The first week of the 44th federal election was overshadowed somewhat by the end to a 20-year-old war.
Amid a chaotic international scramble to evacuate Western citizens and vulnerable Afghans, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau faced repeated questions about whether Canadian officials were moving fast enough, while Erin O’Toole has taken every opportunity to insist that he would’ve somehow moved faster.
But the fall of the Afghan government has not yet prompted a discussion about the 14 years this country committed to the allied effort in Afghanistan. And real reflection is probably already overdue.
Trudeau did at least acknowledge a need to reflect and disappointment at the Taliban’s return when he was asked on Monday. He also said that Canadians made a “huge difference” in the lives of Afghan women and girls. But freelance journalist Justin Ling came up empty when he went looking for comments from the Conservatives and New Democrats.
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There are few, if any, political points to be scored on the legacy of Canada’s time in Afghanistan. The pivotal decisions were made under former Liberal and Conservative governments. Former NDP leader Jack Layton’s much-maligned suggestion that the war should end with a negotiated settlement might have been prescient, but, in reality, negotiations have given way to a complete takeover by the Taliban.
It’s also not an issue that is easy to sum up in a sound-bite.
But Afghanistan dominated Canadian foreign policy and, at times, federal politics for more than a decade. On two occasions — in 2006 and 2008 — the House of Commons voted to support an extension of the military mission. Canadian lives were lost and a significant amount of Canadian money was spent.
Despite that significance and sacrifice, there has been no in-depth, retrospective study of what succeeded, what failed and what lessons can be learned. A special committee of the House of Commons did exist to study the mission from 2008 to 2011, but political attention was often consumed by questions about the treatment of Afghan detainees.
Did Canada make a difference?
The newly independent Senate could be the right body to now take a close and serious look at such a major national effort.
“[The Canadian military] contributions didn’t fail. They held Kandahar, they trained the [Afghan National Army] and ANA held it together for six or seven years on their own, with just modest United States logistics, air and artillery support,” Stephen Saideman, a professor at Carleton’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said in an interview this week.
The casket of a Canadian soldier is taken to a plane for the trip home. Evaluating whether Canada made a difference is long overdue. ((Murray Brewster/Canadian Press))
“But the war went on for ten years after Canada left [the combat mission] and Afghanistan didn’t fall until this year. And Kandahar did not fall until very, very recently. And one could say that the Canadian contribution made a difference. But in any mission, Canada cannot be successful on its own. It has to have everybody else be successful.”
Saideman wrote Adapting in the Dust about Canada’s mission in Afghanistan and he posted two blog posts this week about the collapse of the Afghan government.
Saideman pointed to real gains that were made: a campaign to vaccinate Afghans against polio and reductions in both infant and maternal mortality.
But it’s fair to wonder what Canadians would have thought at the time if they had known that the Taliban would be back in control in the summer of 2021.
“We made the place better with our allies for a period of time,” Saideman said. “But the effort was always going to be very, very difficult because it’s easier to break things than to build things. And building a government is really, really hard.”
But Canada’s experience in Afghanistan might have important lessons for any of the leaders who are currently hoping to be prime minister after September 20. And even if the fall of Kabul fades as a going concern over the next four weeks, it would seem like an unfortunate mistake to let Canada’s history in Afghanistan pass without careful reflection.