This morning, CBC Edmonton's morning radio show interviewed Christian Leuprecht, Associate Professor at the Royal Military College in Kingston, regarding Canadian troop morale in the face of the recent deaths. I think he made some important points - many of which I agree with - but I believe his conclusions were somewhat misguided. At first Leuprecht explained how the Taliban resistance was becoming more recluse and resorting more and more to guerrilla tactics such as roadside bombs and surprise attacks installations rather than conventional armed attacks on the coalition-manned areas. He then stated that this is a sign that the Taliban is weaker than it was previously. Fair enough.
However, Leuprecht concluded that this fact positively affects Canadian troop morale, and negatively affects Taliban resolve (because the Taliban know they are fighting a more powerful enemy and vice versa). I think this conclusion is overspeculative and simplistic, if not misguided. As Christine Fair, an expert with the Rand Corporation said today - the Taliban is getting much bolder with their insurgent tactics: "They are getting better. They are getting more effective. They are learning by doing." This is the nature of guerrilla warfare. The Taliban see this as a long and protracted unconventional war. They've got all the time in the world to fulfill their prophecy (yet again) of ridding the foreign invaders from their homeland, while the coalition forces are on bureacratic timelines based on budgets and dependent on "democratic support". The more coalition soldiers killed, the closer the insurgents are to getting the coalition members to withdraw from the war effort. Militarily speaking, the Taliban is outmanned and outgunned, but they are fighting for ideological reasons that are unwaveringly powerful. The Canadian soldiers, on the other hand, are fighting in a foreign land, away from their families, for reasons that are not entirely clear to anyone. The notion that they are fighting to "protect Canada" requires a massive mental leap that I, for one, am not willing to make. They are unable to engage the enemy in the type of warfare they are trained for, and instead, they are always wondering if this is the day that a roadside bomb will blow up next to their patrol vehicle. This is not good for morale!
The fact that the coalition forces are stronger militarily is a mute point when they are fighting against a hidden insurgency using dirty senseless tactics. Think Vietnam: The Viet Cong were nowhere near a military match for the combined American and South Vietnamese armies. Yet their resolve to remove foreigners and imperialists from their home country was so powerful, that they were willing to live in sweltering jungles infested with snakes and poisonous insects and tigers, eating meager rations of rice for years on end - all for a powerful nationalistic resolve similar to that felt by Afghan insurgents today. And let's remember who eventually won the Vietnam war? That's right, the army that was outnumbered and outgunned managed to inflict enough physical and financial damage upon the United States, that the latter had no option left but to withdraw.
Secondly, Leuprecht stated that the Canadian troops will maintain high morale when they know that they are "supported" back home. Although he didn't directly say it, he implied that this is good enough reason for us Canadians to support our troops, "whether or not we support the mission". Again, a logical assumption to start off with - you feel better when you know there are others thinking of you and wishing you the best- but I think the overall picture is more complex, particularly when we are addressing the psychology of those engaged in a foreign military battle.
We already know from numerous historical examples that troops who are sent abroad to fight begin to feel a detachment from their community back home. Day after day their new lives depend entirely on their fellow soldiers. This is their new community. These are the guys who they eat, sleep and shit with. These are the guys who really know what they've been through and who have shared the near-death experiences with them. Further, the war becomes personalized: It's not about "making my fellow countrymen proud" so much as it's about survival. It's about "beating these sons of bitches and rocket-launching them back to the stone age". It's about covering Pete while he runs from turret to turret. It's about avenging Pete's death when he gets killed in battle. It's about doing "whatever I need to do to make sure I get out of this hell hole alive". Fighting for the nation is an afterthought. I admit that I can't say this from personal experience, but we have been given countless testimonials of soldiers from wars past who have expressed such sentiments. Thus is borne the feeling of alienation that soldiers face when they return "home", greeted by some as heroes and others as cold blooded killers - all the while trying to reconcile what they saw, heard and felt during their few months in that other world. Again, knowing that your fellow countrymen back home support you is only one factor affecting your morale. You also know that many other fellow countrymen don't support you or even care about you. But most importantly - neither does the enemy who has you within the scope of his gun.
Finally, Leuprecht refuted a common assumption that a soldier's resolve is weakened when their comrades are killed. It's not so simple, he explained, because when their comrades die the remaining soldiers become determined to avenge their friends' deaths. Again, I agree with this statement, but what kind of implications does this have for the purpose of our Canadian involvement in Afghanistan? Does this mean that our soldiers are more concerned about schoolyard revenge than the original goal of developing a poor country? This is exactly why we should never have gotten involved in this war in the first place. It has become an endless game of cat and mouse, the original purpose of which has been lost amid the intensity of hurt feelings and pride. Is Canada's war effort really about protecting this country? Is it really about "helping and developing the Afghans"? No. It's about Stephen Harper and his neorealist cronies' little fantasy of becoming a world power. It's about letting the world know that Canada is not a small defenseless nation with a crapload of oil ("so don't mess with us!") You can bet your gun that Stephen would NEVER offer his life for this country, and yet he has asked thousands of Canadian soldiers to pay the ultimate sacrifice so he can pursue his twisted designs - likely devised during a childhood game of Risk. There should be a law that requires any politician who votes in favor of deploying troops to join those soldiers on the frontlines for an entire tour of duty. Ironically, such legislation would likely outlaw warfare, because no politician in this country's Conservative caucus (with their law and business degrees in pocket) would be willing to forego their bright and wealthy retirement plans.
But why do we put so much emphasis on troop morale, anyway? Do we honestly believe that morale is going to affect the outcome of this war? This is a war with no reasonable end in sight. The Taliban is a guerrilla insurgent force which will not be defeated by a conventional military. The only way to beat the Taliban is to make them unpopular and unwanted in their own home, and the only way to do that is to offer a better alternative. Create a world so good for the Afghans, so wonderful, that they begin to despise the insurgents and see them as a barrier to their bright future. But this is what we are NOT doing in Afghanistan. Instead, we are fueling the Afghans' historic hatred of foreign and imperialist presence when we drive around in armored vehicles, and hide behind our explosion-proof concrete barriers, and tell them "no, you can't make a livelihood growing poppies as you have for decades". We can continue to support our soldiers, and feed them rum, and protect them with helicopters, and maybe their morale will lift for an evening or two. But no amount of support or rum or helicopters will turn this war into a just war - and ultimately that's what keeps morale low - a lack of morality.