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A Canadian Forces CC-177 Globemaster transport plane carrying the first group of Afghan refugees who supported Canada’s mission in Afghanistan arrives at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Mississauga, Ontario on Aug. 4, 2021.CPL RACHAEL ALLEN/DND/Reuters

The United States arguably hasn’t lost a war, meaning a real military defeat and not just withdrawal, since it invaded Canada in 1812. But it hasn’t won a peace – defined as the establishment of a stable, successful, postwar society – since South Korea, nearly 70 years ago.

That’s because military power, no matter how advanced the weapons or how good the cause, cannot build anything. Just as a wrecking ball can make space for something new, so war can, sometimes, set the stage for a better future. But military force, by itself, can no more create a functioning society than a demolition crew can erect a skyscraper.

Twenty years ago, the Taliban government that sheltered al-Qaeda was overthrown. The old regime having been removed by overwhelming force, the U.S. and its allies, Canada not least among them, found themselves trying to figure out what to replace it with, and how.

Washington spent US$2.2-trillion on the exercise, and the allies spent tens of billions of dollars more. Yet with each passing year, success receded ever further into the distance. Why? The answer, like so much in Afghanistan, was elusive.

So the focus remained on military tactics rather than political strategy. Western troops and advisers rotated in for a few months, drank their three cups of tea, tried to understand the place on the other side of the blast walls, and then rotated out.

The last two decades in Afghanistan were like Lost in Translation meets Groundhog Day. Minus the laughs.

The end followed the script. It seems like only days ago – wait, it was only days ago – that U.S. President Joe Biden was saying the Afghan security forces were more numerous than the Taliban, and had more modern weapons such as planes, so surely they could resist without American boots on the ground and birds in the air.

On paper, it was true. Yet once the U.S. confirmed that the Afghans really were on their own, a kind of contagious loss of confidence seemed to sweep the country. Provincial capital after provincial capital fell, almost overnight, many with little or no fighting. It wasn’t long before the Taliban were taking selfies inside the presidential palace, which was handed over without a shot.

As happened time and again over two decades, Western governments learned that, no matter how many spy satellites and drones may have been watching the country, they didn’t really know what was going on.

Among the governments caught off guard was the one in Ottawa.

Canada had spent months ignoring the mounting danger to Afghans who had worked with Canadian diplomats and troops; Ottawa only recently began to seriously plan to bring them to Canada. The plan, however, assumed no need to move any faster than the speed of bureaucracy. The abrupt fall of Kabul has left many of our former allies stuck in Afghanistan, in grave danger.

As for Ottawa’s pledge to take in 20,000 Afghan refugees, announced just before the election call, it’s the right move. But once again, the situation in Afghanistan is such that actually escaping from the country will be, for many, difficult or impossible.

The chief victims of this week’s tragedy, and of the past 20 years, are the Afghan people. Like most human beings not lucky enough to live in a place such as Canada, they were presented with a menu of terrible choices: the incompetence and corruption of the government that has now fallen, or the Taliban’s theocratic terror state.

It’s important to remember that tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police died fighting the Taliban; their losses far exceed those of Western troops. Millions of Afghans feared the return of Taliban rule, which is why the world could see another mass exodus of refugees.

If even a small amount of U.S. military support had continued, particularly air support, things likely would have turned out differently. The Taliban could have taken some provinces, but not all, and nowhere near as quickly. The regime’s spine might have stiffened, and the confidence of those who oppose the Taliban with it.

But that’s history now. For Canada and the world, this is now a rescue mission. Ottawa’s task in the coming days is to move heaven and earth to secure the escape of those Afghans who worked with and for Canada. And beyond that: Prepare for the coming refugee crisis.

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