Is history repeating itself in Syria and Iraq? Has Canada learned the lessons of Afghanistan and applied them to its new military mission? Or are we about to repeat the same cycle of caution, bravado, overconfidence, distraction, failure, delusion, doubling down, deception, redefinition, amnesia and retreat?
It's hard to tell, for the tough lessons of our four consecutive Afghanistan missions are still not really acknowledged by Canada or its military. Other countries are more transparent about this: The U.S. Army has an entire Center for Army Lessons Learned, headquartered at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., that openly publishes harsh assessments of every battlefield misstep and epiphany.
Canada is, to put it mildly, more circumspect. Despite expending a decade, 158 lives and more than $20-billion on a war whose outcomes and results were a matter of constant deception, Ottawa does not want to examine the experience publicly. As the fourth mission was ending in 2011, the Harper government's Privy Council Office organized a "formal lessons learned exercise to determine what went right and wrong," according to Carleton University political scientist Stephen Saideman.
Countless officials at every level of military and political office were interviewed, a formal report was drafted – and then it was promptly "buried in a cabinet drawer" and kept secret, not only from citizens and media, but from any military and political officials who might benefit from reading and applying those lessons. It appears to be permanently buried: Mr. Saideman's recent request to obtain the report under the Access to Information Act was refused.
We're left to pick and choose our lessons. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his party appear to have taken the lesson that we should not engage either in air strikes – with their high risk of civilian deaths (even though air strikes were the basis of our one clear coalition success, in Kosovo and Serbia in 1999) – or in the sort of counterinsurgency campaign that turned Kandahar into a lengthy and expensive effort in ineffective frustration.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, an Afghanistan veteran, finally got specific this week about what we are actually planning on doing in this new conflict – and his caution and hesitancy implied another lesson learned. He told the Senate that Canada is not really "at war," despite having 830 troops holding weapons on the front lines there, arguing that applying that phrase to anything less than the full-scale mobilization of the World Wars is to devalue the term. But he did say, persuasively, that Canada should not be there unless it can participate "full-spectrum" as part of a coalition fight, involving front-line training, air support, logistics and intelligence operations, and the secret violence of special operations troops currently engaged there.
One crucial lesson, pointed out in Mr. Saideman's new book Adapting in the Dust: Lessons Learned from Canada's War in Afghanistan, is that Canada, as with most countries, tends to enter wars for the wrong reason, at the wrong time, and then tries to find a purpose and something that could be called a success.
If we were operating on purely moral grounds, we would have launched a military operation in Syria in 2011, when Bashar al-Assad brutally crushed a mass democracy uprising and then launched, with support from Russia and Iran, a truly horrific war against his people; in Afghanistan in about 1998, when the Taliban's theocratic horrors became apparent; and in Yugoslavia in perhaps 1990, when Slobodan Milosevic's genocidal intent was apparent but not yet active.
But we enter other people's wars, for self-interested reasons, long after they've become too complicated to win easily. And this often means shifting focus. We entered Afghansitan only because the Taliban came to Harbour an Arab jihadi group that launched spectacular attacks against a NATO ally, the United States; after successfully ousting Al Qaeda, we ended up having to strike deals with elements of the Taliban to maintain any stability we had helped create in Afghanistan. We only entered Syria and Iraq after Assad's civil war had caused the group that calls itself Islamic State to begin attacking the West (and after the war had produced a terrible refugee exodus). In order to maintain the very awkward coalition fighting the IS extremists, we may have to leave President Bashar al-Assad in power for a while longer, rather than defeating him immediately.
Another lesson is that this is about us. Mr. Saideman concludes that Afghanistan could be called a success under its own terms, despite the ruin that is Afghanistan today, because among its goals were creating a more competent, qualified, fighting image for our military (accomplished) and showing a high level of support for NATO (accomplished).
But that should not be a lesson we take to Syria and Iraq. We should be there to prevent the worst from occurring, not to try to put ourselves in the best possible light.