Lessons to learn

The fall of Afghanistan prompts a tough question: “Was it worth it?”

 

The Afghanistan government of Ashraf Ghani collapsed in mid-August and the Taliban, which harboured the 9/11 terrorists, now reigns supreme over the troubled country. 

The 9/11 attacks led directly to the invocation of NATO’s Article 5—the collective security clause—which led Canada directly into the war in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. Now, after 20 years of fighting, the war has been lost. The extreme Islamist group rules again.

It is easy to blame the collapse of the Ghani government on President Joe Biden’s hasty withdrawal of the remaining American troops from Afghanistan, but Canadians also have tough questions to answer about what we were doing there in the first place.

 

Canada sent more than 40,000 troops to fight in Afghanistan over a 10-year period. We ended the combat phase of our mission in July 2011. At least 158 Canadian soldiers were killed or died on active service in Afghanistan during that time. Thousands were wounded, physically and psychologically, and close to 200 veterans have committed suicide. It is surely time to tackle the question, “Was it worth it?” 

This was, at least partly, answered by a retired reserve colonel who spent a year in Afghanistan. When asked what Canada accomplished there, he replied: “We bought Afghanistan two decades to fix themselves. They didn’t. What more could we have done?”

Canada entered Afghanistan with special forces in late 2001 to help the United States and NATO track down Osama bin Laden and expel the Taliban government that harboured him there.

We spent more than six months there (adding a battle group of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in February 2002), then withdrew. We returned in 2003 to account for not joining the U.S.-led coalition that overthrew Saddam Hussein in Iraq. 

Canada refused to fight in that war, but in the atmosphere of the early 2000s, we could not stay neutral in both wars. That says quite a bit about our real options in international affairs, then and now. If there is ever a war in the Pacific between China and our Allies, there is no way we will remain neutral. So why are we pretending that we will?

 

Our posture in Afghanistan changed dramatically in 2005 when we joined the new NATO mission to “rebuild” the country. We chose Kandahar Province as our special area of operations. As Jack Granatstein and I wrote in a report for the Canadian Global Affairs Institute a decade ago: 

For a variety of reasons, including advice from the Canadian diplomatic, aid and military leadership in Kabul, the Departments of National Defence and Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa believed that Canada ought to establish a battle group and Provincial Reconstruction Team presence in Kandahar, beginning in 2006, in order to play a more central, more visible role in Afghan reconstruction.… The two lead departments jockeyed for control over the Afghan file [but] DND, providing the boots on the ground, including the vast majority of those in the PRT, naturally enough assumed that there should be no contest…. There was general agreement that, with this deployment, Canada would raise its profile in the international community and among its NATO partners (especially the United States) and signal an end to the “human security agenda” period of the Chrétien government. For the army leadership as well, the Kandahar commitment provided the opportunity to strike squarely at the mythology of peacekeeping.

Aside from self-defence, Canada’s military exists as a deterrence force.

In other words, we leaped into nation building. But we did it without the thought that such a mission could succeed only with an effort somewhat comparable in size and duration to the United Nations effort in Korea.

 

If we actually learn a military lesson from the Afghanistan experience, what should that lesson be? 

It is time to assert that, aside from self-defence, Canada’s military exists as a deterrence force and should fundamentally not be used in international missions other than deterrence.

Deterrence works. If nothing else, the end of the Cold War shows that. We played a vital role in deterring Soviet aggression in the years from 1946 to 1989. Combined with our NATO allies, Canada had a small but important role to play. It was not much different than the role we played in the Second World War.

The war in Afghanistan was never winnable through military action alone. As the reserve colonel put it, we bought the Afghan government time, but they did not have the honesty, skill or will to use that time wisely. 

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