There was no victory march in Kabul. Just the ceremonial lowering of a flag and sombre words for a hundred soldiers, whose final departure from Afghanistan marks Canada’s bookend to a dozen-year-long war. “It is said that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. Your actions and those of your fallen colleagues have stopped the triumph of evil,” said Deborah Lyons, the Canadian ambassador. We wish it were that simple.
Her binary interpretation of Canada’s legacy in Afghanistan feels a million miles away from the complexity of what’s happening on the ground. It doesn’t do justice to the 40,000 Canadians who fought in Afghanistan to pretend that our longest war has been an unmitigated success. The truth is that, though Afghanistan is better off today than it was in 2001, with schools where there were none and some security where there was little, violence has also soared to levels unseen since the Taliban fell, the Taliban have returned in force to large parts of the country, the economy is still a basket case, and the government is often corrupt and incompetent. Afghanistan has advanced, in part thanks to Canada. But those advances are so fragile and brittle that the latest assessment from the U.S. military forecasts that any gains could be lost by 2017.
Canada paid a heavy price for its Afghan mission. One hundred and fifty-eight soldiers, two civilians, a diplomat and a journalist were killed. More than 1,800 Canadians were wounded. The war cost Ottawa at least $18-billion – and much more if the cost of caring for veterans and their families is included. Was so much Canadian blood spilled and billions spent worth it, when Afghanistan’s future remains so uncertain?
A new poll suggests most Canadians are ambivalent. Two-thirds say it’s too early to call the mission a success or a failure. They are right. Our Afghan involvement was not a triumph, but it was far from pointless. It is more useful to ask whether Canada accomplished in Afghanistan what it set out to do in the first place, and through the various phases of its mission as it evolved through the years.
The decision to go to war was made neither from hubris nor from a blind sense of loyalty to our closest ally, the United States. For Canada, going to Afghanistan was not only about that country. It was about maintaining our credibility, and that of the international system, in the wake of 9/11. The first phase, Operation Apollo, was launched with the narrow goals of supporting the American-led Operation Enduring Freedom and overthrowing the Taliban government that sheltered al-Qaeda, which had used Afghanistan as a launch pad for terrorist attacks. As a leader of the Western alliance, Canada had a reason to step forward. The cause was necessary and just. And so our troops were deployed. The Taliban were ousted, and al-Qaeda fled Afghanistan.
The mission was a success, but the war wasn’t over. Again, Canada’s contribution was at a crossroads. Canada could have walked away, but the West could not. Leaving Afghanistan before attempting to rebuild it would have been morally and tactically wrong, leaving the door open for al-Qaeda to return in full force. The second phase of Canada’s mission was on, this time under the auspices of NATO, and based out of Kabul. Again, Canada and our allies scored some wins: Security in Kabul and other parts of the country stabilized and Canadian trainers began building the Afghan National Army. Afghanistan held its first national elections. In a country that didn’t even have one ATM machine, this was an enormous accomplishment.
The third phase of Canada’s mission was the most difficult and the most deadly. In 2006, Canadian troops were sent to Kandahar. By 2007, they were locked in intense combat with the insurgents, and dying at twice the rate of their American and British counterparts in other parts of the country. Those losses would have been difficult to predict when Canada committed itself to the fight. Many military analysts say that, without Canada’s contribution, Kandahar would have been lost. But the death toll cost public support for the war. The battle in Kandahar was in some ways both Canada’s finest moment and a great failure, representing the seemingly Sisyphean nature of the Afghan project. And after a time, Canadians and our Western allies decided we no longer wanted a part of this war, and Ottawa turned its eyes to the exit door.
After the combat mission ended in 2011, a small contingent of trainers remained in Kabul. That final, fourth phase of the war passed unnoticed: The same poll that captured Canadians’ ambivalence revealed that, until this week, most did not know any Canadian troops were still there. Canada’s mission had become a forgettable thing and Afghanistan has become a forgettable place. It shouldn’t be. The country is still badly in need of Western assistance and aid.
Is Afghanistan a better place today than when Canadian forces first set foot in Kandahar in the fall of 2001? Yes. The United Nations expects next month’s presidential ballot to be relatively free from violence and corruption. That is no small thing. Has the country achieved the level of security, democracy and development that some dreamed? No.
Deciding to fight in Afghanistan was a difficult thing for Canada, and this country did so at great cost. But the decision to go and to stay was made, again and again over a dozen years, for good reasons: credibility, responding to al-Qaeda’s threat, projecting Canada’s values of democracy and rule of law, and attempting to give Afghans a chance at a functioning state and a better life. Afghanistan mattered. It still does. Canada made a difference, and for now, that is enough.