This weekend, Canada's 850 troops began their journey home from Kandahar, where they have guarded the US airbase and led combat operations for the first time since the Korean War.
On the long flight back, they had time to reflect on the untimely death of four comrades mistakenly targeted by a US F-16 jet, and their participation in Operation Anaconda during which snipers got their first shot at fleeing Al Qaeda forces.
But the fact that Canadian troops had to hitch a ride home on US aircraft underscores the gap between Canada's global peacekeeping commitments and a shrinking military budget.
After years of serving as peacekeepers for the UN in remote nations such as Eritrea, East Timor, and Bosnia, the Canadian Army is now stretched to its limit. Many Canadians are asking whether Canada, despite its reliable track record, can maintain its historic military role. Many European countries are facing the same dilemma, decrying US unilateralism but lacking the resources to steer the global agenda.
"We are ready to fight with no capability to sustain," concluded a Canadian Senate report in February. The size of the Canadian forces has shrunk from 85,000 to 57,000 over the past 10 years.
"This far into World War II, Canada had 200,000 soldiers in uniform," notes Scott Taylor, editor of Esprit de Corps in Ottawa. "Right now there are 3,000 fewer people serving than as of 9/11."
To support troops in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Jean Chretien's Liberal government doled out a one-time 2 percent increase for the military. But pundits insist that to restore its full capabilities, the military's annual budget needs to increase from its current C$12 billion (US$7.75 billion) to C$16 billion or C$17 billion (US$10.25 billion to US$11 billion).
The most serious deficiencies are in manpower and equipment. Doctors, technicians, and engineers top the Army's most wanted list. And with its regular forces involved in peacekeeping and war-on- terror duties, the country needs to rely more on its reserves, but that pool has shrunk as well. Canada's reserves once swelled to 50,000, but the number today is close to 18,000. For the first time since it began peacekeeping duties, Canada will dispatch a full infantry reserve company to Bosnia later this year.
Canada recently built a new class of frigates and acquired three attack submarines from Britain. And its Air Force maintains a capable fleet of CF-18 fighter aircraft. But other vessels and aircraft are regularly being cannibalized for spare parts. …