It’s the war few wish to talk about or summon from their memory. One American general last week called it a “heartbreaking failure.”
The war in Afghanistan was Canada’s longest and perhaps the most misunderstood. For a time, it seized Parliament in Ottawa, brought the grief of losing loved ones directly to Canadian households, and helped this country to play an honourable role in a coalition role to fight terrorism. The cost to us was in the billions of dollars and the tragic loss of 158 soldiers. The last Canadian troops departed the country in 2014 – a decision that didn’t so much bring closure as a season of forgetfulness.
And now, with the Biden administration pulling U.S. troops out by the end of August, the time for reflection has begun. Was it worth it? What lessons were learned? Would we do it again? Why don’t people wish to remember it?
A title from a piece in the Economist states the rather harrowing proposition: “America leaves Afghanistan on the brink of collapse.” In a follow-up column a week later, the heading wasn’t any better: “America’s war in Afghanistan is ending in crushing defeat.” With the expectation that the Taliban is on the verge of overtaking the country, doom and gloom scenarios are everywhere.
The 9/11 attack in New York created confusion around the world, but there was a global sense of clarity that its masterminds were hiding out in the caves of Afghanistan. The decision was made in the corridors of power, including Parliament in Ottawa, to join a coalition in a serious attempt to limit the spread of terrorism. It ended up being the longest war in both Canadian and American history.
Canada’s role far exceeded its military presence. This country helped to support the construction of dams, educational efforts for women and girls, health initiatives, and security – all to the total of $3.6 billion. But the question on everyone’s mind now is what will happen to all those individuals and families for whom those investments were made. While a member of parliament during the war, I met with numerous women and interpreters who cautioned political leaders that if they did indeed pull out, not only would the investments be wasted, but that those who came under Canadian security protection would lose their lives. These were sobering encounters, leaving Ottawa with a troubling foreboding of what was about to come.
Reports now come in regularly of how the Taliban is not only recapturing lost territory but wiping out those locals who had cooperated with the coalition forces. President Biden has committed himself to rescue thousands of locals, including interpreters, who had worked with American forces. He is already too late for many of them.
Billions of dollars were invested by both Canada and America in training the Afghan military to withstand a Taliban resurgence. Yet even before the United States began leaving, some of those military forces crumbled. American air cover largely ended with the withdrawal, leaving the local soldiers vulnerable and exposed. Instead of protecting many local communities, the trained Afghan soldiers simply turned away, leaving it all to Taliban forces. We are about to hear even greater horror stories in the coming months. When asked a few days ago about the American withdrawal, Biden’s response was disappointing: “I want to talk about happy things, man!” It wasn’t his finest hour and must have seemed cruel to those in Afghanistan hanging on to his every statement.
So, yes, these are difficult and perhaps conscience-ridden times. On the other hand, al-Qaeda, the group responsible for the New York attacks, lacks the potential it once possessed. And as Fareed Zakaria recently noted, the terrorism threat has suffered severe blows in recent years.
But does this satisfy us? Unlikely. Nothing was certain back in 2001, and our questions have only compounded since. Something had to be done, some decisions made in the fallout from 9/11. The problem was never one of will or courage for our military, diplomatic and development personnel. The ultimate challenge was going to be one of longevity, and democracies don’t have a strong track record regarding endurance.
We are left with the confusion we always entertained when it came to that conflict far away. Yet in all that confusion, thousands of Canadian forces nevertheless stepped forward for democracy, against an enemy they had trouble understanding, and for the security of their families, their country, their world. That sacrifice, especially for the 158 who lost their lives in the conflict, must endure in the memories and hearts of Canadians. The fallen and their families deserve our enduring thoughts. Should we accomplish it, the “forgotten war” will nevertheless hold a special place in the hearts of grateful people.