The truth of Canada’s failure in Afghanistan

 Chris Alexander on “geopolitical condescension” and the  Forever War

Over fifteen years working in Afghanistan or tracking all aspects of the conflict from outside, I’ve only once dared hope that peace was in prospect. It was May 2, 2011. Just after 1 a.m., Pakistan time, U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in a walled compound in Abbottabad, a kilometre from the Pakistan Military Academy. Surely all remaining illusions about Pakistan’s role in this war were now shattered, I thought: the whole world would confront Pakistan’s “miltablishment”—the military and intelligence agencies that had nurtured al Qaeda and the Taliban, fielded their fighting forces, and lied for them all along.

How wrong I was. The Barack Obama administration kept its head buried deep in Syria’s sand. The flash of brilliance at Abbottabad faded back into cowardly drift. Within a few years, and after a few rounds of bilateral recrimination, Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, then Pakistan’s president and prime minister respectively, had visited the U.S. to meet Obama. Zardari attended a NATO summit in Chicago, and Pakistan completed a purchase of F-16 fighters and munitions from the U.S.

As this deadly appeasement resumed, a new generation of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) handlers, logisticians, and enablers put fresh waves of Taliban fighters into the field to kill Afghan civilians, officials, and police, as well as NATO and Afghan troops. Thousands of Taliban field commanders, IED specialists, suicide bombers, and assassins were training on Pakistani territory with impunity, while the doctor who’d tried to confirm bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad was convicted on trumped-up charges and sentenced to thirty-three years in prison.

Seventeen years after 9/11, Pakistan’s proxy war in Afghanistan continues; “strategic cynicism,” fed by weakness of the will, prevails in every Western capital. About ten thousand people died in this violence in Afghanistan last year. Today this bitter reality haunts Afghans alongside an even more sombre anniversary: the Saur revolution of 1978 that saw Afghan president Mohammed Daoud Khan and his family murdered and replaced with Moscow’s hand-picked successors. Two more violent putsches in 1979 meant that, in less than two calendar years, three presidents and a U.S. ambassador met bloody ends in Kabul. By then, the Soviet Union had invaded. The war that began forty years ago has never stopped.

The violence has been punctuated by the occasional hiatus—before the storm of the civil war in the 1990s or in the post-Taliban euphoria of 2002. But each peace initiative, shura, jirga, and international conference—and they have been legion—has dissolved back into brutality. Afghanistan’s war seems impervious to resolution.

It’s not just by happenstance that this has become a “forever war” against “the wrong enemy”—to quote the titles of excellent books by New Yorker contributor Dexter Filkins and New York Times correspondent Carlotta Gall. This is an intense, persistent conflict that excludes the possibility of peace precisely because the main parties—the Soviet Union, Pakistan, the United States—have actively pursued strategies that all but guarantee ceaseless, inconclusive war.

For the Soviet Union, invasion was triggered by anxiety over U.S. influence. For Pakistan’s all-powerful military, an obsession with India fuelled a quest for “strategic depth” in Central Asia, providing the spur for an extended, forty-year proxy war. The United States seeks to preserve the institutions that replaced the Taliban after 2001 as well as a strategic partnership with nuclear-capable Pakistan—goals that are increasingly irreconcilable.

All these imperatives—Kremlin and Pakistani paranoia amid contradictory U.S. strategic objectives—remain alive and well today, constituting a recipe for perpetual war. Afghanistan is locked in the misery of this “Great Game”—the epic conflict that has pitted Safavid Persia against Mughal India; Czarist Russia against the British Raj; and the United States against the Soviet Union—because after half a millennium of high-stakes rivalry punctuated by regular bloodletting, most assume great powers will go on playing it.

As a result, the inviolability of borders or the principle of non-interference do not apply in Afghanistan. Afghan victims—a hundred thousand since 9/11; as many as two million since 1978—are forgotten in the long litany of misery that preceded, and survives, them. Four decades of killing in Afghanistan have cost more lives than the Korean War and almost as many as Vietnam (1955 to 1975). In the postwar era, only Biafra/Nigeria, Bangladesh (1971), and unfinished wars in Sudan and Congo have seen higher death tolls.

