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What we should have learned in Afghanistan

A former foreign service officer in Kandahar on lessons from Canada’s longest war

By: /
15 September, 2021
Canadian soldiers in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan after a day of intense fighting, June 2006. John Moore/Getty Images

Like many Canadians I remember where I was on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was working as the press secretary for Defence Minister Art Eggleton and took the morning off to get a root canal. It didn’t happen. The departmental liaison to the minister’s office came into the dentist’s office and pulled me from the chair. Something big was happening, she said, and journalists were calling. I returned to the office in time to watch the second tower fall. Journalists called to ask who could do this. I didn’t know. All we could say was that we believed Canadians were safe.

Answers came quickly. At a pre-dawn meeting the next morning in a secure room at National Defence headquarters, I heard Osama bin Laden’s name for the first time — or, rather, I heard a mistaken version of his name. The prime minister’s national security advisor referred to the suspected planner of the attacks as “Osom bin Laden.” It was a small but prescient mistake, revealing what would become a defining attribute of the next decade. Canada had no real understanding of who we were dealing with or what we were getting into.

“Canada had no real understanding of who we were dealing with or what we were getting into.”

That morning, we were also briefed on the al-Qaeda terrorist network that bin Laden led and that was sheltered by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan for years, largely unmolested, until it struck America’s heartland and murdered some 3,000 people, including Canadians. How could we and indeed the entire international community let this happen?  Like many Canadians both in and outside government, that question and a desire to prevent it from happening again defined my life over the next two decades.

I would go on to work for two more defence ministers and serve as a foreign service officer with Task Force Kandahar in Afghanistan for 14 months from 2008-2010. At times, particularly in Afghanistan, it would be a privilege to bear witness as Canada became a battle-tested nation. Frequently, though, it was a painful and disillusioning crash course on how the reality of war on the ground clashed with the surreal nature of politics in Ottawa.

Canada’s long war and civilian intervention in Afghanistan, from 2001 to 2014, should have taught this country a lot. But there has been little institutional reckoning, no lessons-learned reports — at least none that was proactively publicly released. But a reckoning is necessary so that mistakes are not repeated and successes might be. Here, then, are some of the things I learned from Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan.

1. Government must champion conflict management expertise.

Many diplomats and other civil servants who returned from Kandahar and Kabul had little opportunity to share what they had learned. Some didn’t even have jobs to come back to. Those who did confronted issue fatigue from officials around them who no longer wanted to hear about Afghanistan and discouraged references to it. The lack of caretaking of this expertise, and of people generally, meant the government struggled to retain the right people and to recruit those interested in hardship postings or conflict resolution in the future. A cadre of officials with civilian-military and in-theatre experience was lost. 

This lack of expertise is even more stark on the political side, and it’s gotten worse. Politics is a game for the young, and roles are temporary. Most current advisors were not out of grade school on September 11, 2001. But even in the years following my Kandahar posting interest in the country was waning. “There are no votes in Afghanistan,” went the refrain, the implication meaning there was little reason to care.

War teaches that knowing the circumstances on the ground, or the “ground truth” is critical, but so is understanding how much you don’t know. At some point everyone is schooled on their own hubris. I was no exception.

One of my final tasks in theatre was to go to Sarpoza Prison in Kandahar City. Corrections Canada had done substantial work to bring the prison as close to United Nations standards as possible, but corruption was still pervasive. Prison guards faced threats and bribes from both the Taliban and common criminals. We were there to tell the warden Canada would help raise salaries for those at the prison to discourage this corruption and help him retain staff.

Something felt off during my walk through the prison. A month or two later, soon after my return to Canada, news broke that almost 500 prisoners escaped from Sarpoza through an underground tunnel to a house across the street. It is widely accepted that the warden and many of his guards were complicit, if not outright helpful.

In a photo taken by corrections official on the day of our visit, I am surrounded by five guards. None of them is looking me in the eye. I now realize that is because I am pictured possibly meters away from a tunnel in progress. I keep this photo as a reminder that just when you think you know your surroundings, you don’t. Hubris can only be buffered by real life experience and the wisdom that comes from mistakes.

The author in the Sarpoza Prison in Kandahar City, shortly before a mass prisoner escape. Courtesy of Renée Filiatrault

2. The fate of Afghanistan matters to Canadians.

It’s impossible to discuss Canada’s legacy in Afghanistan without speaking of the loss felt by Canadians. I carried a flagged casket during a ramp ceremony in Kandahar. Inside was Michelle Lang, a journalist about my age. It is a weight that never leaves you, and it shapes your values and how you conduct yourself in all the years that follow. Canadians and their families have been hurt by this mission. Many returned suffering wounds both inside and out. Governments forget this at their peril. This was demonstrated in 2019 when a memorial to fallen Canadian soldiers that had stood for years at the Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan was dedicated in a private ceremony at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. Veterans and their families were not invited and were furious.

