This week, Canada lowered its flag in Kabul, marking the end of a 12-year involvement in Afghanistan.
In some ways it also draws to a close a significant period in my own life. I was present in Kabul in October 2003 with the then-ambassador and a Foreign Affairs team the day the die was cast to go to Kandahar, the most dangerous region of Afghanistan then, for reasons of national prestige and nothing more.
From 2003 to 2007 my life revolved around that country. My jobs ranged from helping prepare not only General Rick Hillier’s headquarters in Kabul when he was Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff but that of every single commander in the 49-nation NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) coalition in that time period. I handled the evacuation of Canadian wounded and dead as our casualties began to mount in 2006 – names and emotions etched forever in my memory. I experienced what it was like to come home, and the lack of care offered, firsthand. I understand veterans’ angst.
Later, I helped manage the Canadian Forces response to the Afghan detainee affair, preparing testimony, examining documents and shaping the narrative at home. In some ways my life these last ten years was a metaphor for the mission itself.
I have been called several times in the last few days, including by journalists, for opinions on our involvement in Afghanistan. The most often asked question is rather simplistic – understandable when a story has to fit into the bookends of other news events, but revealing in that Canadians desire that 12 years should be summarized into a thumbs-up or thumbs-down question. It is also indicative of the collective national withdrawal symptom and its accompanying amnesia.
To that simple question – “Was it worth it?” – the answer is yes. Afghanistan is far better off than what it was in 2001 by almost every possible metric. Certainly, many have died and continue to do so through insurgent actions and improvised explosive devices. Undeniably governance is weak and corruption embedded, but there are no longer public amputations and executions, there is no longer ethnic repression on the scale there once was, health care has improved and there remains a sense of hope. Hope that women won’t just be chattel once again and girls can continue to be schooled, hope that governance will improve, and hope that the roots of democracy and of an improving economic condition can continue to grow.
The Canadian Forces, our police and our diplomats did what they were asked and aside from the broader legacy it can be said that Canada’s presence in Kandahar prevented a Taliban takeover and that Canada set the conditions for the subsequent U.S. surge. But the final answer will have to wait for years to be accurately answered: Will Afghanistan lapse back to Taliban days, will the Afghan National Army remain up to the task, will the West’s commitment endure financially – these will have to wait the test of time.
There is a need not only for Canada but the West and NATO to ask harder questions and demand deeper answers than have been asked to date.
Once the initial defeat of the Taliban and al Qaeda occurred, what were the specific Canadian national interests in remaining in Afghanistan, especially when the international community in which we were partners was unable to define what constituted success?
A Marshall Plan for Afghanistan was originally envisioned, only to be abandoned when the magnitude, cost and difficulty of the task became apparent. How was this to end? That answer changed four times in my experience in Afghanistan. The first was to defeat al Qaeda, the second was to set up Afghan institutions for success, the third was to defeat the insurgency and the fourth and final was to enable the Afghan security forces to stand on their own. Only the first can be answered with a definitive yes.
Afghanistan became a series of NATO fiefdoms – the British-occupied Helmand, Canadian-occupied Kandahar and Dutch-occupied Uruzgan became self-contained entities known as Helmandshire, Canuckistan and Uruzdam, at least until the US Surge. There was little unity of command amongst the fiefdoms, and certainly no continuity of command and effort, with Commanders of ISAF changing every six to nine months, the overall aims of the mission changing with them.
This lack of a cohesive approach, let alone a consistent approach, not only for Canada but for the international community writ large, is something that historians will have to examine
Finally, the enduring legacy will not just be in Afghanistan itself but in the lives of some 1,800 wounded veterans of the conflict and their families here in Canada which will last for the next thirty years or more. How these veterans will be cared for or considered is the one thing that won’t be wished away. It is telling that on the last day of Canada’s presence in Afghanistan, notwithstanding the coverage, that the subject wasn’t “trending” in a single Canadian media outlet.
Colonel George Petrolekas served as Personal Representative and then as Strategic Asdvisor to the Chief of Defence Staff, and is currently a board member of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.