In 2018, Afghanistan remains one of the world’s deadliest conflicts—alongside Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, as well as Mexico’s cartel-driven slaughter. Yet alone among these twenty-first century conflicts, Afghanistan has received almost every form of international assistance available from more than one-quarter of the countries on the planet, all operating under a UN mandate.

So why does the killing continue?

On September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush said, “we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who sponsor them.” On September 20, as the first strikes were being prepared, he added, “from this day forward, any nation that continues to harbour or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime,” pledging to give terrorists “no refuge or rest”—to “pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism.”

The failure of the Bush and Obama administrations to match these words with actions backed by effective leadership have been the NATO mission’s undoing. Within sixty days of Bush’s last statement, Osama bin Laden crossed from Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province into Pakistan’s Kurram agency. Thousands of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters did the same. Yet the United States never attacked “those who sponsor” the Taliban in Pakistan. It never treated Pakistan as a “hostile regime.” The U.S. and its allies chose respect for Pakistan’s sovereignty over Afghanistan’s stability, driving sharply upwards the cost of this mission in terms of Afghan, U.S., and other NATO soldiers’ lives. A drone campaign scaled up in 2008, peaked at 122 strikes inside Pakistan in 2010, then faded in 2015. The May 2 bin Laden raid was an outlier, not a trend.

No country was more conspicuously unwavering in working toward Afghanistan’s new beginning—the ­largest, most sustained multilateral effort ever mounted to secure and rebuild a poor country—than Canada. Canadians were instrumental in ensuring NATO invoked Article 5 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In 2003, Canada ensured that the military mission authorized by the UN became a NATO-led mission. We supported national programs for rural development, education, women’s health, disarmament, and, crucially, elections. When ISI colonels in Pakistan assessed the NATO-led coalition to be vulnerable to Taliban attack in Kandahar in 2005, Canadian infantry inflicted heavy losses on the insurgent forces, forcing them to rethink their tactics.

Canada’s forceful advocacy and outsized contribution brought in new allies, new donors, and new thinking, spurring a new era of Afghan hopes. Its staying power from 2001 to 2014 was nothing short of remarkable; most NATO members were far less reliable: countries such as Spain and the Netherlands withdrew forces while the combat mission was still on.

Yet we failed to finish the job. After bearing the brunt of casualties when the insurgency spiked in 2006, Canada refused to consider deploying a larger force. By 2014, Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan had wound up—even as our NATO allies deployed a new training mission. A country that unwaveringly championed humanitarian law and the protection of civilians refused to establish a reliable system for protecting captured Taliban from torture and other forms of abuse. Politicians and officials who were among the first to conclude that Pakistan was the main force sustaining and supporting the Taliban refused to lift a finger to stop them.

Just as no country has been a greater proponent of the NATO mission, none abandoned it more abruptly than Canada did in 2014.

How did these national paradoxes come to pass in a war defined by strategic lapses? This is the story that Jean-Christophe Boucher and Kim Richard Nossal seek to tell in The Politics of War: Canada’s Afghanistan Mission, 2001-14.

It’s a worthwhile effort. Boucher is assistant professor of political science at MacEwan University; Nossal is professor of political studies at Queen’s University. They know their stuff. By way of full disclosure, I know both authors from a number of academic events.  But our direct experience of Afghanistan didn’t overlap: both visited after my six years there as Canada’s ambassador and UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan had ended, in 2009.

Their book sets out to understand how Canada—a country that had arguably not gone into a land war since Korea—managed the politics surrounding this effort. It’s a very important subject: Are today’s democracies equipped to mobilize when real threats to the peace arise in distant places? The focus here is rightly on the federal arena, with little attention to Canadian media coverage or grassroots initiatives either for or against Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. After providing some background on this conflict and the key phases of Canada’s participation, they look mainly at three major sets of issues: the way the mission was sold to Canadians; the political realities at home, including the impact of Canadian federal elections; and shifts in public opinion, influenced among other things by the very public, and politicized, repatriation ceremonies for Canadian troops.

