At the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence we are taking testimony on the Afghanistan situation, and the Parliamentary decision in 2008 to end Canada’s combat mission in 2011.

But since 2008, at the public and public policy level, there has been little discussion of what this means for our troops and trainers on the ground, our civilian forces, for the Afghan people, and for our commitments to NATO.

It is worth reminding people why we are there. When terrorists attacked the Twin Towers on 9/11 leaving nearly 3,000 people dead, Canada reacted not just because our citizens were murdered too but because Article 5 of NATO states that an attack on one member country is considered an attack on all. And so we joined our allies in Operation Enduring Freedom against Al Qaeda terrorists trained in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Retired Brigadier-General Don Macnamara told our committee that in his view Canada’s obligation still stands.

“What good [is] Article 5 if we put a time limit on it and withdraw…my nightmare is that [it] will forever be known in NATO as ‘the Canadian position on deployment.’ From this point forward, people will say they will take the Canadian position and leave in two years or whatever. I do not want Canada to be seen in that context.”

Brigadier-General Serge Labbé (retired), now deputy to the NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Kabul, also questions the 2011 withdrawal: “At precisely the time when we need more troops to turn the tide with a view to ensuring that we can actually fully support [the Afghan] government in winning the campaign, it seems odd to me that we would be talking about removing all the troops.”

Labbé says it is not just about Canadian soldiers fighting the Taliban. Our troops also play a key role in mentoring the Afghan National Army (ANA) in Kandahar through our Operational Mentor Liaison Team (OMLT). Our soldiers stand alongside Afghans in combat, teaching them to fight the insurgents in real time.

Asked whether the ANA will be ready by the time Canada withdraws, Colonel Gregory D. Burt, former commander of the OMLT, says: “No they will not…they will still need some mentoring at all levels.”

Several witnesses have told us that if the Canadian military leaves too early, the ANA’s ability to operate independently will be jeopardized. Ultimately, if the ANA cannot defend Afghanistan, the Taliban will rise again and there will be no secure environment for the humanitarian and development work we intend to keep doing – not to mention the risk of Afghanistan once again falling into the hands of those exporting terrorism.

The huge military operation that is now underway may prove game-changing regarding just how ready the Afghan forces are to lead combat missions.

At the Senate Committee we have heard that in the past year the tide has begun turning, that the counterinsurgency strategy is pushing the Taliban to the margins.

Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance, former commander of Joint Task Force Afghanistan, says “counterinsurgency is about re-establishing the social, political and economic fabric of communities such that they grow resistant to the coercive effects of the insurgency.”

Afghan communities are indeed growing resistant. In 2001 about a million Afghan boys attended school. This year it will be seven million children – one third of them girls. Eight out of 10 Afghans have access to health care and in places like Bamiyan province it is of high quality. More than 20,000 village councils have been elected by their peers – implementing more than 40,000 development projects.

And the Dahla Dam, a signature Canadian project, can provide water for 75 percent of Kandahar province. As Labbé says: “It will revolutionize people’s lives.”

Some dismiss Afghanistan’s importance to Canada’s national security, and decry war-fighting instead of so-called peacekeeping by our military – something most experts agree just doesn’t exist in today’s troubled world.

Canada has been involved in many expeditionary missions dating back to the Boer War at the start of the 20th century, always with an eye to our national interest. And that, says General Macnamara, consists of national security, national prosperity, international stability, and promotion of our values of democracy, individual freedom and social justice.

If Afghanistan were to fall again to the Taliban and terrorism, all of these interests would most certainly be in jeopardy.

Senator Pamela Wallin is chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence and serves on the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Committee and the Veterans Affairs subcommittee.