Canada suffered casualties during its mission in Afghanistan and it is tragic that a Western departure will not bring peace.
This contribution was published on The Hill Times on April 06, 2020
OTTAWA, CANADA — I am sure that you have all heard the Pottery Barn rule, right? It says “if you break it you buy it”. In other words, if you are responsible for damage it is incumbent on you to take ownership of the damaged goods.
Wars, or more narrowly occupations, are a good example of this rule. If country A invades and occupies country B, and gets rid of the pre-existing governing structure, the former becomes the new sheriff and now has to run everything from the water supply to the dog catcher.
Those under occupation, often already upset at the fact they are now under the tutelage of a new overseer they had no say in choosing, will criticise every shortcoming and failure, whether or not it is the fault of the newbies. After all, if you cannot rail against the ‘government’ who can you bitch about?
As occupations tend to cost a lot of money, both in blood and treasure, those behind them may seek an easy way out, if for no other reason than to stem the financial and human bleeding. Regardless of the initial motivations of the decision to enter the scene in the first place – benevolent aid or violent aggression- there comes a time when nations realise it is necessary to pull up stakes and head home.
Regardless of the initial motivations of the decision to enter the scene in the first place – benevolent aid or violent aggression- there comes a time when nations realise it is necessary to pull up stakes and head home.
In the best case scenario the occupiers have succeeded in leaving a well-trained, competent, and honest group to assume the mantle of national leadership. More often, I fear, the wheels come off the bus as soon as the last soldier boards a Hercules and heads home.
Afghanistan sure seems to fit this latter mould.
If you break it you buy it
Whether we are referring to the blighted Soviet invasion in 1979 and ignominious retreat a scant decade later, or the more recent decision by the Trump Administration to quit Afghanistan, the safer bet is that country will not soon become a beacon of democracy. Quite the contrary.
The US President’s claim that the Taliban have ‘promised’ not to allow terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda to operate on its territory is specious. This ‘deal’ was all the more laughable as it was signed without meaningful input from the ‘elected’ Afghan government. Many people could be excused for seeing this agreement as a fig leaf to hide what Trump has always wanted to do: bring US troops home. A recent Washington Post expose showed how multiple agencies knew that the ‘progress’ being sold to the American people was a lie.
So, what has happened since the pact was signed in late February of this year? Even a cursory glance at English-language Afghan media shows definitively that the ‘peace-loving’ Taliban have engaged in daily attacks on Afghan military forces, police services and civilians. The smaller but probably crazier Islamic State in Khurasan has been equally active. There are few signs that any of this will get better soon.
What if any lessons are to be learned here?
First and foremost, a country that decides to send an army to take and hold a foreign land may want to think twice before doing so. There are multiple elements that can, and usually do, go wrong. An exit strategy should at a minimum accompany the entry one. Perhaps the choice to occupy should be a last, not a first, resort.
Secondly, it is probably not a good idea to put any trust in your interlocutor if that party is also a terrorist group (which the Taliban are). These antediluvian Islamist violent extremists have no intention of allowing Afghanistan to keep what little ‘progress’ our collective Western presence helped to establish. Terrorists are seldom honest brokers.
And for us in Canada? We lost 165 Canadians — 158 soldiers and 7 civilians – and a much, much larger number to PTSD and other mental (and physical) ailments during our 13-year deployment (2001-2014). We spent $2.2-billion on development assistance during that same time frame. All of that is in jeopardy.
We lost 165 Canadians — 158 soldiers and 7 civilians – and a much, much larger number to PTSD and other mental (and physical) ailments during our 13-year deployment (2001-2014). We spent $2.2-billion on development assistance during that same time frame.
None of this should be construed as dismissive of the efforts and intentions of the Canadian men and women who served in Afghanistan with the armed forces, the diplomatic service or the development and aid sectors. These are good Canadians who did their utmost in very trying circumstances.
But it is fair to ask what in the end was achieved. When what we built is torn down as soon as we leave we can be excused for questioning the whole initiative. After all, it is not for nothing that Afghanistan has been called the ‘graveyard of empires‘.
And yet some would respond that in the wake of 9/11 we had no choice but to invade and punish the terrorists responsible for that catastrophic act. Really? There was no other way? When Israel was hit by terrorism at the Munich Olympics in 1972 did it invade and occupy countries where the terrorists were holed up? No, it slowly and methodically found them and took them out (NB I am NOT advocating extrajudicial assassination: I am just trying to say that sending in an army to run a foreign land is rarely a good idea). The 2011 US Special Forces operation that located and killed Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden was a much more judicious use of military might.
Graveyard of empires
Let’s think very, very carefully before we hit the ‘send’ button on military deployments. And let’s not engage in ‘negotiations’ with terrorist groups. The great Islamist extremist ideologue Abdallah Azzam (subject of a new and very comprehensive biography by Norwegian scholar Thomas Hegghammer) famously said: “Jihad and the rifle alone; no negotiations, no conferences, and no dialogues”.
Maybe he was on to something.