One of the most enduring misconceptions about Afghanistan among Canadians and other foreigners who wanted to end their countries’ military involvement in Afghanistan is that the conflict was about us, and that it would end when we left.
“Stop the War!” read the slogan on signs carried by protesters urging a troop withdrawal, as if such a withdrawal would result in peace.
We are now witnessing the fallacy of those assumptions. Over the last few weeks, as American forces vacated Afghanistan, the Taliban — the Islamist movement overthrown by a U.S.-led military campaign nearly 20 years ago — took it over. On Sunday they captured the capital, Kabul.
It would be foolish to think this is the end of the killing. America, Britain, Canada and other nations went to war against the Taliban in 2001 because it sheltered al-Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against America. But Afghans were fighting the Taliban long before international troops arrived in their country. Many will keep fighting them now. Others will be murdered by them for the crime of opposing their repressive and joyless interpretation of Islam.
I first visited Afghanistan as a journalist in the fall of 2001. I was in the north, in an area outside Taliban control. One day I spoke to an elderly man in a refugee camp. He had fled the Taliban a few months earlier. The deference of those around him made it clear he was some sort of leader. I asked him about the Sept. 11 attacks — the reason I was standing before him and why American B-52 bombers glinted in the sunlight high above us. He had no idea what I was talking about. His war wasn’t our war.
There is no simple explanation for the Taliban’s stunning conquest, which took place after Canada and its allies invested so much blood and money trying to weaken them and nurture an Afghan government capable of defending itself. Many Afghans are understandably afraid of defying the Taliban. Others support them, for reasons ranging from ethnic loyalty to frustration with the corruption of the Afghan government and warlords allied to it. Pakistan’s influence must also be addressed. It supported and protected the Taliban since its inception and, as long as that was the case, the Afghan government had little chance of defeating it.
And yet, until this spring, the Afghan government, backed by about 3,000 U.S. troops managed to keep the Taliban out of most major population centres, protecting millions of people. (Another 7,000 or so troops from NATO member states were also in Afghanistan in a non-combat training mission.)
This level of deployment resulted in few American casualties and cost little in comparison to U.S. troop deployments of more than 100,000 in 2010 and 2011. It was sustainable indefinitely.
And yet there was no political will in Washington to do so. President Joe Biden said he wanted all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11 of this year. Canada ended its combat mission in 2011 and its training one in 2014. Stephen Harper, when he was prime minister, said Canadians don’t cut and run. Turns out we do.
So, what can Canada do now?
Nothing. Nothing, anyway, that might save Afghanistan from the hell that’s coming. It might have helped significant numbers of Afghans escape that hell. In July, the government announced a special immigration program to bring Afghans who worked with the Canadian military or government to Canada. But Canada has shut down its embassy in Kabul and lacks on-the-ground capacity. Afghans who worked with Canadian journalists, NGOs and others appear to be a lower priority, if Canada intends to help them at all. Stories abound of Afghans with ties to Canada who have received no help from anyone in the Canadian government. They are terrified and desperate.
Like many others who spent time in Afghanistan, I have in recent days received messages from Afghan friends and colleagues seeking help. They are afraid. “tallaban is only 12 KM far from my house I don’t know what to do,” one wrote in a Facebook message Friday afternoon. Then, a couple of hours later: “just pray for us.”
Canada has also said it will settle an additional 20,000 Afghans who have fled the country. Many, of course, can’t flee. And 20,000 is but a small fraction of Afghans whose futures are now in doubt. A generation had an opportunity to live a freer life than was possible under Taliban rule, and many seized it. Girls went to school. Women got jobs. Afghans read once-forbidden books and said and did once-forbidden things. What will become of them when they are ruled by the Taliban with the stain of their supposed sins still clinging to them?
Canadians might pay attention, briefly, when the first Afghan refugees arrive at Pearson International Airport. Trudeau, or a Canadian prime minister who succeeds him, might even meet some of them, eyes glistening and having memorized a few welcoming words in Pashto or Dari.
Then we’ll look away. But we won’t be able to avoid the repercussions of abandoning Afghanistan in the first place. No enslaved and tormented people we promise to help will ever trust us again. Nor should they.
A version of this story first ran in the Toronto Star.