Is all this sacrifice really worth it?

AFTER a week in which the Canadian military suffered more combat deaths than in any deployment since the Korean War, the country is wrestling with the issue of whether helping Afghanistan is worth the loss of its troops.

Canadians, increasingly concerned by the number of flag-draped coffins returning home, awoke yesterday to the news that a Taleban attack had killed four more and injured ten.

The nation's biggest newspaper, the Toronto Star, ran on its front page photographs of all 23 Canadian soldiers and one diplomat killed in Afghanistan since the mission began in 2002 and questioning the sacrifice. Fifteen of the deaths have occurred in the past six months.

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Canada has about 2,200 troops in the Kandahar region, where, in recent days, the bloodiest insurgent attacks have taken place.

Since February, opinion polls have consistently shown that a small majority of Canadians have deep reservations about the aims and achievements of the military campaign, and there is increasing support for the idea of a pull-out.

Stephen Harper, the prime minister, elected with a minority Conservative government in January, promising to repair damaged ties with the United States, has echoed George Bush's words on Iraq, saying Canada won't "cut and run" from Afghanistan. He continued to stand firm after Thursday's deadly attack, saying Canadians grieve for the four slain soldiers but "this government will honour their sacrifice, we will stand behind their mission and we are proud of the work that they are doing".

Lewis MacKenzie, a retired Canadian general and a commentator on military affairs, said: "I'm embarrassed to admit to you that [the death toll] is having an impact, but I'm gratified that the government is standing firm."

He said Afghanistan was exactly the kind of international mission the Canadian military should undertake. "The worst thing for us and other western nations is if transnational terrorists are allowed to set up shop again in Afghanistan, a place they seem to like," he said.

"To decide whether we stay or go based on the body count, instead of whether the mission is achievable and proper and we're making progress, is ludicrous. If we'd followed that in the First World War, we would have left on the second day."

Mr MacKenzie blames media coverage for slipping public support of the mission.

One of the high-profile doubters is Peggy Mason, who served as Canadian ambassador for disarmament in Brian Mulroney's Conservative government in the 1980s. Calling the recent attack "sad, frustrating and troubling", she is quoted in the Star asking the pointed question: "What are we doing there?"

She and other critics say Canadians went into battle with a so-called 3-D approach - defence, diplomacy and development - but the unexpectedly strong insurgency has meant that Canada is only focusing on defence with no guarantee it will succeed at that.

Ms Mason says the current NATO-led mission should be replaced with a negotiation process under the aegis of the North Atlantic Council, including all the parties - even the Taleban.

Other critics, including Liberal senator Colin Kenny, stop short of calling for a troop pull-out and say the prime minister should stop chest-thumping and calmly lay out the goals of the mission with markers that can be measured.

"We know the cost in lives and billions of dollars spent, but we don't know what we're buying," Mr Kenny said yesterday.

While stances are hardening, it is not known what effect the dropping public support for the mission will have on the Harper government, its chances in the next election and, by extension, on the fate of the NATO-led project itself.

By rights, the opposition parties should be seizing on public opinion and using it to paint Mr Harper as a US stooge. But earlier this year, before parliament broke for its summer session, he forced a quick debate that ended with a vote by a majority of MPs, including some from the opposition benches, to extend the Afghanistan mission by two years, to 2009.

Without parliament in session, there is no daily questioning of Mr Harper or his defence minister, and his main opposition, the Liberals, are in the midst of a bitter leadership race, full of conflicting policies on the mission.

David Bercuson, a military historian and strong supporter of Canada's role in Afghanistan, is betting that, despite the continuing deaths and public trepidation over them, the mission will continue. "I think we'll be there for a good while yet," he said.