After 12 years, and 158 Canadian lives lost, the Canadian flag was lowered at the NATO International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul.
It was a symbolic endpoint for Canada’s contribution to one of the longest, bloodiest military operations the country has ever faced.
“It was a deeply emotional moment,” then Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement in 2014, when he was presented with the Canadian flag that had flown in the Afghan capital. “It reminded me of the blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice that Canadians had endured to make Afghanistan a better place; a place where a little girl could go to school, a place where a mother might have medicine for her child, and a place where a woman could vote.”
Even as Canada and other NATO countries wound down their operations for good, there was an undercurrent of optimism. The Prime Minister underscored how “the Afghan security forces were built-up to defend their country” against the scourge of the Taliban.
Those statements seem abundantly naive today.
The United States’ withdrew completely in July, leaving behind a fractious political situation and a security nightmare, with a weary acknowledgement from President Joe Biden that “our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly unclear.”
When America left, two decades of promises and optimism around the Afghan security forces and central government in Kabul disintegrated.
One-by-one, major cities came under Taliban control, as pro-government fighters laid down their arms or fled. President Ashraf Ghani fled. Horrific images and stories emerged from across the country of summary executions, women turned away from their universities, and the fearful streaming into Kabul in hopes of catching the last helicopter out.
Kandahar, where Canada concentrated most of its efforts over the course of the war, was one of the first major cities to fall.
It is a stunning failure for Western nation-building. It is vindication of those who warned, for years, that Western nations can not remake a country in their image.
And it comes at the very beginning of a sleepy summer election where we should be pressing our leaders for clarity as to whether they would ever again commit to a war like Afghanistan.
So I put the question to our major parties and leaders: Have we learned anything?
In recent days, leader Justin Trudeau has been hammered on questions about his government’s effort to evacuate those most at risk from the new Taliban regime, especially those who worked so hard on Canada’s idealist mission.
It was, after all, a Liberal government which first committed to sending tens of thousands of troops to the war.
When I asked Trudeau, at an event on Monday, to opine on the history of the Canadian operation, and whether he would ever lead the country into a similar mission, he demurred.
“I think a lot of Canadians are deeply dismayed to see the pace at which the hard work by Canadians and, indeed, by countries across the West—to stabilize, to make a real difference for the people of Afghanistan over these past 20 years—have been undone, or at least put under severe threat,” Trudeau said.
He highlighted the undeniable benefits that many in Afghanistan have seen over the past two decades, particularly when it comes to the rights of women and girls. “The work Canada did made a huge difference,” he said.
“We also need to remain committed to creating greater opportunity, prosperity and protections of human rights for everywhere around the world, but certainly there’s a lot of reflections many, many countries will be having about the best way to do that going forward given events in Afghanistan.”
It’s a rorschach blot of a statement: Simultaneously contrite over a war that claimed some 70,000 civilian lives and produced a state that collapsed at its first test, and committed to the exact kind of language that launched the invasion in the first place and justified its 20-year run.
The evidence of the lessons learned is in Trudeau’s actions. For the past six years, Canada has been allergic to any operation that might go hot. From his decision to end a bombing campaign in Syria immediately upon taking off to his unwillingness to send Canadian assets to secure the Kabul airport just this week, Trudeau has a total aversion to conflict.
“Trudeau doesn’t care,” says Steve Saideman, Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton. “Or, he doesn’t care enough to expend anything.”
Saideman points to Canada’s contribution to the peacekeeping mission in Mali: “Trudeau made a lot of promises in 2015, that he’d bring us back to peacekeeping,” he says. “And then he sent [defence minister Harjit] Sajjan to wander around Africa, looking for an easy mission.”
They didn’t find an easy mission, but they did find a conflict in Mali, where the United Nations was begging for contributions.
The Trudeau government agreed to send hundreds of soldiers and an array of aircraft to the city of Gao. The mission, however, was strictly limited to medical evacuations of other nations’ soldiers—something that wasn’t even, apparently, needed, as a private Swiss company became the go-to medevac choice of the UN.
