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Our soldiers spent 13 years in a war against the Taliban that never seemed to end. Now, its end could be near, and Canadians don’t care. When will this country finally have a reckoning on the Afghan mission?

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Kandahar, 2006: Canadian soldiers walk toward rugged terrain. Canada took part in NATO's Afghanistan mission for 13 years before bringing all soldiers home in by Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Andrew Potter is an associate professor with the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.

Nothing better exemplifies Canada’s entire approach to the war in Afghanistan than the complete indifference with which we have greeted the conflict’s end.

Afghanistan was the main event in Canada’s response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. We spent the better part of 13 years involved in a succession of missions devoted to fighting terrorists, stabilizing the government and rebuilding the Afghan state. The core of it was the Canadian Armed Forces deployment to Kandahar from 2006 to 2011, an ambitious “whole of government” exercise that also became our most significant combat mission since the Korean War.

By the time we left, 158 soldiers had been killed, along with one diplomat and a journalist, with 2,500 injured and a total cost of approximately $18-billion.

And now that the war is on the brink of finally coming to a close, Canadians could not care less.

This shouldn’t be all that surprising.

When Canada pulled out of Afghanistan for good in 2014, the Taliban insurgency was gaining strength, our reconstruction and development benchmarks were largely unmet, and the Afghan government’s position was still precarious. But prime minister Stephen Harper had read the mood of the country, and the country wanted out. And so Canada followed the Dutch out the door, and now we are one of the very few member countries not involved in the current North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led training mission.

Since then, we have studiously ignored the place and declined to talk about what we did there. A long-promised public memorial remains unbuilt, while the Liberal government tries to scrub any residual memories of the mission away with nostalgia-soaked talk of our great peacekeeping traditions.

But with peace in the offing, our national shrug-emoji routine may be coming to an end. There have been three significant developments on the Afghan file over the past few months, and one consequence of it all is that Canada may finally be forced to shine a light into the closet labelled “Afghan mission.” We may not like what we find.

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Kandahar Airfield, 2010: Pallbearers carry the caskets of four Canadian soldiers and a journalist killed in a roadside bomb: Sergeant George Miok, Corporal Zachery McCormack, Sergeant Kirk Taylor, Private Garrett Chidley and Michelle Lang of the Calgary Herald. Over all, the Afghan mission would kill 158 Canadian soldiers, as well as Ms. Lang and diplomat Glyn Berry.Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

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Canadian Forces Base Trenton, 2014: MP Rick Norlock and Brigader-General J.B. Simms shake hands with one of the last groups of Canadian soldiers to return from Afghanistan. When prime minister Stephen Harper brought all soldiers home, the Taliban was gaining strength and the Afghan government on shaky ground.Lars Hagberg/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

The most significant move is the peace deal the United States has signed with the Taliban insurgency, which was announced at the beginning of March. It is a shocking development, if only because it seemed like it would never happen. Talks to bring the war to an end have been going on for a year and a half, but when U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly cancelled a Camp David meeting with the Taliban leadership last September and both sides cheerfully went back to killing one another, it genuinely seemed like “the Forever War” really was going to last for generations.

It is shocking in a more direct way, though: namely, the terms of the agreement. So far, the negotiations have been entirely between the Taliban and the Americans, and what the deal boils down to is that the Americans have promised to leave, and the Taliban have promised to behave.

More specifically, the U.S. and the allies will withdraw all of their 13,000 or so military and civilian personnel within 14 months, getting that number down to 8,600 within 135 days. In exchange, the Taliban agree to sever all ties with terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and promise not to let Afghanistan serve as a base of operations for attacks on the United States. As a confidence-building measure, a prisoner swap has been agreed to, with the government of Afghanistan agreeing to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 members of the Afghan security forces currently held by the Taliban.

After this will come intra-Afghan talks between the government, the Taliban and others. There is a lot on the table, including the implementation of a long-term ceasefire, the status of women’s rights and the ultimate role of the Taliban in Afghanistan’s politics. These talks will be held in Oslo and are supposed to begin sometime in March. But one possible hitch is that it’s not entirely clear at the moment who is actually in charge of the Afghan government. Both the incumbent, Ashraf Ghani, and his rival Abdullah Abdullah are claiming victory in last year’s presidential election, and last week they held parallel swearing-in ceremonies that Afghan television stations broadcast side by side.

The peace agreement has not been well-received by the global security commentariat in the United States, with “betrayal” and “capitulation” showing up as a recurring theme. Writing in Time, the Iraq war veteran turned columnist David French described the deal as a “disgrace” that will diminish the United States’ allies and strengthen its enemies. A bit more mildly, the University of Notre Dame professor Madhav Joshi, an expert on post-civil-war peace accords, noted that the agreement has a number of elements “that do not conform to patterns of successful peacemaking.” Most significantly, he points out that no successful peace agreement has ever started with the withdrawal of foreign forces, since it involves giving up the only leverage you have.

