has been long known as the Graveyard of Empires is now as rare as suggestions the war in Iraq can be ‘won’. Foreign forces in Afghanistan have never succeeded in the past. There is little to suggest they will win now.

To be fair to Obama, he inherited a grossly neglected war as the Dauphin had displayed his attention deficit and flicked quickly from hunting down bin Laden to getting even with the one who had “tried to kill [his] Dad”. Of course Cheney and Rumsfield were heavily involved, and while rehashing that is tedious, it should not be forgotten.

Those Canadians polled about the direction Afghanistan is moving in were more optimistic than not that Afghanistan is moving in the right direction. But women and Quebeckers were adamant it was no longer Canada’s fight, calling 60% and 73% respectively for their troops to come home.

At this stage all Canadian troops will be out of Afghanistan in 2011, and while the Government is under pressure – like most US friendly nations, including New Zealand – to extend its mission, so far the steely-eyed Prime Minister Harper has refused to buckle. Even for his new popular pal south of the border.

As John Key comes under that sort of pressure – or more to the point if Hilary hits on McCully effectively enough – the spectre of Canada’s and Britain’s high casualty rate will play heavily on his mind. Key this weekend gave his strongest hint yet that he's leaning towards sending special forces back to Afghanistan, but then he has previously expressed concern about the conflict in the area where New Zealand’s reconstruction team is working. Public sentiment in two close and friendly Commonwealth nations should serve as a warning to him, no matter how much Mrs Clinton fancies our SAS.

Even the new US commander Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal is surprised at how resilient the Pashtun militants in the western and northern areas of Afghanistan are proving to be. He’s also commented on how patient the Taliban fighters in Helmand province are… just nipping away at the foreign troops because they are in no rush. Afghan fighters have always had time on their side.

It appears that much of the goodwill the US brought when it went into Afghanistan in 2001 is long gone, and it has been replaced by the glaring reality that killing your way to victory is not going to work. It didn’t work in Vietnam and it hasn’t won over hearts and minds in Iraq.

While the jury is still out on the effectiveness of the troop surge in Afghanistan, it would surely be equally, if not more, worthwhile investing in a political and intelligence surge. As the latest issue of Foreign Affairs notes, the US and its allies have to find a way to ‘flip the Taliban’, meaning they need to get the insurgents to defect rather than fight because “changing sides, realigning, flipping – whatever one wants to call it – is the Afghan way of war”.

If Afghan commanders truly like to be on the winning side, their current reluctance to ‘flip’ to the US is an ominous warning.

Instead they are succeeding at convincing scores of young Afghani men to die for their cause. Victory against the Soviet Union serves as a powerful proof that superpower invaders can be brought to their knees.

Add to all this some top level political realities.

The Afghan government is struggling to hold any real power, and elections are looming.

The British Government is facing an election in a few months and Brown seems to be slowly sinking as the real war theatre body count rises. The glaring lack of equipment – including vital helicopters – has come to symbolize his bumbling attempts to appear in charge. The live television coverage of hearses bearing coffins through British towns and villages is far more powerful than Brown can ever hope to be.

As the Canadian response in the poll on the war showed, the public has lost its stomach for any more young men and women being repatriated and driven down a stretch of Ontario highway that has come to be known as the Highway of Heroes.

There can be no doubt the Taliban knows what is going on. It will wait while far away nations ask for clarification as to what this deadly mission is now all about.