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Five more dead and one question: Can the Afghan mission be saved?

The return home of the bodies of four soldiers and a journalist from Afghanistan on Sunday offered a poignant, painful reminder of a question that will dominate the coming year: Is the Kandahar commitment turning into a failure, or can it still be rescued?

Grieving family and other loved ones greeted the caskets at a bitterly cold repatriation ceremony at CFB Trenton, an hour's drive east of Toronto.

The five were killed Wednesday when the armoured vehicle they were travelling in was struck by a massive roadside-bomb blast on the outskirts of Kandahar city - the third-bloodiest day for Canadian forces since the Afghan mission began in 2002.

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One hundred and forty Canadians have given their lives in Afghanistan, and it isn't possible to say whether they died in vain.

Clearly, the mission to bring stability to the region has not succeeded, as these latest casualties demonstrate. The Taliban are active, even resurgent, despite the best efforts of troops and reconstruction teams.

Though it galls, the final chapter of this story will not be written by Canadians.

The future of NATO's mission in Afghanistan now depends on the outcome of the recent American surge, in which the American deployment was increased by 30,000 troops, bringing the total U.S. force to 100,000.

If it succeeds, and the country ultimately achieves something remotely approaching stability, then Canadians can say we held the line until reinforcements arrived.

If it fails, and Afghanistan descends into chaos and civil war, with NATO forces withdrawing in despair, then Canadians will be asking themselves, and their political leaders, just what the tens of billions of dollars we will have spent and the who-knows-how-many lives we will have lost were for.

In either case, Canada is committed to ending its military mission in Afghanistan next year, the same time U.S. President Barack Obama has said he wants to see the American commitment begin to wind down as well.

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This means that the final diagnosis of whether the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban government was a mistake will not be known until more than a decade after the event. And by the time that diagnosis becomes clear, Canadian forces will have left the country.

And they have done far more than could ever have been asked of them. The Afghanistan deployment, whatever else it has achieved, has transformed the Canadian army from a shrunken and grievously underfunded embarrassment in the 1990s to a strengthened fighting force that has operated effectively now for years in a foreign and often hostile land.

But if the goal was to stabilize and secure the region, then that goal has not been achieved.

Neither, however, can the mission yet be described as a failure. Morale appears to remain high among the troops. There are no stories of Canadian soldiers bitterly condemning the incompetence of their officers and the futility of the war. Kandahar is not Canada's Vietnam. It is no Iraq.

Sergeant Kirk Taylor, one of the four soldiers who died Wednesday, so believed in Canada's mission in Kandahar that he had prepared a public statement defending the cause to be released in the event of his death.

The "mission in Afghanistan is vital for us not only as Canadians but as human beings," he wrote, describing the mission as a chance for Canadians to help Afghans develop solutions to Afghan problems.

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Few countries have sent an expeditionary force overseas for such a long time, with such ambiguous results, and yet with such continued commitment to the mission from the forces themselves.

There are other questions: What will become of Canada's ramped-up military after the Afghanistan deployment ends? Will the forces be retrained at their current strength, their equipment renewed and replaced? Or will a cash-strapped federal government permit the gradual erosion of the army to pre-Afghanistan levels?

These are difficult political issues. But they will need to be raised, even as Canadians once again mourn the return of their war dead.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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