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What To Remember?

Steve Saideman on the most important lesson we should remember about the war in Afghanistan.

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11 November, 2013
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

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

This is the last Remembrance Day for the Canadians in Afghanistan.  This time, next year, the last of the trainers and logistics troops will be back in Canada.  Already, there are those who are asking what will Canadians remember about the Afghanistan mission on future Remembrance days.  Until Canada gets in another nasty fight, it is likely that Afghanistan will remain quite visible in the rearview mirror.  Given that one of the lessons of Afghanistan may be to avoid such battles, this means that Afghanistan will resonate for a while to come.

Of course, our first thoughts this time of year center on the First World War.  Armistice Day has become Remembrance Day here in Canada, Veteran’s Day in the U.S., and elsewhere.  The poppies were “in bloom” in Edinburgh and Glasgow this weekend (I was at a conference speculating about the international security dynamics of Scotland’s referendum).  Our memories of the First World War are entirely constructed — the number of surviving veterans from that conflict is now zero.  What we think of that conflict is what has been passed down via press reports, history books, and what our relatives have told us. 

When we wonder in the future (or perhaps even now) what we accomplished in Afghanistan, we should remember that the First World War produced decidedly mixed results as well.  Yes, the conquest of France was prevented, Belgium became free again, and so on, but it was not the War to End all Wars after all.  The roots of the Second World War are very much in the First World War and how badly it ended.  Still, we mark the First World War as a victory for the Allies and for Canada, given the impact Canada’s army made at Vimy and elsewhere. 

The Second World War seemed so much more decisive, another victory with Germany defeated.  Yet if we remember the war’s origins, the official start of the war was the invasion of Poland, which really did not become free until the end of the Cold War.  While much was accomplished and much was sacrificed, the war did not produce a decisive victory of freedom over tyranny with the Iron Curtain descending in Europe shortly after the war. 

The point of this quick review of history is that every war, even the big victories, produce mixed results.  Even unconditional surrender does not produce completely desired results.  We also tend to forget why the war began as goals evolve, justifications proliferate, and so on. 

When it comes to Afghanistan, and as we look backwards, we must remember what motivated Canada’s involvement.  It was not to teach the girls of Afghanistan, it was not to bring democracy, it was not to fight polio, and it was not about building a dam.  No, Canada went to war because its closest and most important ally was attacked.  For the first time in NATO’s history, Article V of the NATO treaty — an attack upon one is an attack upon all — was invoked in the aftermath of 9/11.  Canada met its alliance commitment, as did every other member of NATO, although countries varied in what they considered their fair contribution.  Canada was not the only country to “punch above its weight.” 

Yes, meeting the alliance obligations cost the Canadians much blood and treasure, as it was costly to many other allies.  Canada agreed to take one of the hardest parts of Afghanistan and hold it.  It didn’t clear, hold, and build as the mantra of counter-insurgency doctrine requires, but Canada did hold Kandahar (with help).  While Americans have short memories, the next generation or two of politicians, officials, and military officers will remember that Canada was there when America needed help.  And when Canada needs help, the U.S. will aid its ally.  The war was an investment not in Afghanistan but in the U.S.-Canadian relationship.  Some may argue that Canada was “placating” the U.S., but a different way to look at it is that Canada was being a good ally.  Just as it was a good ally in First and Second World Wars and in Korea. 

In international relations, distrust is widespread.  Allies often disappear when the going gets tough.  Being reliable, as Canada was in the aftermath of 9/11, is important, especially given the limited means that Canada can or will dedicate to its own defence.  The relationships built in war time will benefit Canada in the future, sometimes in ways that are obvious and measurable and often less obviously.  We may not end up singing songs about this particular war, but the rhythms of this latest Afghan war will resonate among Canadians, Americans, Danes, Aussies, Dutch, French and other publics who gave some of their youth to fight a difficult war in a very challenging place.

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