How Canada has treated the Afghan interpreters who worked with Canadian soldiers and diplomats reveals a similar blind spot.

Those interpreters wore the Canadian flag on their shoulder and risked their lives daily. The interpreter with us at Sarpoza Prison for example, wore an oversized jumpsuit, headscarf and goggles to camouflage his or her identity. Threatening letters delivered in the middle of the night, reprisals, hangings and beheadings were real then and remain so today as the country falls once again to the Taliban.

Yet successive governments have shown little interest in bringing Canada’s Afghan partners to this country and, I believe, would have done even less if not for pressure from the public and especially from veterans who know just how much they, and their country, owe the Afghans they worked with. Many of the Afghans who worked with the Canadian government, and with Canadian journalists and NGOs, failed to get out of the country when Canada tried to evacuate its citizens and Afghan partners last month. They are in hiding or on the run. 

Successive governments have shown little interest in bringing Canada’s Afghan partners to this country and, I believe, would have done even less if not for pressure from the public and especially from veterans.

More recently, Justin Trudeau’s decision to dissolve Parliament and call an election while the regime in Afghanistan collapsed dominated the attention of both the media and public in the first days of the election campaign. One can’t help but conclude that the government underestimated the interest of Canadians again.

3. There is nothing plausible about “plausible deniability”

From the beginning, the question of how foreign militaries in Afghanistan would deal with insurgents removed from the battlefield was a difficult one. For Canada, it was clear that we possessed neither the resources nor the will to run stateside facilities, like the United States did at Guantanamo Bay. Consequently, transferring detainees to either the Americans or Afghan authorities was the only remaining option. As the transferring nation, Canada remained responsible for any consequent abuses, and if transferred detainees knowing they would be abused, it would be in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Successive defence ministers mishandled this issue by not communicating the latest information they had to the prime minister or the public. Prime ministers then tried to defend themselves by claiming ignorance. In January 2002, a photo of Canadian special forces with prisoners in hand appeared on the front page of the Globe and Mail. Defence Minister Art Eggleton admitted he knew Canadians had taken prisoners in Afghanistan but hadn’t informed Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien of this for several days.

Later, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government faced allegations that it ignored Canadian diplomatic reports from Afghanistan alleging that prisoners captured by Canadians and handed over to Afghan authorities were tortured. The government’s obfuscation on the matter eroded public trust.

Bottom-line: plausible deniability is not plausible when it is your job to know the latest, respond to the issue and be accountable for any failures. The Canadian Armed Forces chain of command is a hierarchy. A lack of accountability by the minister at the top means accountability crumbles downward.

4. Be direct when speaking to Canadians about how tough the fight will be

By 2008, it was common knowledge that Canada’s area of operations, Kandahar — the spiritual home of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and centre of the insurgency — was the toughest province in the country to hold. Journalists in the media embed program bravely covered that fight, while the government pushed out talking points on wheat distribution and signature projects.

To be sure, development and governance are a crucial part of counterinsurgency. But clearing the Taliban remained the real fight for much of Canada’s engagement. That reality was clear to anyone on the ground and should have been reflected by politicians in Ottawa.

Canada’s approach to public relations in Afghanistan was also rendered inefficient by micromanagement and caution. Messages delivered by the military on the ground first had to be cleared back in Ottawa. The Taliban, by contrast, often responded immediately to journalists’ queries, usually in the name of a man named Zabullah (who was likely several people).

More fundamentally, what Canada promised in the spirit of early optimism at the beginning did not translate into what was achievable on the ground. It would take generations to do what many political leaders seemed to think could be accomplished in a few fighting seasons. We didn’t have generations. The oft-quoted line that western militaries had the watches but the Taliban had the time is true. By promising too much, western governments made it difficult to secure public support for more modest goals that might have been reachable. America’s wholesale abandonment of Afghanistan, and the tragic repercussions of that unfolding now, is the inevitable result.

5. Focus on realistic outcomes, not on making a contribution just to be involved

Justin Trudeau began his time as prime minister trumpeting Canada’s return to peacekeeping. In reality, Canada’s supposed return to peacekeeping — a deployment to Mali — was modest and quickly over. We didn’t live up to our promises and our credibility suffered.

Further, Canada didn’t persuasively explain what it intended to achieve in Mali in the first place and what it had accomplished when it left. As a middle power, we are typically aligned with institutions like the UN, the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan or NATO, and so we have rarely taken national responsibility for outcomes. Instead, we speak of contributions, as if being part of the team is enough.

There is value in pulling weight within an alliance. Canada is far too weak to protect itself on its own. But unless we hold ourselves accountable for actual outcomes, the multilateralism that we as Canadians hold so sacred becomes little more than cover for a limited liability approach.

The answer it to promise only what we intend to deliver, commit only to missions with clear and achievable goals and measure our results against those goals. Like many lessons from Canada’s time in Afghanistan, this has been a costly one to learn.

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