There were tears, smiles and warm embraces as loved ones greeted the final homecoming flight from Kabul – the last soldiers to return from a costly military mission that spanned more than a decade and claimed the lives of 162 Canadians.
And now, three years after it ended combat operations in the Afghanistan war, Canada is finally marking the end of its soldiering in the conflict-ridden central Asian country.
The Conservative government, which sent home combat troops in 2011, was unable to declare the mission over then because its allies pressed Ottawa to tack three years of military training operations onto the end of its deployment. That aid to the Afghan government just ended.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Governor-General David Johnston and senior military brass gathered at the Ottawa airport to greet returning Canadian Armed Forces members, the remainder of more than 40,000 soldiers from this country who have served as part of the Afghanistan mission since 2002.
Mr. Harper announced May 9 would be designated by royal proclamation as a “national day of honour” to salute the end of Canada’s Afghan engagement.
“This morning, as you stepped onto Canadian soil, you brought to a close the longest active military engagement in Canadian history,” the Prime Minister told the troops.
“From Kabul to Kandahar, Canadians like you fought to loosen the grip of terror and repression,” he said. “Canada has also made a tangible difference in Afghanistan to some of the world’s most vulnerable people.”
Defence Minister Robert Nicholson noted homecoming ceremonies have not always been a cause for celebration. “On too many occasions it brought grief. Today, we can’t help but pause to think of those who lost their lives in Afghanistan. We pay tribute to the families who are the strength behind the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces.”
A C-17 military transport carrying the soldiers landed in Ottawa at about 9:30 a.m. as CF-18 fighter jets conducted a flypast to salute the occasion.
Master Corporal Anthony Alliot swept up his girlfriend Sarah Tooth in a passionate embrace, kissing for the cameras. She surprised him by showing up in Ottawa for the return.
“It’s something I will remember for the rest of my life, and I’m glad I got to share it with a special lady,” he said.
The Forces member said he’s proud to have played a part in Afghanistan. “It’s been an honour to serve. It was a great experience; something I will remember for the rest of my life.”
Asked what he plans to do now that he’s back after months abroad, the Canadian soldier smiled and looked as his sweetheart.
“I don’t know if I can say it on TV, what I’m going to do,” MCpl. Alliot said.
Canada has fielded soldiers in Afghanistan since 2002, shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Soldiers returning Tuesday were part of a training mission based in Kabul that began in 2011. Canada ended more than half a decade of combat operations in Afghanistan that same year.
The conflict cost the lives of 158 Canadian soldiers, one diplomat, a journalist and two civilian contractors.
In addition to blood, Canada expended significant treasure in the Afghanistan mission. Canadian taxpayers’ bill for the conflict is expected to exceed $22-billion, according to independent defence analysts.
Major-General David Milner, the last Canadian commander of troops in Afghanistan, said he thinks the question of whether Canada’s sacrifice was worth it has been settled.
“That question is getting old,” he says. “The bottom line is, look at that country [today] and where it was in 2001.”
He said Afghanistan is much better off than it was 12 years ago, when it was home to Taliban occupiers. “Were we just going to sit back home and do nothing with terrorist havens throughout the south of Afghanistan, a country that has been at war for 30 to 40 years?”
Maj.-Gen. Milner says Afghanistan today is beginning to move in the right direction. “It’s got a capable force: 350,000. They’re confident. They’re capable. They’re well equipped.”