Reflections on the country’s
role in Afghanistan 10 years
after it left

Over the course of three Canadian army tours in their parched and war-ravaged homeland, Alex Watson came to know and respect the long-suffering Afghan people for their courage, resilience, devotion and unfailing courtesy.

As a CiMiC (civilian-military co-operation) officer, Watson became intimately acquainted with the citizens and culture Canadian troops were sent to protect.

Ten years after Canada withdrew its troops from Afghanistan, with the country now in the hands of the Taliban and 20 years of progressive reforms gone in a virtual instant, Watson’s reflections over a series of interviews are poignant reminders of the conflicting legacies left by Canada’s longest war.

In Kandahar in 2002, he was a young captain with the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Battle Group. He was among the first Canadians charged with the task of reaching out to Afghan villagers, fostering trust and cultivating a network of informal allies, not to mention alert eyes
and ears.

The relationships he developed were unique.

“I loved it,” he told Legion Magazine. “There is not a single place in the world where I would rather have been doing my job.

“I view it as nothing less than a privilege that I got to do the job that I did in Afghanistan, to meet the Afghans that I met—some of whom are lifetime friends—and, the biggest privilege of all, to command Canadian soldiers in combat.”

Afghans were entering their third decade of war at the time, having survived the 1979 Soviet invasion and almost 10 years of internal strife that followed. After the Soviets left, the country was gripped by a series of civil wars that ended with the Taliban, who ultimately opened Afghanistan’s borders to militant leader Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorists-in-training.

“The past quarter century devastated this country more than any other on earth,” former U.S. diplomat G. Whitney Azoy wrote in 2002 for the second edition of his book Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan. “No country in all history has proven more resilient. No people alive today are more worthy of admiration, respect, and support.”

As a 10-year drought neared its end, Afghanistan was caught up in the post-9/11 war that was supposed to set it free. It was Watson’s job, in part, to convince Afghans that the coalition forces of which he was part were not simply following the waves of Mongol, Macedonian, British
and Soviet invaders who had
come before.

The country was in ruin, its neighborhoods reduced to rubble, its infrastructure gutted and its landscape peppered with more than 10 million landmines. The dusty villages surrounding Kandahar and beyond, some without so much as a water well, were populated by stoic survivors of war, injury, disease, poverty, drought and malnutrition. The life expectancy of Afghan males in 2002 was 47 years. The infant mortality rate was among the world’s highest. They remain so.

“I did often think that I was looking back on how western society would have looked several hundred years ago,” Watson recalled. “I was reading a book about medieval Europe and how probably if you were walking down the street in Europe at that time many people would have broken bones that had never been set. Or the consequences of ravaging disease, if it hadn’t killed them, would be visible in scars that had never properly healed. Looking at the Afghans, you saw a much rougher society [than ours]…. People lived with permanent discomfort.”

Not a single Afghan, it seemed, was immune to war’s impact or had escaped the devastation of profound loss. Death, in all its forms, was ever-present. Still, they moved forward, scratched livings from nothing, built homes from the cracked clay beneath their feet and rebuilt lives out of the tragedy and hardship.

They managed this not because life in Afghanistan was cheap, said Watson, but because it was the only way they knew how to cope. Islam’s rites of quick burial helped, but Watson said Afghans also seemed to “force upon themselves a more limited period of mourning because they had to.”

Soldiers commented repeatedly on how industrious and resourceful a people the Afghans were. Unlike some others they had protected as UN peacekeepers in other parts of the world, seasoned Canadian troops found Afghans reluctant to allow others to do work they could do themselves.

True to the traditions of the dominant Pashtun culture that had thrived on the frontiers of the land for centuries, Afghans opened their homes to Watson and others, serving guests acid-strong tea and whatever foodstuffs they could muster, despite their own hardships and sufferings.

They lived by the tenets of Pashtunwali, an ancient code of conduct predating Islam whose central dictum is hospitality to all, regardless of race, religion or economic status. Under Pashtunwali, a guest must not be harmed nor surrendered to an enemy.

Kandahar had been a waypoint on the Silk Road, and Afghans remain to this day born-and-bred traders, machinists and merchants. “Everything became a deal-making process,” said Watson. “Everything was subject to negotiation. I found that initially maybe jarring. Then I started to enjoy it. I didn’t take offence that everything became a bargaining opportunity.

“They could sell sand to a camel, I think. I admired that sort of entrepreneurial aspect to their society, although I got taken to the cleaners a few times due to my own naïveté.”

On his third tour in 2009, Watson, by then a major, was given a small company of Canadian troops and assigned to mentor an Afghan National Army battalion which, for all intents and purposes, he commanded.

Having fought alongside Afghan militia and national soldiers alike, he already respected the Afghans’ “very principled, faith-driven” warrior culture—not savage and incendiary like that of al-Qaida and Islamic State militants.

The men in his battalion, though largely from the ethnically distinct north, treated civilians in the south ethically and respectfully, and they proved effective at gathering intelligence. They were light and quick. Their practised eye could pick out bombs and other threats better than their Canadian mentors.

Watson recalled walking ahead of about 200 Afghan and Canadian troops along a high-risk route in Zhari district when suddenly two young Afghans scurried past him with metal detectors in hand, determined that their Canadian would not step on a landmine.

