- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2006

TORONTO — A terrorist cell reportedly plotting to behead Canada’s prime minister was angered in part by the country’s military role in Afghanistan, giving a nation better known for U.N. peacekeeping one more reason to wonder what it is doing in the middle of a fierce war.

Canada’s 2,300-member contingent has suffered 16 dead and taken the lives of many more Taliban suspects during increasingly vicious fighting in southern Afghanistan — a novel role for troops more used to appearing in the powder-blue helmets of the United Nations.

Al Jazeera television yesterday reported a Taliban claim to have abducted an unspecified number of Canadian soldiers, but officials in Ottawa said all Canadian soldiers had been accounted for.

Support for what originally was seen as a humanitarian mission had been slipping in the weeks before the dramatic weekend arrests of 17 terrorist suspects. Some of them had schemed, according to court documents, to back a demand that the troops be withdrawn from Afghanistan by storming Parliament and beheading the prime minister.

Tarek Fatah, spokesman for the Muslim Canadian Congress, pointed out that Canadians had been caught plotting to attack major landmarks even before Canada joined the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom.

Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian-born Montreal resident, was foiled in December 1999 in a bid to blow up Los Angeles International Airport, for example. “But [the presence of Canadian troops in Afghanistan] has definitely added fuel to the fire,” Mr. Fatah said.

Still, it is not clear how the arrests will affect public support for the Afghanistan mission. John Thompson, president of the Mackenzie Institute think tank in Toronto, said he thought the arrests would bolster support for the troops. Canadians are “pretty stubborn” people, he said.

Doubts about the mission had been rising along with the battlefield deaths — Canada’s first since the 1950-53 Korean War — and in particular the May 17 death of Capt. Nichola Goddard, the first female Canadian soldier killed in battle since World War II.

Tempers also flared over the Conservative Party government’s refusal to fly the flag over Parliament at half-staff in honor of fallen soldiers and its steps to block the press from photographing returning caskets.

“The opposition likened this to a Bush administration-type approach,” said Steven Staples, director of security programs for the Polaris Institute, a think tank in Ottawa.

Polls taken before the arrests of the terrorist suspects found opposition to the mission at 54 percent, up from 41 percent a few months earlier when Canada took command of the multinational force and most Canadians felt their troops were in Afghanistan to improve the lives of the Afghan people.

But the troops soon found themselves at the center of some of the war’s most vicious fighting in Kandahar province. A measure to extend the mission through 2009 squeaked past Parliament last month on a 149-145 vote.

Particularly upsetting to those who cherish their nation’s image as a peacemaker was a Polaris Institute report showing that the operation is sucking up almost all the funds available for international missions.

Funding for Afghanistan has topped $3.7 billion since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, while Canada has contributed just a little more than $194 million and 59 military personnel to international U.N. missions in the same period. Once a top-10 contributor, Canada now ranks 50th out of 95 nations supplying troops to U.N. missions.

“You can fit all of our U.N. peacekeepers on a single school bus,” Mr. Staples said. “Canadians have no idea this has happened. The Canadian government and the military have abandoned U.N. peacekeeping almost entirely.”

Canada had been an enthusiastic contributor to U.N. peacekeeping since a Canadian diplomat and later prime minister, Lester Pearson, won the country’s only Nobel Peace Prize for proposing in 1956 that a U.N. emergency force be established to ease tensions after Egypt seized the Suez Canal. That is considered to have been the birth of U.N. peacekeeping.

Retired Capt. Peter Forsberg, a spokesman for the Ottawa-based Conference of Defense Associations, said Canadian forces began taking a more robust approach to their work during the 1992-95 U.N. mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which eventually was handed over to NATO.

Under NATO command, the troops “did not adopt the tactics of peacekeepers so much as peace enforcers,” Capt. Forsberg said. “In other words, they became more aggressive in stopping the fighting.”

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