Overall The Politics of War is thorough and detailed in assessing the evolving arguments used by Canadian political leaders to justify this major expeditionary effort, which ultimately cost the lives of 159 members of the Canadian Armed Forces, one senior diplomat, and several civilians. An early insistence on acting in Canada’s national interest evolved over the years toward a commitment to supporting allies and to helping Afghans bring peace, stability, and renewed opportunity to their country. Part of the deeper background here is the international crisis created in 2003 by the U.S. invasion, with strong British support, of Iraq; Canada’s fortunate decision not to join this coalition arguably deepened the well of potential support for its mission in Afghanistan. The book’s analysis of speeches and briefings is illuminating, even if I, for one, have more confidence than do the authors that Canadians largely understood what was being attempted on their behalf.

The book is a fair-minded chronicle of the fault lines that emerged in Canada as the years rolled on and the casualties mounted. Boucher and Nossal rightly characterize the partisan feeding frenzy over the detainee issue as a “distraction.” They also bemoan the “laundering” of decisions through Parliament, when the goal was not to build cross-party consensus but rather to drive wedges. In their view there was no need for parliamentary votes on extending the mission, or to authorize the follow-up training mission, and prime minister Stephen Harper’s principal motive for holding them was to point up divisions in the Liberal caucus.

But these divisions were real. I can recall Stéphane Dion, during a visit to Kabul as leader of the official Opposition, telling Afghan ministers, American generals, and international diplomats at an official luncheon I attended that Canadian forces would have to come home to protect Whistler and Vancouver for the Winter Olympics—an embarrassing argument to make before allies whose troops were dying in combat for a shared cause. On the same visit Michael Ignatieff, deputy Liberal leader at the time, said more or less the exact opposite. In any case, Boucher and Nossal’s clear preference for purely executive decisions on committing troops—in the tradition of the Canadian governments that authorized our military effort in Korea or Bosnia, without reference to Parliament—strikes me as unconvincing. Surely the best approach is to debate such missions fully, both to keep Canadians informed and to set the stage for parliamentary oversight. In a democracy, no army succeeds without public support and no military operation finishes in the same shape, or with the same force structure, it had when it started.

Boucher and Nossal also open on a tangent, in my view—asking why Canadian politicians refused to term Afghanistan a “war.” The fact of a wasting armed conflict was there, their argument goes: Why not tell it like it was? The short answer is that we couldn’t. The UN Charter gives armed conflict and military action many definitions—“breach of the peace,” “act of aggression,” “armed attack,” “individual or collective self-defence,” even “measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.” “War” is not among them. Why? Because the UN aims “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”: it would have been inconceivable for the Security Council to use this term; nor would it have been appropriate for a UN and NATO member to make a declaration of war. Besides, collective discipline on this issue had many fans among allies anxious to bring Bush’s “global war on terror” down to earth with more achievable, circumscribed goals.

Bouchard and Nossal, along with others, are certainly free to refer to the Afghanistan conflict as a war, but it serves little purpose to wonder why a participating country didn’t make official use of this term to describe a Security Council initiative. In my experience, Canadians understood the rationale for our involvement. Would referring to the mission as a “war” more often have made it any more palatable, or our military operations any more effective? I doubt it.

If this mission had a “missing link”—an argument the political marketing failed to make—it was not the absence of straight talk about casualties or “war”; it was the failure to describe the true nature of the conflict. While the UN mandates included authority to promote regional cooperation, no UN resolution has ever acknowledged the conflict’s cross-border nature or threatened to sanction the states assisting the Taliban, most notably Pakistan. The long view provided by Boucher and Nossal makes it clear that this is the crucial issue that should have been addressed more forcefully from the start—in 2001. A small shift by a few leaders in the early going might have made an enormous difference to the shape of allied ­strategy—and the ultimate result.

