On the Hill – Soldier, Sailor

On November 4, cheers erupted around the world at news of Barack Obama’s election, and Canadians were among those cheering loudest.

It’s not just the sense of hope that has risen with the election of the first black US president, breaking barriers and rekindling the promise held in the Declaration of Independence.

It’s also the sense of possibility that Obama brings to the world; the optimism that his diplomacy, intelligence, and grace under pressure herald a meaningful shift in global relations. But as he noted in his victory speech, realizing that promise will come at a cost; it will take ?a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.?

And it is that spirit of sacrifice that will be one of Canada’s biggest tests in a new relationship with our southern neighbour, one that will be played out half a world away?in Afghanistan.

Currently, there are more than 2,900 Canadian soldiers, sailors, and Air Force personnel deployed overseas on operational missions. Roughly 2,500 of those are in Afghanistan. Canada’s military has been there since 2001, and 98 Canadians have died. Public opinion is increasingly against our involvement, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper has vowed that in 2011 those troops will come home. As the Globe and Mail put it, ?a decade of war is enough.?

The Harper government renewed that commitment on November 5, one day after the US election and at a time when the president-elect has vowed to deploy up to 12,000 more troops to Afghanistan, shifting the fight against terrorism out of Iraq and into that country.

It’s a marked departure from the latest Bush-era policies, and It’s precisely this anticipated shift in the US stance (along with economic and diplomatic fronts) that will make it so difficult for Harper to keep his pledge.

If, indeed, a new era of international cooperation is dawning, Afghanistan will be a testing ground. It will become a highly symbolic measure of a country’s intention to forge new alliances and repair old ones, and Canada won’t be alone in this dilemma.

Although Great Britain has made it clear that their troops are in it for the long haul, there are 40 other nations in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Australia has over 1,000 troops in Afghanistan; France nearly 3,000. Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland all have between one and three thousand personnel stationed there.

As the new political landscape evolves, Harper may embrace a realignment, shifting Canadian troops away from the southern province of Kandahar, one of the most perilous regions in the country.

But for the Canadian Forces fighting for stability in a political quagmire far from home, it may not be time to start cheering yet.