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Canadian soldiers patrol an area in the Dand district of southern Afghanistan in 2009.Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press

Noah Richler’s books include What We Talk About When We Talk About War, which was a finalist of the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.

And so, defeat.

We can blame, as U.S. President Joe Biden has done, the Afghans – who were not up to it, who apparently never would have been, no matter how long we stayed – and discuss, instead, how our exit was mismanaged. But “exit” is not how most of the rest of the world sees our failure – of intelligence, of strategy, of commitment, of will. No, some will see us as vicarious and unreliable “allies” not to an idea (democracy, human rights) but of our own agenda when it suits. Others will simply see us as routed and, as China and Russia are already doing in this era’s new Cold War, take advantage of our defeat.

Defeat.

Words matter. They direct us, absolve us, revise us.

It does not excuse Canada that, in 2011, we left a concessionary packet of trainers in place and shuffled home early. We are implicated in America and NATO’s failure in Afghanistan, and the Canadian root of a failure we shall be loath to acknowledge lies in an extraordinary moment of boredom and belligerence that burgeoned 20 years ago and ended by completely altering us, undermining the ways in which we used to venture out into more fractious parts of the world. In the wake of 9/11, as Canada’s JTF2 and then the first of some 40,000 Canadian Armed Forces members were committed to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, journalists thrilled at their new beat and the prospect of something new in the news, cheered on our soldiers – our warriors who were, so the story went, finally permitted to actually fight. A coterie of vocal academics applauded the change, egged it on, hearkening back to Vimy and even 1812 to explain this overdue return to an apparently truer version of ourselves. Politicians – those of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, primarily, but also Michael Ignatieff and other Liberals at the time lost in the woods – enabled this change, devised it, by targeting the foundation myth that supported, in the Liberal Party leader’s words, Canada’s “bogus reputation as peacekeepers.”

When, in December, 2001, Canadian troops were deployed, it was this country and not Afghanistan being reconstructed, Canada dissatisfied with what, in the 2000s, was Canada’s barely persisting participation in badly served UN- and NATO-led peace operations. The term “peacekeeping” was swiftly and effectively discredited, an impediment to the new “warrior nation” that had been on hold for as long as Canadians adhered to a Pearsonian idea of Canada exerting “soft power” and the role of “honest broker.” It was pointed out – rightly, though it was a reality that might easily have been remedied – that Canada’s contributions to UN peace operations were so diminished as to be de facto useless. Peacekeeping was an adjunct of the Cold War, we were told (a little prematurely, it turns out), and the Cold War was done. Most efficaciously, Canadians were told that assigning soldiers and police to UN peace operations, in which they were mandated not to fire until fired upon, was to recklessly endanger their lives in futile missions serving only to reinforce the country’s fallacious idea of itself and in which, invariably, there was “no peace to keep.”

Except that foundation myths arise because there is truth in them. If Canada, no longer at the head of an army that, in 1945, included the fourth-largest air force and fifth-largest navy in the world, had inventively turned to soft power and assumed a broker’s role, it was because the country was born out of a history of negotiation necessarily learned in a territory too vast and sparsely populated to administer without mediation, without alliances. We may have broken treaties and abandoned our allies – starting, before the country had taken its modern shape, with Tecumseh – but it is nevertheless a skill Canadians learned. And in the unfinished exercise of home, we are still learning how not to let insurgencies happen, how to stay the malcontent (Quebeckers, Albertans, First Nations, Inuit and Métis) enough for violence not to happen and the fabric of the country to be maintained.

What Canada and the U.S. can learn from the Afghan debacle

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These continuing lessons in the field are the strengths underlying Canada’s effectiveness abroad. We are, at our best, listeners, or aspire to be. And listening is not what the Americans or British historically do, believing in the manifest destiny of their ways and imposing off-the-shelf solutions irrespective of conditions on the ground. (See, here, what colonialism actually is). Critically, our sense of how to be in the world is abstract; it shape-shifts and evolves.

But this vision of ourselves, and the “soft power” to which it inclined us, is complicated and devilishly hard to execute. It demands deftness and concentration and selflessness, and comes without the satisfaction of blazing guns and, after 9/11, we’d had enough of it. We did not need to be persuaded but actually wanted to wage war – to be, instead of ourselves, belligerent.

The vocabulary that was used to delude us into grandiose ideas about our might, and to deflect attention from what have historically been the strengths we offer in the international arena, is of the essence.

When we started in Afghanistan, the peacekeeping story not yet wholly dismantled, our participation was described as necessary to national security and to honour our relationship with the United States. The fate of women, now disgracefully abandoned, was used to justify our having “boots on the ground.” But by 2006, when Taliban resistance was at its peak and Canadian Forces fatalities had started to accumulate, we were told we were fighting a war, and the very idea that we were in Afghanistan “building schools for girls” was mocked. Finally, in order to honourably quit a fight not yet dubbed the “Forever War” – that only now is permissible to describe as unwinnable – we decided it was not a war we were engaged in but a mission. And unlike a war, a mission is neither won nor lost but finishes, the time clock punched and the end result not our concern.

Which happens, it turns out, to have been defeat.

Ours has been a sickening abdication, and we are in no way absolved by the collapse of Afghanistan not having occurred on our watch. What, if anything at all, has been our achievement, and at what cost will it not endure? And how much have we heard, since Canada’s exit, of the soldiers, whom I am in no way disparaging, many now too ill to capably function in a society that has for 10 years been uninterested in their struggle, despite the accolades we accorded ourselves at the time as onlookers championing their fight? We lined the Highway of Heroes and nearly built a memorial in Cape Breton preposterous in size and primitive in its conception, when what Canada is still waiting for is a monument to soldiers still living, to the wounded, the damaged, to victims of PTSD – and suicide.

To answer, we must embark – honestly, scientifically – on comparisons we resist making or hopelessly politicize when we do:

Bosnia: 40,000 Canadians serving from 1991, 23 fatalities, the peace holding.

Cyprus: 25,000 Canadians serving since 1964, 28 fatalities, the mission continuing and the peace holding.

UNC peacekeepers in Korea: 68 years and the armistice still holding.

Canada in Afghanistan: 13 years, 40,000 troops deployed, 158 dead, at least $18-billion spent, the war lost.

But Canada, wanting to sit at the table with the big boys, was in no mood for the work of international policing and the defence of universal rights that the job of the free world’s militaries has become.

We have absconded our expertise and refrained from work that, no matter how imperfectly, we used to consider a responsibility, the duty of our privilege. We have nothing of distinction to contribute, no suggestion or instruction or intelligence to quietly whisper in greater powers’ ears, no brokering to do, no soft power to exert. The net result of the war-fighting we deluded ourselves into believing was a truer reflection of our identity, of what we thought was somehow a better and more worthy self, has culminated in a terrible betrayal of Afghans we declared we were helping, of those who helped us and will be left behind, and of the Canadians who were deployed there.

Instead, we must listen to our Prime Minister fatuously assuring us that he is “working with our allies,” pretending we can “stabilize the situation, protect civilians and put an end to the violence” from 10,000 kilometres away.

The truth is that in refuting the foundation myth that was ours for good reason, we have migrated from soft power to powerlessness, to being meaningless players in a turbulent world that needs the disparaged prior version of us. Shame on us.

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