Boucher and Nossal argue the mission was ­generally unpopular in Canada (especially as casualties mounted in 2006), but with regional variation. They tell the story of the “Trenton effect,” whereby ceremonies to honour fallen soldiers returning home prompted Canadians to ask deeper questions, draining stores of goodwill that had initially boosted the mission.

At the same time, a parallel story was unfolding. Even as our troops came home in 2014, a poll reported that 48 percent thought the effort had been worthwhile. Spontaneous outpourings of support for troops and their families—on the Highway of Heroes and elsewhere, including in Quebec—were also expressions of dogged national purpose, picked up by allies as well as audiences in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Boucher and Nossal devote an entire chapter to wondering why large-scale opposition to the war “failed to launch.” Could it be that Canadians genuinely wanted to spend and sacrifice, as we have done in the past, to ensure another war-torn country achieved peace?

The 2006 “Afghanistan Compact,” which as a UN official I had a hand in drafting, recognized that Afghanistan’s path to stability “was not yet assured.” Twelve years later it is incomprehensible to me that we have not yet had the courage to embrace the right strategy. Instead, a prime minister who had pledged in Kandahar in 2006 not to “cut and run,” and in whose government I sat (after 2013) as a cabinet minister, did precisely that. It was a decision that left me ashamed and very close to resignation. In retrospect, Harper’s commitment to the Afghan mission was much stronger as the leader of minority governments than it ever was after he had won a majority. Even before 2011, he had become deeply disillusioned with president Hamid Karzai and unconvinced the Afghan institutions we were backing would endure. In my strong view, we were wrong to leave the NATO mission and wrong not to champion a tougher approach toward Pakistan much earlier. That said, the decision to end Canada’s mission in 2014 was very popular and supported by all three major parties; the only discernable support for continuing was among a segment of the Conservative caucus.

The end result today is increasingly indefensible; despite all the lip service paid in Canada to peacekeeping, our country and France remain the only NATO member states without a single soldier in Afghanistan—a UN-mandated chapter VII mission.

After leading support for Afghan-led national solutions benefiting the whole population—a development-assistance best practice—Canada lost its strategic vision. The blue-ribbon Manley Commission recommended in 2008 a new form of investment. But the change was cosmetic; signature projects with maple leaves were not what was needed to restore Afghan faith in government. This was a failing military intervention: it needed adequate military resources, backed by functioning Afghan national institutions and a clear strategy to deal with a cross-border threat.  The failure to deliver these last two elements robbed Afghans of the outcome we had all committed to achieve.

When the Manley Commission failed to grasp the nettle of Pakistan’s role in 2008, the die in Ottawa was cast: a path toward early withdrawal was implicitly set. Did we use our larger effort and sacrifice as an excuse to leave early? Yes. Was this a responsible approach for a country that has consistently championed alliances, multilateral effort, and international law? Clearly not. To his credit, professor Nossal published a prize-winning paper on the inability of Canadians to grasp the regional realpolitik undermining the mission. But the failure on this account—in Washington, in London, and at NATO in Brussels—was even larger. The “politics of war” for this mission have yet to be explained to citizens in societies across all of NATO, and the stakes for this essential alliance remain painfully high.

Of course, Canada’s role accounts for only some of the mission’s failings. The three greatest setbacks in Afghanistan have all been due to Anglo-American mistakes: George W. Bush and Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, which put stabilizing Afghanistan on the back-burner; Gordon Brown’s push to “talk to the Taliban” in 2008, which gave Pakistan breathing room; and Obama’s time-limited surge in 2009, which invited the ISI to wait us out.

Apart from failing to end Pakistan’s perfidy, the second-most tragic U.S. failure in Afghanistan—borne of the desire for vengeance fed by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and others—was the substitution of torture and illegal detention for justice and the law of armed conflict.