After a year, Canada left, even amid calls for its troops to stay and do more.
Trudeau constantly trumpeted his government’s expanded training mission in Iraq, to fight the Islamic State—yet when the situation there got hairy, after the United States assassinated Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, Canada pulled out.
On the Sinai Peninsula, there are 55 Canadian Forces personnel there to provide logistics and do military policing. Then there are operations in Ukraine and Latvia to train and prepare our allies in the face of Russian aggression. Beyond that, there are a few training missions, some strategic lift operations, some naval patrols, and not much else.
For a government that loudly proclaimed that “Canada is back,” professes a belief in the Responsibility to Protect, and drapes itself in the legacy of Canadian peacekeeping: It’s an anemic contribution to global security.
Trying to figure out what, exactly, Erin O’Toole believes about Canada’s place in the world is a difficult job.
O’Toole is, himself, a Canadian Forces veteran, having been a navigator aboard Sea King helicopters for coastal surveillance and search-and-rescue operations.
He has pressed for a firmer timeline to evacuate the Afghans who supported the Canadian mission, and indicated he would not recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government were he to win, but on the question of what he would do if faced with a similar mission in the future: He wouldn’t say.
I attempted to ask O’Toole what his position on a future state-building mission would look like, but was blocked from asking questions at a campaign event last Sunday. A request for a statement or an interview was similarly turned down. A campaign manager for Alex Ruff, a retired colonel in the Canadian Armed Forces who served in Afghanistan and who is now seeking re-election in Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, declined to make the candidate available for an interview.
It was the Conservative Party that most aggressively supported not just the Afghan mission, but the American-led invasion of Iraq. It was a Conservative government that sent Canadian fighter jets into Libya in order to protect anti-regime fighters and to, ultimately, unseat dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Over nearly a decade, Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried to project an image of Canada that was ready to contribute and increase security abroad. But that didn’t mean a commitment to occupation or prolonged missions—indeed, the NATO operation in Libya seemed to be a rejection of the idea that the West has an obligation to rebuild a country in its own image after bombing it. Canada’s fighter jets pummeled Libyan government positions, clearing the way for a transitional government.
By the time the transitional government fell in 2012, Canada (and the rest of the West) was long gone. Since then, the state has devolved into waves of civil war. Today, Tripoli is under siege by a brutal warlord and Qaddafi’s son seems poised to mount a popular bid to take over the struggling North African country. Libya showcases how quick operations may be less costly, but can often result in equally messy outcomes as even the worst quagmires.
Summing up two decades of Conservative military policy, it’s hard to see many patterns beyond a desire to join conflicts when they begin. It was a Conservative government, after all, that pulled Canada out of Afghanistan, resisting the urge to stay and continue its nation-building mandate.
Parsing the Conservative platform for signs of their interventionist philosophy is hardly illuminating.
The document contains plenty of tough talk—like “Canada’s foreign policy is more important now than it has been in a generation. How our national leaders advance and defend the interests and values of Canada is no longer something we can ignore or take for granted”—yet offers little in the way of specifics.
Certainly, O’Toole has grand diplomatic goals: Confronting and isolating autocratic regimes like China, Iran, and Russia; forging new alliances and ties throughout the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific; and expanding military procurement to beef up the Canadian Armed Forces. (Some of it is incoherent, like a pledge to step up Canada’s contribution to a NATO deployment in Latvia—which is not for need nor want of additional Canadian troops.)
But nothing in the document offers any kind of direction of how O’Toole would handle a request for peacekeepers in a volatile region, or when it would participate in kinetic military operations.
“The problem is that they really haven’t talked enough about it,” says Saideman, who also leads the Canadian Defence and Security Network. “You know, they criticize the government’s choices, but they don’t really have a vision.”
For a party that could well form government in September, the murkiness of their position should be worrying.
The New Democratic Party caught a significant amount of flack over the past 20 years for saying things that were, in the end, incredibly prescient.
