Hugh Segal is the Mathews fellow in global public policy at the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies and a senior adviser at Aird Berlis, LLP.
As we engage in a Canadian election, during which journalists and pundits often state that foreign policy is an issue that’s rarely mentioned, we would do well to reflect on a few facts. Canada was a prominent and highly effective participant in the NATO operation against the Taliban in Afghanistan for more than 12 years, and we lost 158 Canadians in the struggle. Thousands of Canadian Armed Forces members served in Afghanistan until 2014.
And so now, with the U.S.’s speedy withdrawal and the Taliban’s capture of Kabul – with no provision made for the orderly evacuation of Afghan nationals who supported the allied effort – we should remember that part of the reason the Western world is facing such chaos there is because former U.S. president Donald Trump’s administration did not include NATO allies or the government of Afghanistan in its Doha negotiations with the Taliban.
The fact that armed Taliban militants have now sealed off access to the Kabul airport speaks volumes about what Mr. Trump’s negotiations failed to focus on, including the rights of Afghan citizens who would need to be evacuated before Taliban patrols became house-to-house hit squads, as is now being reported in some regions. Reports of British, French and U.S. forces deploying outside the airport perimeter to help evacuees get to allied aircraft are sketchy but encouraging. On the other hand, Canadians have had little sense, up until Monday, of whether our special forces have been deployed to afford a chance of survival to prospective Afghan evacuees; unlike those of other NATO countries, our embassy has also been closed for some time, seriously diminishing Canada’s capacity to accommodate people to whom we have a clear responsibility.
When I travelled to Afghanistan in 2011 in the company of then-national defence minister Peter MacKay and then-chief of the defence staff Walter Natynczyk, I was there in my role as chair of the Special Senate Committee on Anti-Terrorism, in part because one of the core reasons for the NATO mission was to sustain an Afghan government seeking to remove Afghanistan from any list of prospective terrorist havens. In our visits to Mazar-i-Sharif, Kandahar, Kabul and bases in the Panjwai district, it became clear to me how complex and demanding Canada’s NATO mission was and how risky and dangerous it was for our soldiers. I saw firsthand how Afghan translators and interpreters saved Canadian lives.
The U.S. has every right to decide when to stay in or withdraw from a battle zone, as does any country. But why they would tire of the Afghanistan mission, when U.S. troops have been in Europe, South Korea and Japan for decades, is unclear. Is Afghanistan an indicator of further U.S. withdrawal from key areas of tension worldwide? With Canada’s national defence and foreign policy highly dependent on U.S. strategic presence, this federal election is a good time for Canadians to reflect on our foreign and defence policy priorities so we can keep such awful crises from ever happening again.
There is no excuse for the party leaders to not address the fallout from this difficult situation. Leaders of all stripes need to be prepared to discuss how their party’s proposed foreign policy would be less affected by potential American caprice and how we might expand the size of our military to ensure our ability to work with European, Asian and other allies on international security, humanitarian relief and, where necessary, combat deterrence of potentially hostile powers such as Russia, China, Iran or North Korea. Are they prepared to address the long-standing issue of Pakistan as a terrorist haven? If any of them hope to be prime minister, Canadians need to know the answers to these questions.
The government has a massive job to do in evacuating Afghan civilians and their families who supported our mission for so many years. Ottawa has had since April, when U.S. President Joe Biden announced he was withdrawing U.S. troops, to prepare for this situation. It is not clear that it has used that time wisely.
The chaos in Afghanistan should overshadow the traditional Canadian election custom of avoiding foreign policy. We deserve clarity on each party’s policy proposals in this election – because Afghanistan tells us that we cannot look away.
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