A few weeks ago I commented on the long (2001 to 2014) Afghanistan campaign … one hesitates to call it a war; the Canadian Forces were, pretty clearly, at war; Canada was, equally clearly, not. It was Canada’s largest and most costly, in both blood and treasure, military operation since Korea (1950 to 1953) but it did not have, as Korea did, the broad, general support of the Canadian people. Even the decision (2014) to add the dates of South Africa (1899 to 1902) and Afghanistan to the National War Memorial stirred controversy as Liberals tried to make a war that we entered, somewhat timidly, under Jean Chrétien and in which we expanded our role, quite dramatically, under Paul Martin, into a Conservative War: Stephen Harper’s war.
I said, back in late 2019, that “Western leaders (and soldiers) were willfully blind to Pakistan’s role (sanctioned, I suspect, by China) which was to support, actively, al Qaeda and give sanctuary to bin Laden. In other words, we were fighting a regional alliance ~ Afghanistan was just part of the ‘battlespace’ ~ and our lines of communications, our main supply routes, lay in enemy territory … but we refused to recognize that Pakistan (and, arguably, by extension, China) and Saudi Arabia, too, were big parts of the enemy alliance … [and] … in many Western nations the militarily sensible aim of destroying al Qaeda, and, therefore, by implication, killing tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of young Afghan, African, Arab and West Asian men, was not popular.“
Now, I see a new article in Foreign Affairs, in which Dr Carter Malkasian assesses what went wrong. He reminds us, first, that “The United States has been fighting a war in Afghanistan for over 18 years,” and “On October 7, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush launched an invasion of Afghanistan in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks. In the months that followed, U.S. and allied forces … [which included Canadian special forces elements from JTF2] … and their partners in the Northern Alliance, an Afghan faction, chased out al Qaeda and upended the Taliban regime. Bin Laden fled to Pakistan; the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, went to the mountains. Taliban commanders and fighters returned to their homes or escaped to safe havens in Pakistan. Skillful diplomatic efforts spearheaded by a U.S. special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, established a process that created a new Afghan government led by the conciliatory Hamid Karzai.” Then, he says, “For the next four years, Afghanistan was deceptively peaceful. The U.S. military deaths during that time represent just a tenth of the total that have occurred during the war. Bush maintained a light U.S. military footprint in the country (around 8,000 troops in 2002, increasing to about 20,000 by the end of 2005) aimed at completing the defeat of al Qaeda and the Taliban and helping set up a new democracy that could prevent terrorists from coming back … [this was when Jean Chrétien approved a one-time, short term Canadian task force which served, briefly, in Kandahar ~ this was called Operation APOLLO in Canada] … The idea was to withdraw eventually, but there was no clear plan for how to make that happen, other than killing or capturing al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Still, political progress encouraged optimism … [and, in 2003, Prime Minister Chrétien authorized Operation ATHENA which began with a deployment to Kabul and then shifted, under Prime Minister Paul Martin, to a full-scale combat mission in Kandahar province] … In January 2004, an Afghan loya jirga, or grand council, approved a new constitution. Presidential and then parliamentary elections followed. All the while, Karzai strove to bring the country’s many factions together.“
“But,” Dr Malkasian explains, “in Pakistan, the Taliban were rebuilding. In early 2003, Mullah Omar, still in hiding, sent a voice recording to his subordinates calling on them to reorganize the movement and prepare for a major offensive within a few years. Key Taliban figures founded a leadership council known as the Quetta Shura, after the Pakistani city where they assembled. Training and recruitment moved forward. Cadres infiltrated back into Afghanistan. In Washington, however, the narrative of success continued to hold sway, and Pakistan was still seen as a valuable partner.” It was the same in Canada. We were, we were told, succeeding in Kandahar while the Americans foundered in their ill-conceived and very unpopular war against Iraq. In fact, it seemed to me, then (in 2003) and still seems now, that Jean Chrétien approved Operation ATHENA because he was persuaded, falsely as it turned out, that Canada needed to be fully engaged in Afghanistan, fighting the ill-considered Global War on Terror, so that the Americans would not ask us to join the mission in Iraq. In fact, as I think is now clear, the Americans we not asking for our help but our own “departments of foreign affairs and defence … [for their own reasons were putting] … enormous pressure on the government to do something to appease Washington.” Our diplomats and admirals and generals desperately wanted (still want) to be liked in Washington. The simple fact is that we are, usually, ignored because we are almost never “on the radar” because we don’t do enough to merit being liked or disliked by the Americans.