But even if we set aside the fact that this deal is almost certainly one that could have been struck at any time since 2002, and if we try not to think about Mr. Trump’s recent comment that the Taliban could “possibly” come back and seize power, we are left with the disturbing realization that this is the best deal the allies could get at this time. From this, it is a short hop to the conclusion that 18 years of occupation of Afghanistan, first by the U.S. and then by NATO, have only made things worse. Far from working to solve Afghanistan’s problems, there’s every indication we’ve actually been creating them.

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Afghanistan's Laghman province, March 2, 2020: Taliban militants and villagers celebrate the militant group's peace deal with the United States. The deal included a promise to sever ties with terrorist groups and promise not to make Afghanistan a base for attacks on the United States. In exchange, U.S. and allied troops would withdraw within 14 months.NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP via Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

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Kabul, March 9, 2020: Afghanistan's rival presidential claimants, incumbent Ashraf Ghani and challenger Abdullah Abdullah, celebrate after their separate swearing-in ceremonies. The disputed election has sown doubt about who, if anyone, is in control of the peace process with the Taliban and Americans.Rahmat Gul/AP; Afghanistan's Office of former Chief Executive/AFP/Getty Images/Rahmat Gul/AP; Afghanistan's Office of former Chief Executive/AFP/Getty Images

There is a standard narrative about the war that goes something like this:

After the Americans and their Afghan allies in the Northern Alliance routed the Taliban from power after 9/11, the remnant Taliban leadership fled to Pakistan to lick their wounds and regroup. Afghanistan itself was stable and well on the way to democratization, but in 2003 the U.S. took its eye off the ball when it invaded Iraq. This created a power and resource vacuum in Afghanistan, and gave the Taliban the opening they were looking for. The Pakistanis, looking to destabilize the Afghan state, funded an insurgency that stepped into the vacuum and brought the Taliban back as part of a terrorist jihad against the infidel invaders.

For going on 15 years, NATO has been paying the price for that original lapse of attention, as the insurgency has steadily gained in strength and taken control of a growing chunk of the country. But the essence of the conflict hasn’t changed: the war is a battle between a legitimate and democratic Afghan state on the one side, and an Islamic terrorist organization on the other.

There is a different version of the story, though, that isn’t quite so clean. According to this alternative history (which can be found in the work of the researcher and journalist Anand Gopal, as well as the work of former Globe and Mail reporter Graeme Smith), by early 2002 many senior members of the old Taliban government were willing to accept the U.S.-backed regime as legitimate. They were willing to surrender their weapons and stay out of politics in exchange for amnesty or just being left alone.

But the U.S. was out for revenge and in no mood to bargain, so it rejected the overtures of reconciliation and refused amnesty. The Americans installed a highly centralized government in Kabul that basically empowered Hamid Karzai’s Popalzai at the expense of the other tribes, created a hugely corrupt and predatory police force, and started pouring enormous amounts of money into the country as they hunted for terrorists. This generated a cutthroat competition between tribes, warlords and other power brokers for contracts and political favour, which in turn led to gangsterism, predation and score settling, where people realized they could just rat out the competition as “Taliban” and the Americans would oblige by raiding their compounds and killing or arresting them.

As Mr. Gopal put it in his book No Good Men Among the Living, “the state became criminalized, one of the most corrupt in the world, as thoroughly depraved as the warlords it sought to outflank.” Forget good against evil; whether they intended to or not, the Americans effectively transformed Afghanistan into a survival state, The Hunger Games writ large, where refusing to take sides wasn’t an option. The Taliban that came back as a Pakistan proxy wasn’t an ideological political movement. Instead, the “insurgency” was made up of people who simply had nothing to lose.

It may be an open question which of these is the more accurate account of what has gone on over the past 18 years. But thanks to the Afghanistan Papers, we at least know which version the most senior people in charge of prosecuting the war accept as closer to the truth.

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Kabul, 2006: George W. Bush and Hamid Karzai, then the presidents of the United States and Afghanistan, prepare for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting at a new U.S. embassy in the Afghan capital, as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stands behind them. The Afghanistan Papers, a classified government review of the Afghan war, chronicled ways in which the Bush administration systematically misled Americans about the conflict.Charles Dharapak/The Associated Press/The Associated Press

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Bagram Air Field, 2016 and 2019: Mr. Bush's successors, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, visit U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan Papers review also criticized the Obama administration for a doomed plan to contain the Taliban that depended on unrealistic deadlines and the help of a corrupt Afghan government. Mr. Obama wanted U.S. troops withdrawn from the country before the end of his presidency, but they remained there when Donald Trump came to power.Doug Mills and Erin Schaff/The New York Times/The New York Times

The Afghanistan Papers are a set of classified documents based on internal memos and lessons-learned interviews with high-level officials involved in the Afghanistan war. The interviews were conducted by the Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a congressional office tasked with overseeing spending on reconstruction in Afghanistan. The documents, some 2,000 pages in all, were released to The Washington Post after a three-year access-to-information campaign by the paper, which published them in early December.

