As the country descended into further lawlessness, Canada’s acting chief of the defence staff, Wayne Eyre, reflected on the Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF’s) experience in the region from 2001-2014:
“Many of us have been asking, some for years, ‘was it worth it?’ Answers will be deeply personal, and not all have reached a final conclusion other than ‘time will tell’.”
It seems to me that the CAF’s engagement in Afghanistan was entirely consistent with the national interest, even if it also exposed the terrible costs that sometimes accompany membership in the US-led Western alliance.
In 2001, Afghanistan did not constitute a significant security threat to Canada. Our economic engagement with the country was limited. And the Canadian International Development Agency did not believe that Afghanistan was a realistic candidate for an international assistance partnership.
Certainly, the human rights situation in the country was abhorrent, but it was hardly unique.
So why did Ottawa deploy the CAF on a mission that cost over 150 members their lives and left countless others injured physically and psychologically?
The answer is in the 2008 report of the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan.
The document was produced at the request of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the midst of a prolonged national debate over whether the seven year-old mission should continue.
It begins by recalling how, on September 11th, 2001, Al Qaeda, used Taliban-controlled land in Afghanistan as a base to plan and launch a terrorist attack on the United States, killing nearly 3000 innocent people.
The following day, the United Nations Security Council “formally recognized the right of individual and collective self defence and called on all member states to cooperate in Afghanistan ‘to bring to justice the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of these terrorist attacks’.”
The council anticipated, or at least hoped for, a universal, collective response. Regrettably, US President George W. Bush preferred to act unilaterally.
His attitude made the real reason for Ottawa’s engagement critical.
As the report notes, in addition to the Security Council’s response, “governments in NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) invoked the collective-defence provisions of the NATO treaty and declared the attack against the United States as an attack against all NATO members.”
Under NATO’s Article 5, every member of the organization was therefore obligated to “assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.”
As Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland explained to the House of Commons in 2017, “NATO and Article 5 are at the heart of Canada’s national security policy.”
It follows that Ottawa deployed the CAF to Afghanistan to affirm to the United States in particular, and to our NATO allies more broadly, that Canada was committed to the collective defence provisions of the organization.
(Conveniently, those provisions also constrain the United States from acting unilaterally in the global arena).
Successive Liberal and Conservative governments later added all sorts of other aims to the mission to make it more palatable to a Canadian public that had been conditioned to believe that war was easy, or at least not messy.
In retrospect, considering how close the Trump administration recently came to pulling out of NATO, the decision to prop up the credibility of the organization 20 years ago seems prescient. A weaker NATO might not have withstood President Trump’s challenge.
But cloaking a necessary alliance obligation in the amorphous language of values was never a good idea.
Canadians who believe that we sent the CAF to Afghanistan to make lives better for the Afghan people have every right to conclude that the intervention failed.
And they will continue to be disappointed in this country’s foreign policy posture until our political leaders have the courage to be clearer about Canadian national interests.
The best summary of the Canada’s experience in Afghanistan that I’ve read is Jean-Christophe Boucher and Kim Richard Nossal’s The Politics of War: Canada’s Afghanistan Mission, 2001-14. Steve Saideman’s Adapting in the Dust: Lessons Learned from Canada’s War in Afghanistan is also helpful.
Finally, it is worth tracking Ottawa’s current effort to enable Afghan interpreters immigrate to Canada to evade almost certain death at the hands of the Taliban. It is the right thing to do, and if we don’t, we risk the future safety and security of all of our embassies that employ local staff.
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