This piece appeared in The Hill Times on April 15, 2019
As all Canadians know, our country has a longstanding relationship with Afghanistan. In the aftermath of 9/11 the government decided to send our military, first special forces, then regular troops, to engage in what began as counter terrorism (CT) and ended as a combination of CT and state building missions. In all, by the time the combat aspect of the deployment ended in 2011 (forces withdrew for good in 2014), 159 soldiers -and five civilians – were killed.
So even if the salience of Afghanistan has decreased for most of us, it has a nasty habit of coming back to haunt us. Three recent stories remind us of the time ‘our boys’ spent there, re-raising the spectre of why we were there in the first place.
The first instance was a series of lawsuits alleging mefloquine poisoning expected to be filed by veterans within weeks. Among the soldiers participating in the legal action are those who served in Afghanistan and who claim that use of the anti-malarial medication has led to mental issues such as PTSD. Canadian forces were helping to combat Al Qaeda (AQ) and their Afghan terrorist hosts, the Taliban.
The second has to do with someone who has dominated headlines in this land for decades: Omar Khadr. The son of an AQ lieutenant, the boy soldier (or better stated boy terrorist) was captured by US troops after he killed one US soldier and wounded another. Bundled off to Guantanamo by the Americans, he was held in custody for a decade before released to Canadian custody. After a few years bouncing back and forth in the Canadian legal system he has finally been freed without condition. In late March an Alberta judge ruled that his war crimes sentence has expired. He is now allowed to go where he wants and meet whom he wants.
He is also, thanks to Joe and Jane Taxpayer, $10.5 million richer pursuant to a settlement over alleged Canadian government violation of his Charter rights (i.e CSIS agents interviewed him in Gitmo). As an aside, this payout was an abomination. CSIS was fulfilling its legal obligations under its Act – interrogating a known terrorist – and if anyone should have ponied up the money it should have been the US, not Canada.
If Mr. Khadr were smart he would lay low for a while, a long while. Most Canadians opposed his bounty and are sick and tired of hearing about him. What we do not need more of is press coverage on Mr. Khadr.
Exhibit #3: Joshua Boyle. He is facing 19 charges, including assault with a weapon, sexual assault and forcible confinement and is being tried by judge alone in provincial court in Ottawa. We are now witnessing a ‘he-said, she-said’ spectacle as his estranged wife, Caitlin Coleman, has been on the stand of late.
The tie to Afghanistan – and to the Khadrs – is strong here as well. Mr. Boyle was once married to Zaynab Khadr, Omar’s sister, a supporter of Islamist extremist causes. He also thought that taking his pregnant wife to Afghanistan ‘hiking’ was a good idea. The two were ‘kidnapped’ by the Taliban and held for five years in which, somehow, they had three kids in all, in addition to one miscarriage. How ‘captive’ people have carnal relations and grow their family is beyond me, as is why a man takes his expecting wife to Afghanistan in the first place. There is a lot more to this story that meets the eye.
There you have it. Afghanistan still resonates for us years after the end of the military mission. I imagine a lot of soldiers are still suffering mental and physical suffering from what they experienced over there. But it was all worth it, right? Afghanistan is a functioning democracy, thanks in part to what we accomplished, correct? Not quite. In fact the US is now negotiating a ‘peace’ treaty with Taliban terrorists. Developments like this make you wonder what the point was. This is not intended against the best efforts of the men and women in uniform who carried out their orders to the best of their abilities.
So, no, Afghanistan is nowhere near where we – or most Afghans for that matter – wanted it to be. It is not for nothing that Afghanistan has earned the nickname “the graveyard of empires”. And it is not going away any time soon.
Phil Gurski is a former strategic analyst at CSIS and the author of ‘An End to the War on Terrorism’.