Canadian troops are finally out of Afghanistan after 12 years of military action there, but not before 158 soldiers were brought back to their families in coffins and more than 2000 came home wounded. The human cost for Canada’s participation in this military action also includes almost 7000 now on military disability and more than 5000 living with post-traumatic stress disorder. The growing number of suicides among the military is also part of the fallout.
Operations had been winding down for the past two years and the last Canadian soldiers came home last week. While Prime Minister Stephen Harper has held to his decision to have the Canadian military out of that troubled country by 2014, it may be hard for many Canadians to even remember why we were there in the first place.
In what is now considered a questionable logistical decision, America’s political leadership and its allies decided that retaliation for the bombing attacks on September 11, 2001 in New York City and on the Pentagon in Washington D.C. would be in Afghanistan, because those held responsible for the attacks on U.S. soil, al-Qaida and leader Osama bin Laden, were thought to have been given refuge there. In May 2011 a U.S. military special operations team killed bin Laden in Pakistan.
The military action that stationed allied forces within Afghanistan to fight against the Taliban was its own monumental challenge. Somehow, the story changed from the search for bin Laden to one of helping Afghan girls get to school and helping to rebuild the country’s infrastructure. This was against the backdrop of civil war among tribal groups and long held cultural beliefs which, from a Western view, held females in oppression. Canada’s military also took on a different profile. They were no longer just noble peacekeepers, they were warriors.
Rushing into that civil war in 1979, it took Russia 10 years to learn what NATO forces led by the United States must at least tacitly acknowledge after almost 13 years, that any military action in Afghanistan will eventually be frustrated. NATO’s military were fighting a conventional war under accepted military terms of engagement while Afghanistan’s Taliban and Mujahedeen were fighting a war based on religion, culture and tribal customs.
Given the cost in lives, the fuzzy understanding of why we were there in the first place and the more than $11 billion in related expenditures, we have to question whether it has been a worthwhile endeavour.
We know to some extent the price paid by Canada and that, despite withdrawing from this war, there is still a commitment to support the government in Kabul by contributing $110 million between 2015 and 2018. But after all that effort, will it have any transformative effect in Afghanistan? Reports are that Afghan president Hamid Karzai has recently been in secret talks with Taliban leaders, and it is expected that once all NATO forces are out of Afghanistan, there will be a resurgence of the Taliban, even in a position of power as the country’s rulers.
Another issue that NATO forces including the Canadian military could not change is the vast cultivation of poppies for heroin production, which generates significant foreign currency for this underdeveloped economy. Where there is an illegal drug trade there is also violence and corruption. The likelihood that the military and the Karzai government (or its successor) will be able to rein in this industry is slim, at best.
After all the resources expended not only by Canada but by 50 NATO countries including the United States – whose more than US$400 billion military expenditure almost crippled its economy – will that country experience the kind of freedom envisioned for it if the Afghan military fails to maintain the level of security foreign intervention tried to construct, and the country falls again under control of the Taliban?
The reaction from the West after 9-11 is understandable, but does anyone realistically believe Western military might could have saved that beleaguered country?