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Polls says too soon to judge Afghan mission

OTTAWA - Some people searched their souls while the politicians offered glowing tributes and flags flew at half-staff.

Meanwhile, one survey suggested that 42 per cent of Canadians were oblivious to the fact their soldiers were still working in a war-scarred land.

There was much ambivalence and some outright avoidance in Canada on Wednesday as the last 100 Canadian Forces soldiers on duty in Afghanistan saw their mission formally come to an end.

A ceremonial flag-lowering at the Canadian embassy in Kabul marked the shuttering of their three-year-old training mission for Afghan security forces.

It followed a five-year combat mission in Kandahar, the traditional Taliban heartland, which ended in the summer of 2011 and where the country suffered its heaviest casualties since the Korean War.

The Canadian death toll in Afghanistan was 158 soldiers, one diplomat, one journalist and two civilian contractors. Canada's military engagement in Afghanistan began with the unpublicized arrival of special forces in late 2001.

The Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll released Wednesday showed widespread Canadian ambivalence about the country's military legacy from Afghanistan.

Two-thirds said it was too soon to call the decade-plus military involvement a success or failure, while only 58 per cent realized that the Canadian Forces actually had, until Wednesday, a continuing military mission there.

The telephone survey of 1,051 respondents was conducted Feb. 20-24 and is considered accurate to within plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Harris-Decima vice-president Megan Tam said Canadians want to reserve judgment until they see whether Afghanistan can make significant progress on its own.

"I'm reminded how impatient we all are. We're always keen to change the channel, and some things take a long time," said John Manley, the former Liberal cabinet minister who chaired the Conservative-led panel on the way forward in Afghanistan at the height of the Canadian bloodshed in 2008.

"Taking on the renovation of a country like Afghanistan, that's about as long term a project as you could find."

Polls such as Wednesday's paint a complicated world in black and white, he said.

"Is it a success? Yeah. Is it a failure? Yeah. Will we know soon? No."

The poll also found that in the future, 74 per cent favoured Canada taking part in peacekeeping missions, rather than "military engagement."

"Who wouldn't prefer that? Too bad we don't live in a world where every military operation was peacekeeping," said Manley.

"We are among the most privileged countries on earth. And with great privilege comes great responsibility. Sometimes you just have to do the jobs that you don't really want to do, because that's your responsibility."

Fen Hampson, director of the global security at Waterloo, Ont.'s Centre for International Governance Innovation, said polls like Wednesday's and similar recent ones in the United States reflect the frustration and fatigue of the general public toward the unresolved Afghanistan war and the continuing corruption of the government of Hamid Karzai.

"The poll seems to suggest it's the mission Canadians want to forget," he said.

"The other thing we've learned about ourselves as a country is that we don't have the stomach for long, drawn out, costly engagements. The lesson going forward, and we've seen it with our policy toward Syria, is: not again, any time soon."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper released a written statement that lauded the record number of 40,000 Canadian troops that served in Afghanistan over the years, including those who paid "the ultimate price."

"The end of the military mission and the lowering of the flag is a significant milestone in the fight against global terror," the prime minister's statement said.

"Canada will continue to play an important role in supporting efforts that contribute to building a better future for all Afghans."

Manley said that's significant because Wednesday's military milestone "is not really the end of the mission" because Canada will continue with helping build Afghanistan's governance, institutions as well as contributing foreign aid.

"We must not forget that the road toward lasting peace in Afghanistan is still long," said NDP defence critic Jack Harris.

"The Canadian government must redouble its development and diplomatic efforts to ensure that Canada can leave a legacy of greater peace, prosperity and freedom for all Afghans."

Liberal defence critic Joyce Murray said the county's responsibility toward its young veterans also has not ended. "We, as a country, must take the best possible care of all those who have returned from Afghanistan."

There were gestures of remembrance across Canada.

At the New Brunswick legislature in Fredericton, family members of some of the soldiers from the nearby military base Gagetown, who were killed during the mission, came together.

Progressive Conservative member Jack Carr told them their loved ones had made the "ultimate sacrifice."

Saskatchewan Lt.-Gov. Vaughn Solomon Schofield saluted the Canadian soldiers, "who have risked their lives to protect the innocent victims of the conflict, and to bring peace to this troubled country."

Manley, who has travelled to Afghanistan in various capacities, says he still sees hope for Afghanistan's future, despite the rampant instability and corruption that still exists.

"Personally, I think three million girls going to school is a game changer. Even in that culture, you're not going to put those women back to where they were in 2001."

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