Like the Pentagon Papers (on which the Post’s reporting and presentation of the documents is clearly modelled), the big take-away from the Afghanistan Papers is that the American people were systematically lied to about the war. Plenty of highly placed people knew the war was going badly, knew they were failing on multiple fronts and continued to present a positive picture of things while torquing their metrics to support the lies.

But in many ways, the lies are the least of it. The papers also reveal breathtaking levels of ignorance about the country, its history and its people, and about the Taliban – an ignorance that continued for years. One of the early documents in the file is a memo from former U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld in which he admits, “I have no visibility into who the bad guys are.”

Finally, not only was the whole operation a fiasco, but many of the interviews show that officials knew early on that the allies’ very activities were creating the gong show. As Bob Crowley, an Army colonel and counterinsurgency adviser, told his interviewers: “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right, and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”

That is just another way of saying that the occupation wasn’t the solution to the insurgency; it was the cause of it.

And sitting at the core of this dynamic was corruption. If there is one theme that dominates the interviews, it’s how corruption was fuelled by the ridiculous amount of foreign money that was flowing into, and being spread around, the country.

“Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption," said Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Michael Flynn, the disgraced general and former director of intelligence for Joint Special Operations Command from July, 2004 until June, 2007, said in his interview that “the international coalition was also corrupt and also saw the U.S. money coming in and took advantage of it. Don’t think it was just the Afghans.”

There aren’t many direct mentions or references to Canada or its activities in the papers, and those that are there tend to be relatively benign. In one very early mention of Canada’s JTF2 special operations forces, who were involved in the hunt for al-Qaeda in late 2001 and 2002, a Pentagon official says: “The Canucks are quite likely the deadliest bunch in town, but also the friendliest. They’ll ring up Pizza Hut in Dubai and have their resupply flight haul in 100 deep-dish pies to share with their pizza-starved allies.”

But over all, it is hard to avoid the sense that the corruption that ate away at the entire NATO effort was something in which Canada was inevitably implicated. In a 2016 interview, Naval Postgraduate School professor Thomas Johnson was full of praise for the Canadian effort. But he also noted that when “USAID and others would give money to build community centres or schools to contractors” in Kandahar, the security situation was so bleak that the funders couldn’t go look at the results of their funding on their own. But some Afghans had Polaroid pictures of finished schools that they would show, and the allies would look at a picture and go, “Oh good, there it is. It’s finished.”

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Victoria, 2017: A military member leaves a poppy on B.C.'s newly dedicated Afghanistan memorial, an 18,000-pound slab of granite.Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

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Ottawa, 2019: A toy soldier, placed by the daughter of Private David Robert James Byers, adorns his plaque on the Kandahar cenotaph in the Afghanistan Memorial Hall at National Defence Headquarters. A larger monument to the Afghan mission is planned near the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, but it hasn't been built yet.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

Like pretty much everything else that concerns the war, Canadians greeted the release of the Afghanistan Papers with little more than a shrug. There were a handful of obligatory news stories and a few tut-tutting opinion pieces, and David Mulroney, who headed up the Afghanistan Task Force in the Privy Council Office, came out and said that Canada was long overdue for some sort of public lessons-learned review of its own. But otherwise there was no anger or concern or widespread demand for accountability, and the government was happy to ignore Mr. Mulroney. It was the retired general and former Liberal MP Andrew Leslie who probably captured the country’s mood best, when he told The Globe and Mail that he had seen too many ramp ceremonies for dead Canadian soldiers to believe the mission was a failure.

So there’s almost certainly no desire in Canada to revisit the war, to ask hard questions about what we did, why we did it and whether the price we paid was worth it. But as things are shaping up, Canada may be headed for a reckoning over Afghanistan whether we like it or not.

On March 5, just days after the announcement of the peace deal, the International Criminal Court authorized an investigation into possible war crimes in Afghanistan by the Taliban, Afghan government security forces and agents of the United States. The decision overturns an earlier pretrial panel that rejected an investigation on the grounds that its chances of success were so low.

The U.S. is not a member of the ICC, but Afghanistan is, and the court has jurisdiction over possible crimes committed both by and on the territory of its member states. The ruling has outraged the Americans, but there’s not much they can do beyond refusing to co-operate. Regardless, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda appears set for a lengthy inquiry into alleged crimes committed between 2003 and 2014. This includes Taliban atrocities, but it will also investigate allegations of torture of detainees by the Afghanistan government, and by the U.S. military and the CIA.

As fate would have it, the question of the torture of detainees turned over by Canadians to the Afghan authorities was one of the few issues surrounding the war that got Canadians riled up. The “detainees scandal” dominated newspaper headlines and the business of Parliament for almost three years at the height of the Kandahar mission between 2007 and 2010. And while there is no question of the ICC laying charges against any Canadian officials, there is every possibility that they may be called to testify, with consequences that can only be guessed at.

Fate leads the willing and drags the unwilling. As much as we may be reluctant to have a reckoning of our mission in Afghanistan, it’s possible that Afghanistan is not done with Canada yet.

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Murray Brewste/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

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