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Seriously, this means war

Christie Blatchford, Globe & Mail, 5 Aug 06


The bleeding was barely stopped when the bleating began.


On the day of Canada's most appalling losses yet in Afghanistan -- four soldiers killed in three separate but linked attacks and 10 injured -- it took but an hour for the open-line radio talk shows in Toronto to fill up with the cries of those who would pull the plug on the mission there, yank the troops home immediately, have the nation revert to its mythical, if cherished, peacekeeping role and go back to that sterling foreign policy of keeping fingers crossed.


I thought of what Lieutenant-Colonel John Conrad, the boss of the combat logistics arm of the Canadian battle group, said not so long ago in Kandahar.


We were talking about the Canadian mission when Col. Conrad said, "Each man and woman has asked, 'Why am I here? Why did I volunteer?' " but most, he guessed, had come to the same conclusion he had. "For all that we're here to help Afghans," he said, "we're also here to protect our country."


It was only later, when I was going through the notes of that conversation, that I realized he was the first person I know to put it so squarely.


If it is a thought that might offer some comfort to the families of the dead -- that their sons did not die only in service of a Biblical-era faraway foreign land where violence is as reflexive as breathing, but also in service to our own -- it might also stand as a reminder that notwithstanding the absence of a formal declaration, Canada is at war.


So are the other seven nations of the now-NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, and so are the Americans and British in Iraq, and so is Israel in Lebanon.


So are the Western democracies which do not have troops in any of these hot spots, but which also prize freedom, opportunity, education, tolerance and diversity.


And so in his way was Tarek Fatah, the moderate Canadian Muslim who this week resigned from the Muslim Canadian Congress, citing threats and a climate of intimidation that led him to fear for his safety and the safety of his wife and children.


The common denominator is thuggery -- whether it is the Taliban yesterday gleefully claiming credit for the spate of attacks that also left 21 Afghan civilians dead and 13 wounded, or Hezbollah launching rockets from private homes, or Mr. Fatah being labelled an apostate by those who know full well the peril that engenders -- and a nihilism so naked it is stunning.


The rocket-propelled grenade attack that yesterday left three Canadians dead, for instance, was launched from a school. In most civilized parts of the planet, schools are places of learning, places for children, places of peace; to the Taliban, and to all those who would keep their fellow Muslims in perpetual poverty and ignorance so that they might be made into martyrs, schools are buildings to be burned down, trashed, defiled and turned into launch pads by those who, if they understand nothing else about the West, understand that Western soldiers, with their regard for education and soft spot for children, must struggle on some level to seriously regard the school as a likely spot to set up an ambush.


Some of the fighters in Afghanistan are hardline Taliban ideologues, and some are drugs bosses and tribal warlords who align themselves out of convenience.


But some are from other countries, fighting for a pan-Islamic cause. The first time I was in Kandahar, last spring, two would-be suicide bombers blew themselves up prematurely in a graveyard: They were from Pakistan, as documents and cellphones retrieved from their bodies proved. When I was in Kandahar last month, in what has become known as the Battle of Pashmul and was also the site of yesterday's attacks, one of the arrested fighters was a Chechen man.


What business does a Chechen have trying to kill Canadians in Afghanistan? Oh yes, I forgot: The glory of Islam.


Mr. Fatah's sin was to be an outspoken liberal in a religion that has increasingly little stomach for it, even in Canada.


His resignation came after he was singled out in a recent e-mail campaign aimed at painting him as an illegitimate voice for Muslims, but he says the threats against him -- including an instance where he was surrounded by a mob of shrieking young Muslim men in Toronto -- go back years. It appears he was particularly unsettled by a June 30 article, written by Mohamed Elmasry, the director of the Canadian Islamic Congress. In the piece, headlined "Smearing Islam and Bashing Muslims, Who and Why," Mr. Fatah was identified, as was my fellow Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, as one of four people who are anti-Islam.


Mr. Elmasry was describing a panel discussion, held in the wake of the arrest of 17 Muslim men in Toronto alleged to be terrorists, at which Mr. Fatah participated; Mr. Elmasry directly accused him of smearing Islam and bashing Muslims, which Mr. Fatah regards "as close as one can get to issuing a death threat, as it places me as an apostate and blasphemer."


Mr. Elmasry had a busy few weeks there: More than a month after I wrote a column about the arrests of the Toronto 17, and after my byline conveniently had appeared from Afghanistan, he devoted an entire article to me in which he described me as having made a name "by writing about Islam and Muslims in a manner that consistently lacks accuracy, fairness and balance." While I was in Kandahar, a reader alerted me that the piece had been picked up by a U.S. website and an Egyptian newspaper: Golly, I wonder what Mr. Elmasry was hoping for with that?


My point is, the war is on. Canada did not declare it, but it has come to our shores as surely as it came to Manhattan's five years ago. Our soldiers are dying for it, in Afghanistan, but they are also fighting for Canadians.


The least we can do -- and we do, in this country, prefer to do the least -- is stiffen our collective resolve, face up to the truth, and recognize that the soldiers' terrible sacrifice is in our name.


Christie Blatchford has reported from Afghanistan on two extended trips, in July and in March and April of this year.



The deadly south


So far, 24 Canadians have died since Canadian troops were first sent to Afghanistan in 2002. Seventeen of the deaths have come since troops moved to Southern Afghanistan and took an expanded role.


1. Nov. 24, 2005: Private Braun Woodfield, 24, died when his LAV III rolled over in an accident.


2. Jan. 15, 2006: Diplomat Glyn Berry, 59 died in a suicide car attack on his armoured jeep.


3. March 2: Corporal Paul Davis, 28 and Master Corporal Timothy Wilson, 30, died when their LAV III rolled over in an accident.


4. March 29: Private Robert Costall, 22, died in a fire fight with insurgents.


5. April 22: Corporal Matthew Dinning, 23, Bombardier Myles Mansell, 25; Corporal Randy Payne, 32, and Lieutenant William Turner, 45, died when a roadside bomb struck their armoured jeep.


6. May 17: Captain Nichola Goddard, 26, died when shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade struck her LAV III.


7. July 9: Corporal Anthony Boneca, 21, was shot by an insurgent.


8. July 22: Corporal Jason Warren, 29, and Corporal Francisco Gomez, 44, died when a suicide bomber drove a car into their bison armoured vehicle.


9. Aug. 3: Corporal Christopher Reid, 34, died when his LAV III was struck by a roadside bomb.


10. Aug. 3: Sergeant Vaughn Ingram and Corporal Bryce Jeffrey Keller died the same day in a nearby ambush along with a third soldier, who has not been identified.



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