From the Afghan detainee scandal to our more bellicose presence on the world stage, the legacy of the mission remains inextricably tied to the future of peace in Afghanistan.
This is Part 3 in a three-part series examining the outcomes and legacy of the Afghan war. Part 1 outlined how the international intervention was lost, and described the grave consequences this failure is likely to have for a people intimately familiar with war. Part 2 offered a focused discussion of the factors that led to NATO’s breakdown, and outlined why the resurgent Taliban raises the spectre of a return to protracted war and violence in a post-NATO landscape. Concluding the series, Part 3 discusses what legacy the war has left for Canada.
The conflict in Afghanistan now has the distinction of being the longest-ever war for both Canada and the United States – longer than the first and second world wars combined. A well-travelled cliché describes Canada’s involvement in the Afghan war by saying that it has “punched above its weight.” Canada took on one of the riskiest assignments of the war: the pacification and stabilization of Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban movement. Seeing some of the heaviest fighting since the Korean War, the Canadian Forces have suffered among the highest per capita casualty rates of the major NATO troop-contributing nations. Because of this bold assignment and our significant aid commitment, Canada has enjoyed a level of status and prestige among its international partners that it has not seen for some time. Canada’s voice matters in Afghanistan, and we have been present at every major decision-making table.
So, what does all this mean for the legacy of Canada’s mission? Canada did a lot of good in Afghanistan, making major contributions to development and security in Kabul and Kandahar. Even the best of intentions, however, could not overcome Afghanistan’s political and security morass.
Canada first intervened in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, which laid bare the reality that a fragile Afghanistan posed a threat to the international community. Al-Qaeda had set up shop in Afghanistan – it had become a sanctuary for a litany of global jihadi groups. In fact, a whole generation of Islamist militants, who would launch attacks in Bali, London, Madrid, and New York, cut their teeth and learned their trade in Afghanistan, first during the anti-Soviet jihad, and later in its training camps. Another collapse of the Afghan state would make Afghanistan an Islamist destination once again.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already referred to Islamist terrorism as one of the most serious threats facing Canada. Considering the successes of domestic law-enforcement bodies and international intelligence agencies in thwarting attacks and seriously degrading the capabilities of groups like al-Qaeda, including by killing its leader, one could rightfully call this an exaggeration. However, the blowback from a failed Afghanistan mission could, in fact, make the prime minister's claim accurate.
For Canada, the Afghan mission has already had an enduring impact. First, it gave a significant boost to the image of the Canadian Forces, both within Canada and globally. The Canadian public’s pride in the Canadian Forces, which had waned over the past decade, has now reached new heights. A friendly Conservative government has upgraded the Canadian Forces’ equipment and expanded the resources available to it. The mission has seemingly reinvigorated the force, restoring its morale and fighting spirit after many years of apparent decline.
Second, the mission has appeared to challenge the position of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) as the driver of Canadian Foreign Policy. It was only after the co-ordinating role for the mission was transferred to the Privy Council Office, at the centre of government, that the Canadian effort appeared to achieve some coherence. DFAIT has seen its powers over foreign policy gradually leak to other departments in recent years, at the same time that it has had its funding cut. Under a Conservative government, it appears that DFAIT will continue to be on a short leash.
While the war buoyed the public image of the Canadian Forces, it may, paradoxically, have increased public skepticism of government. The Afghan detainee scandal, and the government’s attempts to bury it, has given cause for many Canadians to question their government’s motivations, which, on the surface, have been couched in the rhetoric of democratization and humanitarian concern. The way DFAIT official Richard Colvin was treated for blowing the whistle on the scandal – called out publicly by Conservative party cabinet ministers as insubordinate and disloyal rather than principled and high minded – proved to some that, as far as the government is concerned, politics can trump principle. The episode also sent a chill through the Canadian civil service, which was already muzzled by a Prime Minister’s Office more eager than ever to control the message and stay out in front of sensitive policy issues. In some ways, the Afghan file seemed to crystalize an adversarial relationship between the government and parts of the bureaucracy, creating new and unnecessary complications for the development and implementation of good policy.
On the international stage, the Afghan mission has helped to shift perceptions of Canada’s role in the world from one of a moderate peacekeeper that operates almost exclusively through multilateral arrangements, to a more partisan, bellicose player willing to act unilaterally or in coalitions of the willing if needed. Perception never fully reflects reality, but the Canadian interventions in Afghanistan and Libya, coupled with the country’s controversial policies on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, climate change, and other issues, have begun to shift global attitudes toward the country, for better or worse. Afghanistan was one catalyst for this.
Some Canadians may have accepted Prime Minister Harper’s wildly premature statement in May 2011 that "Afghanistan is no longer a threat to the world," compared by many to former U.S. president George W. Bush’s ill-fated 2003 “mission accomplished” speech on Iraq. As the situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate, raising the spectre of a return to civil war, Harper may yet be forced to re-evaluate just how impactful Canadian and international assistance has been. Defeat in Afghanistan could indeed spark a much-needed national debate on our evolving global identity, and will likely discourage further international intervention on the scope of Afghanistan.
Like the U.S. with Vietnam (and now with Iraq), we now struggle with the questions of whether the outcome in Afghanistan was worth the human and financial toll, whether we did more harm than good, and whether our political leaders failed our troops and aid workers, not to mention the Afghan people. History has yet to yield answers to these questions, which may well hang heavy on the political consciousness of the nation in the years ahead.