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Canadian army soldiers board a CH-47 Chinook helicopter as they leave forward fire base Zangabad in Panjwai district in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, June 18, 2011.

Baz Ratner/Reuters

Ryan Flavelle is the author of The Patrol, and a retired sergeant in the Canadian Armed Forces. He holds a PhD in the history of the Canadian military.

A few weeks ago, I walked along the rail tracks in my Albertan town, chewing on clover. I’m interested in bushcraft these days, and while raw clover in large quantities can cause bloating, a bush snack with a freshly picked apple on a ruminative fall walkabout is delightful.

But my mind was only partly focused on the walk. It was also back there. Back to that September day 20 years ago, when I stared at my television, mouth agape, fresh off reservist basic training and on my way to Grade 12, watching my world change forever. Back to when I first saw endless vistas of mud huts with Afghanistan’s jagged mountains looming. Back to when the sun would rise over kids and camels and jihad; to Kandahar; to the heartbreaking beauty of the poppies coming into bloom, and the jarring hate in the eyes of the men harvesting them, who now govern the country.

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We did not lose the war, we soldiers who were there in Afghanistan. But saying that is to cover up a nearly indigestible truth, of which there have been so many – namely, that we did lose the war.

I recently reconnected with friends who had also deployed to Afghanistan, to mull that contradiction over together. Most of these men and women said some variation of the same thing. We held the line till the next guy showed up; we did our jobs. Many that I spoke to could add it to a list of messy missions that they had deployed on – Bosnia, Lebanon, Rwanda and now Afghanistan. Some had long ago learned to compartmentalize, to become jaded to a world constantly in the process of moving away from caring. We discussed the spectacular failure of the withdrawal, and the mind-boggling scale of the equipment the Afghan National Army (ANA) turned over.

Those guys staring hate at us across the opium fields only had to wait 20 years until we left. Strategically, the moment the tide started turning might have been when the Canadians began a staged withdrawal from the string of outposts along the Horn of Panjwai. In July, 2008, I watched as we tore down the outpost in Talukan. Later tours pulled out of our remaining positions on the horn: in Mushan, Zangabad and Haji Beach. The Americans never returned to Mushan, even during the surge of 2009-10 where they only operated north of the Arghandab river in Zhari, basically abandoning the area to the enemy. In 2011, meanwhile, Zangabad was turned over to the American 3rd Special Forces Group; in 2012, a lone American soldier massacred 16 civilians in the village.

Ever since the fall of Kabul, Afghans seeking help have contacted me through my book’s Facebook page. Their profile pictures depict them in halcyon days – ensconced in their offices at a government school, presenting at an economic conference, standing proudly to attention with their buddies in the ANA, or hugging their smiling children. But their situation is now a living nightmare. The Canadian government has yet to respond to my e-mails, or theirs. The people who contacted me are not high in the queue. They are not Canadian citizens or permanent residents. They also do not neatly fit the government’s list of “particularly vulnerable groups” as they are not “women leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, persecuted religious minorities, [or] LGBTI individuals.” It seems kind of tragic to sift by category through the mass of those desperately trying to escape death.

But it’s not like the Canadian government ever went too far out of its way for the people of Afghanistan, politically. Even in 2008, it was quickly becoming anathema to Stephen Harper’s government to put troops in harm’s way. Just before I left for Panjwai, I had watched the presentation of the Manley Commission’s report on CBC News, sitting at breakfast in the Shilo mess (a blueberry bagel with strawberry cream cheese jumps to my mind’s tongue). It was then that I knew the combat mission would have an end date, which did not bode well for our success.

As I’ve watched the tragedy unfold, I have, by established habit, sought peace in the bush and in my garden – but it is still hard to come to terms with. The Afghan people and their allies lost a war, and I can only hope against hope for those who call me “brother” and thank me “for my benefaction” in Facebook messages, while I send e-mails into the bureaucratic ether. Salaam alaikum: May peace be upon them. Inshallah.

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Editor’s note: (Sept. 14, 2021): A previous version incorrectly stated that U.S. troops never returned to Zangabad after the Canadian military withdrew from their outpost.

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