Boucher and Nossal rightly criticize both principal Canadian political parties for using the detainee issue as a “cudgel” to win political points. But they are wrong to see treatment of detainees an “issue of subordinate importance”: the failure of the U.S.-led coalition to treat prisoners humanely and support a justice system capable of effectively punishing terrorism and other crimes handed the Taliban a long-lasting propaganda victory. The paltry sums spent by Canada, Italy, the U.S., and a few others on justice-sector reform—a subject Canada’s Manley Commission largely ignored—did little to correct this mistake.

Bagram, a district capital just sixty kilometres north of Kabul, had a Hindu Kamboja ruler in the third century BCE and was a summer capital for Kushan emperors in the first century CE; a Bagh-e Ram, or garden of Ram, testified to Hindu and Buddhist influence. In the 1950s, an airport was built there, where Dwight Eisenhower, the first U.S. president to visit Afghanistan, landed in 1959.  In the 1980s, Bagram was a principal Soviet military hub.

By early 2002, hangars at Bagram Airfield had begun serving as a “collection point” for detainees sent by the U.S. to Guantanamo and elsewhere.  As the number of detainees ballooned, so too did allegations of abuse, punctuated by two deaths in December 2002. In very short order, Bagram became shorthand for detention without charge or trial; denial of International Committee of the Red Cross access and monitoring; and total information blackout— in other words, a revocation of many key principles of the law of armed conflict.

Tragically, it became the template for an archipelago of “black sites” and other U.S. detention facilities elsewhere in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world.

With the U.S. undermining the very legal framework it had helped to build over several generations, it was no surprise to find Afghan security institutions were also torturing prisoners. One of my jobs at the United Nations—certainly among the most dispiriting—was to lead a team that documented these abuses, which made it much harder to portray the Taliban as the brutal belligerents who showed no respect for human life.

Afghanistan’s war is destined to continue. Nossal and Boucher see “rational reasons”—from opposing India to policy inertia—for why Pakistan pursues its proxy war. They are certainly the arguments robotically deployed by Pakistan’s military leaders, but as the cost of this conflict has risen for Pakistan over the past decade most observers have come to see them as irrational. Many Pakistanis now disagree with their government as these failed policies tip their country further into dictatorship and the prospect of another IMF bailout. But they have little scope to influence policy in the face of rigged elections; murders, executions, and disappearances of political opponents and journalists; and mass censorship.

The bald assertion that “the Canadian government could do nothing about…the role of Pakistan,” as Boucher and Nossal argue at one point, is hardly credible when we did not even try. With Russia and Syria facing tough sanctions for lesser crimes, and Iran under renewed pressure for spinning webs of terror, intelligent people need to stop making excuses for state sponsors of terror and start speaking out and doing more to stop them. With the right incentives and leadership, it is still reasonable to expect that one day Pakistan will awaken and forge an enduring settlement with its long-suffering neighbour to the west.

To our credit, Canadians are generally modest about this country’s military record. Most of us disregard the extent to which our early wars—from the long Anglo-French conflict to the War of 1812—forged our national identity and shaped institutions we still cherish. At Vimy, Amiens, and in the Hundred Days offensive, too—whose centenary we celebrate this fall—we won an independent voice for Canada on the world stage, which we pledged to use in the cause of an even wider peace. This legacy was sealed by the Second World War. Successful military campaigns to prevent a Communist takeover of the Korean Peninsula, or secure peace in Bosnia and Kosovo, have only enhanced our military reputation, as has our refusal to take part in misguided wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan on the same day as Canada’s 2011 general election. It saddens me that so little progress was achieved over my time as a member of Parliament—and that Canada’s horizons have only narrowed further since our withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.

Across Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces, the devastation of lives continues, as does the mission we did so much to champion, led by an Alliance of which we remain a member. To ignore these facts is to “break faith” with both the living and the dead. To argue Afghanistan will never see peace is ultimately a form of geopolitical condescension.

But to make peace, strategic cynicism must yield to strategic impatience backed by the right regional approach. Do we believe the rules underpinning our own peace and prosperity—security from external attack within sovereign borders—apply to poor countries, as well as rich ones? Are we prepared to advocate the peace Afghans need and deserve? It is still not too late to do the right thing.