Standing up when it counted

Canada responded to the systemic shock of 9/11 by defending the rules of the international order

By: /
10 September, 2021
A Canadian soldier from the Royal 22e Regiment in Kandahar Afghanistan, 2006. John D McHugh/AFP via Getty Images

When the most powerful country in the world is attacked without warning, the entire international system is in for shock.

If there is any order in a world of independent countries with vastly different sizes and capabilities, it is because the powerful states agree to follow some basic rules. For smaller states like Canada, those rules are primordial.

So when 2,977 people, including some 2,600 Americans, were murdered in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, it was by no means assured that the U.S. would play by the rules. This was a moment of truth for the rules-based international order, the foundation on which Canada’s security and prosperity depend.

It was imperative that Canada help the international system get through the shock of 9/11. I played several roles in that effort along the way, and while my final role ultimately ended in failure, I’m proud of the contribution that Canada made.

How did Canada uphold the rules of the international order after 9/11?

First, Canada had to take care of its own interests. In its uncertainty and confusion about the attack, the U.S. closed the world’s longest undefended border, choking Canada’s economy.  We had to get it back open by convincing the Americans the border was a source of strength, not weakness.

Days after the Twin Towers fell, the Privy Council Office assembled a team to negotiate with the Americans. I was invited to join, supporting Deputy Prime Minister John Manley in his discussions with the White House. We worked out some 30 measures to screen various kinds of threats in the traffic between our two countries, demonstrating the border could be “smart” by facilitating the movement of goods, workers and tourists while blocking terrorists and their weapons.

Second, Canada joined our other allies in convincing the United States that they could defend themselves within the limits of international law and uphold the rule of law in the process.  Canada’s ambassador to NATO, David Wright, proposed invoking the mutual commitment NATO allies have to protect one another in the event of attack. NATO’s council agreed to Wright’s proposal. This first and only use of Article 5 paved the way for a UN Security Council mandate to remove al-Qaeda from its base in Afghanistan and prevent it from attacking again.

Third, Canada called out the U.S. when it expanded its retribution to Iraq in disregard for international law. When the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush failed to get a mandate from the UN Security Council, we opposed the ensuing invasion and occupation.

As Canada’s chargé d’affaires, I was the sole representative of on the ground for Canada in Baghdad. Our embassy had been closed more than a decade, since before the first Gulf War. Our government needed someone on the ground to make sense of what the U.S. was up to and report back to Ottawa. I provided consular assistance to the few Canadian citizens living and dying there and helped advise headquarters on the disbursement of humanitarian aid.

Coordinating this aid with the much larger American operation brought me into the U.S.-run Green Zone and into contact with the Americans running Iraq. I saw how alone the U.S. was in the terrible responsibility it had taken on, that of managing a country whose government it had decapitated. When I took an office in Saddam’s former Republican Palace, where the U.S. mission was headquartered, I had to prevent American colleagues from flying a Canadian flag among flags representing the coalition that had invaded Iraq. I reminded them we opposed their illegal invasion and occupation.

The young civilian personnel of the U.S. Department of Defense that ran the proto-government of Iraq took it in stride; they had bigger challenges to face in running a country of some 24 million with scant knowledge of the people or their language. In contrast to the favourable reaction NATO troops had received when arriving in Kabul two years prior, the U.S. troops in Iraq was soon mired in a vicious civil war involving competing Sunni and Shiite militia.  By the time I left Baghdad in 2005, more Iraqis had died than in the entire 20 years of NATO’s presence in Afghanistan.

We couldn’t invoke the collective responsibility of allies to protect one another without sharing in the consequences.

Fourth, Canada shared the burden where it counted. Upholding the rules of the international order requires more than words, whether those be words of condemnation on Iraq or words of support on Afghanistan. We couldn’t invoke the collective responsibility of allies to protect one another without sharing in the consequences. A poor and divided country needed rebuilding.

Ultimately, we failed in that task, but it was the right task to take on. A generation of soldiers, aid workers and diplomats like me devoted ourselves to the mission. Canada took on one of the toughest problems in international relations — stabilizing Kandahar, the province at the heart of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan — and threw in all the commitment, passion and talent we could muster.

Our military showed more than courage; it consistently demonstrated an ability to learn. They corrected early misjudgments on how fighters detained on the battlefield would be treated in Afghan prisons, resulting in the most rigorous monitoring system imaginable to protect against abuse. The Canadian Forces worked with tribal leaders in counter-insurgency experiments that other allies studied closely.

Development programming helped educate a generation of girls, reversing a record of near-universal illiteracy under the previous regime. A massive irrigation dam project revived the agricultural sector of a land without rainfall. And our diplomats took great risks fanning out across Kandahar to speak to ordinary Afghans to understand their perspectives and bring their concerns to elected leaders.

But it wasn’t the elected leaders who called the shots in Kandahar. In our eagerness to accommodate cultural differences, we deferred to the tribal powerbrokers who enriched themselves from security contracts that protected our projects. Kandaharis saw them as warlords who stood above the law and resented the state that failed to hold them to account.

In our eagerness to accommodate cultural differences, we deferred to the tribal strongmen who enriched themselves from security contracts that protected our projects.

There was a moment in the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency when we prepared to confront the main warlord in Kandahar, Ahmed Wali Karzai. Our diplomats built a case against him, documenting his abuses of the rule of law, such as his habit of intervening in police matters to reward friends and punish enemies. We equipped the U.S., NATO and UN leadership in Kabul with the arguments they needed to convince the national government to rein him in.

But the warlord’s brother, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, refused to take action and the international community backed down. Disgusted with Karzai’s intransigence, then vice-president Joe Biden concluded the Afghan government wasn’t worth the sacrifice of NATO soldiers. He lost the argument in the U.S. interagency debates at the time but held that conviction all the way until he became the principal decision-maker earlier this year.

I wish Canada had done more to confront the warlords. I wish I had done more to help Canada do more. Instead, corrupt leaders squandered the resources, discrediting the state we were helping to build. Canada left Kandahar when its combat mission concluded in 2011. In the 10 years that followed, that state atrophied into a hollow shell. 

That realization haunts me today. Like many who served in Afghanistan, I carry ongoing anxiety from my time there. So many sacrificed much more. I think of my colleague Glyn Berry, murdered by the Taliban in 2006. Or journalist Michelle Lang, killed while covering the war for the Calgary Herald in 2009. I remember the 158 men and women in uniform killed in Afghanistan, as well as many more who died at their own hand after returning home.

Canada paid a price for its commitment to our alliances and the rules they uphold. We had no historic ties to Afghanistan, no prior commitment to the human rights of its citizens. We were there because an ally was attacked and because the use of force must be subject to law.

Along the way, we made mistakes. We came up short, particularly for our Afghan friends and colleagues. But we responded to the attacks of 9/11 by demonstrating we have a role to play at the highest levels of international relations. We are willing to fight — and to die — for rules that make the international system fair for all of us, weak and powerful alike.

Ben Rowswell is president of the Canadian International Council.

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