“That sort of affection and two-way loyalty, I remain very, very touched by,” he said. “It’s that very tangible fraternal bond between soldiers and it’s something I don’t really have in my life now outside of my own family.”
Watson left the army in 2016, two years after Canada’s withdrawal. He is now a federal drug and gang prosecutor, married with children.

At the time of Canada’s withdrawal in 2014, University of Ottawa international affairs professor Roland Paris was already dismissing military claims that the mission had been a success.

“This much seems clear: the international mission to stabilize Afghanistan following the toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001 has not succeeded,” he wrote in the March 2014 issue of  Policy Options, the online journal of the Institute for Research on Public Policy. “Early hopes for a democratic renewal gave way to mounting disillusionment, corruption and violence.

“Although important gains were achieved in national development indicators—including the number of children in school, women’s rights, and access to health care—these improvements rested heavily on the presence of an enormous foreign military and a deluge of aid money, all of which is now waning.”

As the last American and other coalition troops withdrew in 2021 and the conclusive Taliban offensive gained momentum, retired major Brian Hynes, who served two tours in Afghanistan, in 2002 and 2004-2005, said it felt “like Srebrenica all over again.”

The United Nations had declared the besieged enclave in eastern Bosnia a “safe area” under the protection of Canadian peacekeepers when Bosnian Serb troops massacred more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys in July 1995.

Afghanistan’s collapse was “not a surprise,” said Hynes, who was with The Royal Canadian Regiment when it became the first UN force in Srebrenica in 1993. Afghanistan was “a lost cause from the get-go because we were never staying,” he said. “That’s the message, really: If you’re going to go to war, you’re either there for the whole thing or you don’t go.”

As Afghan National Army units collapsed, their troops simply laying down their weapons and going home while Talib fighters took district after district with relative ease in their march to Kabul, Watson said he had conflicting feelings.

“One is this emptiness, this ennui, about wasting a decade of my life,” he said. “The second is a great fear and sadness for the people of Afghanistan, for whom I developed great affection.

“Third is that I’m fired up. I wish I were there, with my guys and my Afghan battalion, 1/1/205. My team didn’t lean on U.S. air power in 2009-2010, and we wouldn’t need to again. We could take them with small arms, just like last time.
“I realize realistically I’m old and battered, but I still feel that surge for combat in a righteous cause.”

Today, with social reforms and other progress stifled under a harsh fundamentalist regime, he still thinks of those youthful, underdeveloped Afghan troops, their big eyes peering out from beneath oversized Kevlar helmets, trusting absolutely in his commitment, education, judgment and equipment.

“I struggle to this day, philosophically in an existential sense, because every time that I planned an independent operation for my Afghan battalion and then led that operation, an Afghan soldier was either horribly wounded or died,” he said.

“The trite answer is that’s the nature of the job. But these were like little dudes; they were teenagers, man. And I don’t have the answers for what sort of expenditure of resources is appropriate to achieve a mission.

“I do know that every single area I operated in is all under Taliban control now. So, I guess I’ve answered my own question.”

More than 40,000 Canadian soldiers, sailors and aircrew served in Afghanistan. At least 158 are known to have been killed in action, along with a diplomat, four aid workers, a government contractor and a journalist. Thousands of other Canadians were wounded and dozens of veterans of the conflict have since died by suicide.

The mission cost taxpayers more than $18.5 billion and the country spent another $3.9 billion on humanitarian assistance.
“Many Canadians seemed to think that a victory in Afghanistan would be ours to achieve,” said Tom Bradley, who served two tours with Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians). “But the victory parade was never ours to have; it was the Afghans who would achieve that goal. The Afghans would determine the time and place and what it would look like.

“Unfortunately, despite years of advance warning that the patience of the electorate in the West was running thin and that the military and political support for Afghanistan would come to a close, it seems that the Afghan political class and their supporters in the West choose to avoid looking at what the consequence of this change would mean for both the Afghan people and their country.

“Instead, they chose a standard political solution: pretend it’s not going to happen and carry on as if change only happens to others,” added Bradley, who retired from the regular force a lieutenant-colonel in 2011. “Unfortunately, the Afghans will now pay the price for that hubris.” And did.

There has since been an exodus of knowledge and experience from Canada’s troubled armed forces, and the defence minister’s newest adviser says Canadian bureaucrats and legislators retained little from the war in Afghanistan.

“There has been little institutional reckoning, no lessons-learned reports—at least none that was proactively publicly released,” Renée Filiatrault wrote seven years after Canadians left Afghanistan. “But a reckoning is necessary so that mistakes are not repeated and successes might be.”
Filiatrault, who served as a foreign service officer in Afghanistan with Task Force Kandahar in 2009-2010 and is now advising her fourth defence minister, said returning diplomats and other civil servants had little opportunity to share what they learned.

“Some didn’t even have jobs to come back to. Those who did confronted issue fatigue from officials around them who no longer wanted to hear about Afghanistan and discouraged references to it.

“The lack of caretaking of this expertise, and of people generally, meant the government struggled to retain the right people and to recruit those interested in hardship postings or conflict resolution in the future. A cadre of officials with civilian-military and in-theatre experience was lost.”

She said the lack of expertise was even more stark on the political side, and it has gotten worse. “Politics is a game for the young, and roles are temporary,” she said. “Most current advisors were not out of grade school on September 11, 2001.” 

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