Looking back at Canada’s war in Afghanistan

Published by Brent Patterson on

Photo: A Canadian gunner in a Griffon helicopter over Kandahar district, 2011. Photo by Sgt. Matthew McGregor, Canadian Forces Combat Camera.

Canadian Embassy officials in Kabul, Afghanistan were evacuated today as Taliban forces entered the capital city and took control of the Presidential Palace.

The Taliban (Pashto for students) was formed in the early 1990s by Afghan mujahideen, or Islamic guerilla fighters, who had resisted the Soviet Union in Afghanistan the previous decade with the covert backing of the Central Intelligence Agency. In 1996, the Taliban declared Afghanistan an Islamic emirate.

The stated justification for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was that the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attack.

Canadian soldiers were first deployed in Afghanistan by Prime Minister Jean Chretien in October 2001. About 40,000 Canadian troops were sent there under the governments of Chretien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper before the end of combat operations in July 2011 and their withdrawal in March 2014.

The costs of war

As of mid-April this year, it has been estimated that 47,245 Afghan civilians have died in the war. The total number of everyone killed could be as high as 241,000 people.

There is no public documentation on how many Afghans were killed as a result of the Canadian military intervention.

Montreal-based writer Yves Engler does compile in this article numerous incidents involving Canadian Forces killing Afghans including a five-year-old girl and her two-year-old brother after their vehicle got too close to a convoy in July 2008.

159 Canadian soldiers were killed and more than 1,800 were wounded during this period. In April 2019, the Canadian Forces’ medical branch released a study that found that more than 155 active service members had taken their own lives since 2010, with many of these suicides linked to their deployment in Afghanistan.

In October 2008, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, in “the first comprehensive costing”, reported: “The total projected mission cost of up to $18.1 billion over the 2001-02 to 2010-11 period, represents close to $1,500 dollars per Canadian household.”

The motivations for being in Afghanistan

Ottawa Citizen reporter David Pugliese has written: “In a July 2005 interview, [Defence Minister Bill] Graham acknowledged that mending fences with the Bush administration played a role in the government’s decision to take on the Kandahar mission.”

Pugliese further explains: “The U.S. was still angry over Canada’s refusal to join its invasion of Iraq and it didn’t help that the Martin government had declined to participate in the Pentagon’s controversial missile defence system.”

And Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin commented: “A former, highly placed Defence Department official [says] the reason the Liberals took up the mission was not out of any great noble purpose. It was principally because they had no choice. They had to appease Washington for not having joined the invasion of Iraq.”

Commentary by Senator Colin Kenny, Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom, political scientist Janice Gross Stein and McGill University professor Stephen Saideman all tie Canada’s involvement in the war to its economic relations with the United States.

The unwinnable war

Daniel L Davis, a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a US Army Lieutenant Colonel who served twice in Afghanistan, has written: “America’s senior leaders have known, almost from the beginning, that the war was unwinnable, that the Afghan government was fatally corrupt, and that the Afghan security forces would never be up to the task.”

In December 2019, the Washington Post reported that government documents show that U.S. officials systematically misled the public about the war during administrations of George W. Bush (2001-09), Barack Obama (2009-17) and Donald Trump (2017-21) and hid evidence to make it appear that the U.S. was winning the war.

This past week, Institute for Policy Studies fellow Phyllis Bennis commented: “It’s important that we recognize that this kind of a crisis was inevitable whenever the U.S. pulled out, whether it had been 10 years ago, 19 years ago or 10 years from now, the reason being that this was rooted in the nature of the U.S. occupation that began in 2001.”

She further elaborated in this interview on Democracy Now! that: “The notion that the U.S. could create a military force in Afghanistan that was going to be prepared to defend the country against an indigenous opposition force, the Taliban, was never going to be possible, because it was based on the idea that this would be a military that was supporting a government shaped and imposed by the United States in a Western model that had no bearing on the reality of politics and culture in Afghanistan.”

Bennis asserts: “There is no military solution to the, quote, ‘problems of Afghanistan’.”

What’s next?

Earlier this year, Malalai Joya, a human rights defender and former Member of the Afghan parliament, stated: “I have repeatedly called for the foreign occupiers to leave our country. No nation can give liberation to another nation.”

She further noted: “There is no doubt that in the short-term, the withdrawal of the foreign occupiers may lead to some security and economic problems. But it is in the long run interests of our people that they leave.”

And Joya highlighted: “The suffering of the Afghan people still needs solidarity from justice-loving and progressive movements, individuals, parties and activists around the world.”

As the next days unfold, a fulsome evaluation is needed of the consequences of Canada’s intervention as well as the alternatives to war that could have been pursued.

And as Canada plans to spend half-a-trillion dollars on the military over the next 20 years, including $76.8 billion on new fighter jets, we need a conversation on how to build peace and avoid the carnage seen in Afghanistan over the last 20 years.

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