A Serious Question

Was the Afghanistan mission worth it? It’s a complex question, but one that needs to be asked, argues Steve Saideman.

By: /
17 January, 2014
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

A debate about the worth of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan has broken out in multiple media: Twitter, newspapers, Canadian military journals, and elsewhere.  The question at the heart of this debate is not whether the mission was worth it, but whether we should be asking that question at all.

Sean Maloney initiated the conversation with a piece for the Canadian Military Journal.  In it, he raises a very important issue – that we need to be careful about how we ask the question “was it worth it?”  Canada sent multiple missions to Afghanistan with varying goals, so asking whether it was worth it really depends on which of the things Canada was trying to accomplish in Afghanistan you want to consider.

So far, so good. The problem is that Maloney calls the question a “meme.”  Now, I don’t believe that the intent here was to trivialize the debate. In a footnote, Maloney’s editor helpfully defines a meme as “an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.”  But given that we now are most familiar with memes like the grumpy cat, the effect is to diminish the seriousness of the question.  It may be true that some people ask and answer the question poorly, but the question itself is a legitimate one.

The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders presented his take on the question, considering a variety of measures that might indicate whether progress was made in Afghan governance, development, and security.  Terry Glavin responded with a strident piece that adds more heat than light.  And Christie Blatchford thinks that we should not even be asking the question now, as it will take decades to know the answer.

To be clear, each of these writers has something to contribute, but the idea that we need to delay pondering whether the Canadian effort in Afghanistan was worth it is, well, irresponsible.  We can wait until all of the decision-makers are retired or dead, but anytime a country engages in a serious effort – and Afghanistan was about as serious as it can be – we should be considering whether the effort is worthwhile. 

Journalists should be assessing the justifications, the strategies, the tactics, the operations, and the outcomes as they happen.  In the case of Afghanistan, the coverage tended to ebb and flow. When the issue was hot in Parliament or when major events happened on the ground like the first big battles or the prison breaks, journalists paid attention.  But that attention largely faded after the 2008 vote to extend the Kandahar mission only until 2011, settling the debate in Ottawa. After that, it was only the detainee issue that received full coverage.

Government officials also need to be making these assessments now, not decades from now, as they need to draw the lessons learned in time for the next crisis. Governing is all about tradeoffs, about allocating scarce resources and time among competing priorities, so the question of whether something is or was worthwhile has to be asked all of the time.

Scholars, who are criticized by several of the combatants in this debate (Maloney, despite being one, and Glavin), also have a role to play in asking these questions.  Because we have much more latitude – we cannot be fired by the government, nor do we have to worry about the agendas of newspaper editors – we can ask the pesky questions, including considering whether the Afghanistan mission was worth it.  Scholars range in their expertise on the matter – most of us are not as qualified to assess how the military operates – but we still have the capacity to consider the politics and economics involved.

However, we do vary in our patience.  Historians such as Maloney will consider some questions unanswerable in the short run since the real impact of the effort will not be felt for generations.  Obviously, over time, different facts will come out, different interpretations will develop, and so on.  There is still new work coming out on the history of the First World War, so I am not sure how long we ought to delay our asking of this question.

Political scientists, like myself, do not have that kind of patience.  We seek to assess things as they happen or shortly afterwards.  We want to understand now what happened over the past ten years so that we can explain it and make recommendations so that it can be done better the next time.  If we wait a decade or two, we will not be able to apply whatever lessons we learn in time for the next set of events.

The position of lobbyists will vary depending on whose side they are lobbying for.  If they work with organizations that support Afghanistan, then they have two choices: to defer the question or argue that it was/is very much worth it.

My point is that different people have different opinions on whether or not it is legitimate to ask this question now.  In my not so humble opinion, I think it is irresponsible not to ask the question.  I believe that the Kandahar mission was worth the sacrifices made by the Canadian soldiers, by the officials who served there, and by the taxpayers, but that is an argument for a different day.  The argument here is whether we can or should have this debate.  Given the stakes and the aforementioned sacrifices, I think we need to take seriously what Canada achieved or failed to achieve (or, more likely, something in between).  This means more than examining the six priorities and three signature projects that were touted by the government.  It requires figuring out why Canada went to Afghanistan and especially Kandahar, what it cost the country, and what goals were reached. 

To say that we should not be asking these questions is to suggest that we ought not engage in critical thinking about the most important Canadian effort in the world since the end of the Cold War.  This is not just a silly meme spreading from scholar to journalist to whomever. It is a very serious question that requires very serious engagement. The idea that this question is a meme is actually much closer to being a meme. 

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