Our largest failures are usually the ones we are least willing to acknowledge, even to ourselves. And, few failures have been as large as Canada’s misadventure’s in Afghanistan. Which may explain why we never discuss the war. Our national silence says it all.
Over 40,000 Canadian soldiers served in Afghanistan, making it our largest military deployment since the Korean War. We spent $2.2 billion in assistance spending trying to rebuild the country–Canada’s largest aid program in history. And our diplomatic strategy around the world, for the better part of a decade, pivoted on the war, and what it meant to our alliances and bilateral relations.
Afghanistan was not a sideshow—it was the main event for Canada, for over a decade. And yet, we don’t talk about it. Ever.
There are no debates in the newspapers about our legacy. There are no reports on what we spent. No Parliamentary committee has convened to ask if it was worth it. In Ottawa, at least, it is like the war never happened.
There isn’t much talk in the United States either, which is even stranger. Canada effectively gave up in 2014 when we brought our troops home. But American forces are still on the ground. Men who were not even born when the war begun are now deploying to fight it. Last year saw more civilian deaths in Afghanistan, more bombs dropped, and more poppies grown than any time in the last decade. And yet, the war almost never makes it in to the news anymore. I suppose that if the news of setbacks and stalemates is the same year after year, it technically is no longer news.
This week, though, the Washington Post broke what would have been the story of the year in any other year that didn’t include a Donald Trump presidency. The paper published an internal Pentagon report, over 2,000 pages long, that attempted to reach a verdict on the war.
It is a surprisingly honest litany of failed strategies, wasted money and needlessly lost lives. It makes it clear that the allies didn’t know who they were fighting, didn’t know how to fight them, and didn’t know how to build the country it was simultaneously razing. The overarching conclusion, as stated by an American general who acted as the White House’s Afghan war czar under both Bush and Obama, was simply: “We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
I worked in Afghanistan as a diplomat, consultant and NGO worker, on and off for about 12 years, starting a few months after the fall of the Taliban. When I first arrived in Kabul I travelled in local taxis and when I couldn’t find one of those, I walked. Every year after saw the situation deteriorate. By my last trip I was only moving in armored convoys, and slept in what was essentially a bunker. Everyone knew we were losing. But we were all chained to our various projects, and strategic plans and annual budgets—and all of those were predicated on the assumption that things would turn around. They didn’t.
I don’t talk about Afghanistan very often either. In fact, I don’t think I’ve even told my kids about the time I spent there. What do I tell them? I have little to show for my efforts than some dusty body armour, sitting in a closet, that I will hopefully never need to wear again.
In the early days of the Afghan war I used to regularly argue with a British friend who had worked in many of the same places as me, often at the same time. He had come to the conclusion that we are very good at dropping bombs, but we are totally incapable of nation building. I would roll my eyes, talk about the how infant mortality rate had fallen, and point to all the Afghan girls who were now going to school. “Is that why we came?” He’d ask. “If it was, we probably didn’t need to invade for that.”
He was right. Whatever successes we celebrated were always new goals, claimed when it was clear none of the others would be met. Canada originally went to defeat the Taliban, who now travel freely in the regions we once patrolled. When that became elusive, we then talked about ending poppy farming. (2018 saw the biggest crop in a decade.) Then we focused on rebuilding the massive Dahla dam—which is now silted up and useless.
In response to the Pentagon papers, my former boss in what was then the Canadian government’s Afghanistan Task Force, David Mulroney, told the Globe and Mail we are long overdue for our own review. He’s right.
It’s too late for Canada to change the choices we made. And the key politicians and civil servants who took those decisions are mostly gone now. So is the money. We can’t bring back the 158 soldiers and diplomat we lost. Nonetheless, it would still be worth it for us to start talking about Afghanistan again. We can’t change the past, but acknowledging the historic failure, the waste of lives, the entire mess, could be an effective warning for future Canadians, and maybe will keep us out of the next lost war.