Canadians closed the book on Afghanistan long ago — and that’s a shame

Ghost schools. Unusable health facilities. Corruption and violence. The state of Afghanistan should concern all Canadians, but we moved on without a national reckoning over our impact there, argues Naheed Mustafa.  

By: /
July 22, 2016
Plastic poppies lie at a memorial for Canadian soldiers from the NATO-led coalition killed in action in southern Afghanistan, at Ma'sum Ghar base in Kandahar province November 11, 2007. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

Last fall, when the Rideau Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank, released its report on Afghan detainees, it was like a blast from the past. How was anyone talking about Afghanistan again? Weren’t all things Afghanistan done and sorted, tied up in a red bow, and labelled “solved”? I was sure I’d been transported back almost a decade to a time when the term “Afghan detainees” was a near constant in both media and political discourse.

The report did a good job of laying out the issue, to jog our collective memory. For a period of almost six years starting in late 2005, Canadian forces in Afghanistan were transferring detainees into the custody of Afghan intelligence, despite knowing the detainees were at serious risk of torture. Media interviews with former detainees soon followed, describing the scope of abuse and torture at the hands of Afghan interrogators. The question for Canada was: what did the government know and when did it know it? The answers, as laid out in the report, seemed to be: quite a bit and early on.

The report renewed a call for an inquiry into the Afghan detainee scandal that first erupted in early 2007 and was never adequately addressed by Stephen Harper’s government, despite several attempts to investigate and determine the facts.

There was a hope that, under leadership from the new Liberal government, the Afghan detainee issue would finally get the fair and open hearing it always deserved. Part of that hope hinged on the fact that when in opposition, the Liberals had made much fuss about greater transparency and accountability. But those hopes were dashed this past May when, in a written statement responding to an e-petition submitted by former NDP MP Craig Scott, Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan laid out all the reasons he felt the Afghan detainee issue was resolved and put to rest.

Maybe Sajjan’s certainty that Canada’s conduct was above board stems from knowing things average Canadians don’t know, given his intelligence gathering role while serving in the military in Kandahar. Maybe Canadians are expected to simply take the government at its word. Perhaps transparency and accountability are merely aspirational.

The government’s refusal to hold an inquiry, while disappointing, is not surprising because, frankly, Canada — and Canadians — moved on from Afghanistan long ago. And that’s a shame.

Canada has not had any national reckoning with its role in Afghanistan. There’s been little accounting of what happened, what went wrong, and what, if anything, went right. We know the mission cost at least $18 billion, but that figure doesn’t touch the cost of taking care of veterans or their families. It doesn’t include the long-term cost of Afghan governance and security projects gone awry or left incomplete. And what of the ethical obligations Canada has to Afghanistan and its people? 

From the start of Canada’s mission, the government’s attention — and therefore much of the media’s attention — was tightly fixed on Kandahar. Media reporting was almost exclusively focused on troop movements. Reconstruction and development became political talking points with stories mostly taken up as a feel-good backdrop to Canada’s military engagement. How much do we talk now about ghost schools and unusable health facilities, inflated student enrollment numbers and endemic corruption? Of opportunities lost and those never pursued? Not only have the Taliban been back for years, now there are credible concerns about ISIS – its flag having been raised in the north at least twice this past year.

Afghans are fleeing their country in record numbers. Some are leaving out of fear of growing violence, many because they just don’t see any future for themselves. Young people are increasingly seeking higher education but to what end? Their job prospects are slim.

When I first went to report from Afghanistan in 2008, I hired Shafi (not his real name) to work as my translator and fixer. Each time I returned I worked with him and I watched over the years as his views and goals shifted and changed. Shafi had dropped out of university when the Taliban came to Kabul and he’d always wanted to go back and get his degree. In 2012 he finally decided to do it, and he graduated this past May.

I remember back in 2011, Shafi was particularly despondent. He wasn’t sure how he’d come up with the money for tuition. Foreign journalists weren’t coming to Afghanistan as much and work was drying up. He had a family to support. He started talking about looking for a smuggler who could help him get to Europe. He was bent on getting to Germany where he had friends, but a relative was able to help him with tuition and he eventually gave up his plans to leave.

When we talked just after his graduation, he once again spoke about leaving. Shafi had stayed in Afghanistan even when things were at their worst. He never left even to hop over the border to Pakistan to wait out the hard times. But now, he says, the situation is hopeless. He may have a university degree but there are no jobs to be had. Violence is rampant. Corruption is around every corner. He says the government makes big promises but delivers nothing and meanwhile, the rich continue to get richer.

"We need a national conversation not only about what, if anything, was gained, but also about what was lost."

Of course, this isn’t all Canada’s fault. It’s not even mostly Canada’s fault. But this country made a commitment in October of 2001 when it joined the military mission in Afghanistan. It’s a commitment Canada renewed in 2006 when it signed on to the Afghanistan Compact international framework to help Afghanistan navigate its way out of ruin. That effort can’t simply be relegated to a footnote, something governments trot out as a way to show Canada is a global partner.

The Chilcot Inquiry — Britain’s investigation into its role in the Iraq war — released its report in early July. While some of the most damning findings of the inquiry were, at this point, already well known, the report is forcing Britons to ask pointed questions and look for clear answers. While there is little parallel between the scope of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan and Britain’s role in Iraq, Canadians do need to ask some pointed questions about the fighting and the attempts at fixing. The detainee scandal was just one part of a larger picture but it’s a picture we still don’t see clearly. We need a national conversation not only about what, if anything, was gained, but also about what was lost.

Also in the series


Stories from Kandahar, the Afghan province Canada left behind

Canada’s multibillion-dollar war effort in Afghanistan largely focused on peace-building and development in Kandahar, but 15 years after the war began, residents there are still wondering what it accomplished. 


The Afghan Mission: Canada’s military is willing to learn, but has it done so?

In the lead up to the Canadian government’s defence review, Steve Saideman lists three lessons learned in Afghanistan: honesty should trump optimism; sometimes we must admit when more resources are needed; and a war cannot be won with force alone.   

Chinook helicopter Afghanistan

The war that never left Afghanistan

Afghanistan has been notoriously easy to seize but difficult to hold. John Duncan explains why the country’s lack of centralized government has kept effective and ongoing occupation out of reach for one great power after another.


Hypocrisy and the Afghan detainee scandal

The Canadian government condemned the recent suicide attack on its embassy guards in Kabul as ‘cowardly’ while simultaneously backing away from an inquiry into the Afghan detainee scandal. Is this a case of the pot calling the kettle black?


Bill Graham on Canada’s 3D war: A mission to be proud of

In The Call of the World: A Political Memoir, former foreign and defence minister Bill Graham looks back at the challenges and successes that stretched across party lines during Canada’s time in Afghanistan.   


Not for nothing: The fight to improve human and women’s rights in Afghanistan

International human rights lawyer and activist Georgette Gagnon spent five years in Afghanistan and saw first-hand the contribution made by Canadians. Here she shares her takeaways from her time as director of human rights for the UN in Afghanistan.