In October 2001, then-NDP leader Alexa McDonough slammed the early days of war. “Military strikes against Afghani [sic] cities and Afghani [sic] citizens will not make New York, or Montreal or Ottawa safe from terrorist attacks,” she said. (Worth noting: Citizens of Afghanistan are Afghans; an Afghani currently trades at $0.016CAD.)
Her successor, Jack Layton, was pummeled for arguing that the mission “doesn’t have a light at the end of the tunnel” and for suggesting that NATO and Canada ought to negotiate with the Taliban for an end to the fighting. For those suggestions, he earned the title ‘Taliban Jack.’
Whatever foresight the party had then, the NDP hasn’t been altogether consistent since. It voted in favour of the 2011 mission in Libya, only to pull its support shortly thereafter. (Although Layton’s initial endorsement did call on the government to “draw a lesson from the war in Afghanistan and give parliamentarians a surveillance and oversight role.”)
When it came to Syria, as autocrat Bashar al-Assad launched horrifying chemical weapons attacks on civilians, the NDP decried airstrikes that hobbled Damascus’ ability to carry out massacres. “It is not clear what the impact of these missile strikes will be on the conflict,” a blithe NDP statement read.
As is often the case, the NDP has oft demanded that military operations be run through the United Nations—a farcical request of a security council that offers veto power to Russia and China, two governments often responsible for fuelling conflict.
In rhetoric, the New Democrats often contrast the Liberals’ nice words with a lack of action, positioning themselves as the true progressive champions. Right there in their platform is a commitment to “ensure that funding supports our national defence and international commitments, with a renewed priority of advancing multilateral peacekeeping initiatives around the world.”
While the NDP promised to provide a statement outlining what lessons their party learned from Afghanistan, and how it would approach military engagements in the future, it ultimately did not.
Saideman says the NDP’s chiding of the Liberal record from the left may be compelling, but the party is often just as vague about its strategic aims abroad. “If Singh were in power, I can’t imagine him sending troops into harm’s way in any real kind of way,” Saideman says. The NDP leader would more likely be in favour of peacekeeping more “gentle places”—defeating the very point of peacekeeping.
Canada the Pacifist?
Looking at the state of affairs on the campaign trail, it’s not hard to see that the major party leaders have taken some harsh lessons from Afghanistan, and Canada’s other forays into international peacekeeping, state-building, and counter-terrorism.
At that lesson has been to avoid risk at all costs.
That may be a reflection of the mood of the public. Few citizens in the West are clamouring for the kind of open-ended military engagements of the past. The words ‘regime change’ and ‘nation building’ have become pejoratives, while the phrase ‘forever wars’ has joined our political lexicon—many would argue that President Donald Trump clinched victory on a pledge to never again entangle America abroad.
Trump’s vague rhetoric belied a nevertheless bellicose foreign policy of aggressive, and unchecked, foreign bombing campaigns and knee-jerk decision-making.
For a thousand reasons, it’s worth continuing to press these leaders for clarity on their position. Because it’s one thing to, as Trudeau did, pledge reflection and introspection. It’s quite another to say no to an ally in need of military assistance, or decline an invitation to launch airstrikes against a genocidal regime.
If, or maybe more accurately when, we get there, it would be nice to have a government which has already elucidated the principles which govern its engagement.
Will Canada put boots on the ground? Will it topple one government in favour of another? Will it stay behind to do counter-insurgency? Will its peacekeeping forces do patrols, or will they stay inside the wire?
Of course, it’s possible that we will continue to muddle along at the pace of status quo, engaging only in foreign conflicts where there’s little conflict to be found—or, at least, where we deploy far afield from it. Interventionist enough to reinforce a notion of Canada as a force for good, but pacifistic enough to delineate ourselves from the Americans, and isolationist enough to offend nobody.
“Canadians still want to be a country that makes a difference,” Saideman says. “They still want to do peacekeeping. They just don’t want it to hurt and they don’t want to pay for it.”
That may be the real political consensus on the campaign trail.