Anyway, I recall that the then Defence Minister John Mccallum was sent to Brussels, to NATO HQ, to plead for a “leadership” role in the newly created, at European instigation, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Our European friends welcomed our participation and first Andrew Leslie, then a major general, as I recall) and later Rick Hiller went to Afghanistan and become minor-league media darlings and then used their newfound “weight” to push Prime Minister Martin for an expanded role. When Stephen Harper became prime minister the role continued, with greater political support. Both the prime minister and Peter MacKay who was, first, foreign minister and then defence minister, were almost desperate to earn “brownie points” with US Presidents George W Bush and, later, Barack Obama, with whom cross-border relations were noticeably cool. They went to Afganistan, themselves, and made much of Canada’s contributions and sacrifices. It didn’t help. Canada wanted to project its political and socio-economic power, but it simply didn’t have enough to impress the only people who mattered: the Americans.
Let me be very clear. Canadian sailors, soldiers and air force members performed, almost universally, in an absolutely sterling manner, from the most junior ordinary seaman to the colonels and generals, including those who hold senior command positions, today. At sea, on the ground and in the air, Canadians were the military “gold standard” in Afghanistan, and our American friends said that, too. But being outstanding professional soldiers did not contribute to getting pipelines approved or relief from softwood lumber tariffs. More importantly, the Canadian people never got behind the “war” in Afghanistan. Despite outpourings of emotion when casualties were brought home, as I said, five years ago, “despite all the yellow ribbons and red t-shirts, Canadians’ “support” for the troops, while a mile wide, is less than an inch deep.“
Carter Malkasian continues his brief history of the Afghan mission, saying that: “Violence increased slowly; then, in February 2006, the Taliban pounced. Thousands of insurgents overran entire districts and surrounded provincial capitals. The Quetta Shura built what amounted to a rival regime. Over the course of the next three years, the Taliban captured most of the country’s south and much of its east. U.S. forces and their NATO allies were sucked into heavy fighting … [remember Operation MEDUSA in 2006? I do. Some of my friends were there. Casualties were heavy, but both valour and exemplary combat leadership were plentiful] … By the end of 2008, U.S. troop levels had risen to over 30,000 without stemming the tide. Yet the overall strategy did not change. Bush remained determined to defeat the Taliban and win what he deemed “a victory for the forces of liberty … [but] … President Barack Obama came into office in January 2009 promising to turn around what many of his advisers and supporters saw as “the good war” in Afghanistan (as opposed to “the bad war” in Iraq, which they mostly saw as a lost cause). After a protracted debate, he opted to send reinforcements to Afghanistan: 21,000 troops in March and then, more reluctantly, another 30,000 or so in December, putting the total number of U.S. troops in the country at close to 100,000. Wary of overinvesting, he limited the goals of this “surge”—modeled on the one that had turned around the U.S. war in Iraq a few years earlier—to removing the terrorist threat to the American homeland. Gone was Bush’s intent to defeat the Taliban no matter what, even though the group could not be trusted to stop terrorists from using Afghanistan as a refuge. Instead, the United States would deny al Qaeda a safe haven, reverse the Taliban’s momentum, and strengthen the Afghan government and its security forces … [that was, I believe, a sensible and achievable mission] … Over the next three years, the surge stabilized the most important cities and districts, vitalized the Afghan army and police, and rallied support for the government. The threat from al Qaeda fell after the 2011 death of bin Laden at the hands of U.S. special operations forces in Pakistan. Yet the costs of the surge outweighed the gains. Between 2009 and 2012, more than 1,500 U.S. military personnel were killed and over 15,000 were wounded—more American casualties than during the entire rest of the 18-year war. At the height of the surge, the United States was spending approximately $110 billion per year in Afghanistan, roughly 50 percent more than annual U.S. federal spending on education … [and then, with his aim almost achieved] … Obama came to see the war effort as unsustainable. In a series of announcements between 2010 and 2014, he laid out a schedule to draw down U.S. military forces to zero (excluding a small embassy presence) by the end of 2016.“
By that time Prime Minister Harer had. concluded that the Afghanistan campaign was some or all of:
- Strategically mismanaged;
- Increasingly unpopular;
- Politically damaging to his government; and/or
- Unaffordable ~ in the slow recovery from the Great Recession. He needed to cut defence spending which is hard to do when a country has troops in battle.
In 2014 Canada withdrew, honourably, from Afghanistan. Canada
continued continues to support the USA in what’s left of the Global War on Terror, now the campaign to defeat Da’esh/ISIL/ISIS. America still doesn’t notice.