Canada’s tragic legacy in Afghanistan

Canada’s role in the Afghan debacle cannot be overshadowed by its identity as a peacemaking nation.

Canadian armed forces members were welcomed home, marking the end of Canada's participation in the Afghanistan war [AFP]

When Graeme Smith, a former Globe and Mail correspondent, first took on the job of covering the war in Afghanistan, he thought that “civilisation” was finally coming to one of the poorest countries in the world. Smith thought of the old Western cartographers who gazed at the blank spots on their maps with hopeful trepidation, and wondered if Canada, too, was going to be part of a historical effort to bring an afflicted nation into sync with the rest of the world.

Canada may have turned its eyes away from Afghanistan, much like the rest of the world, its legacy in that country remains bloody and troubled.

Mapmakers during the age of Western exploration used drawings of sea monsters and dragons to signify the uncharted swathes of the world. A soldier conversing with Smith used this as an analogy. He said that unless such areas are unveiled and brought to heel, the dragons will eventually “bite” the rest of the world “in the ***”.

Several years later, with Afghanistan’s infrastructure and security not much better than when the invasion began, Smith openly acknowledges that the coalition troops “messed up“. Bringing the “basket of civilisation to Afghanistan” was tougher and more complex than the experts thought it would be. The United States is usually cast as the primary reason why Afghanistan is closer to civil war than a stable peace today, but the superpower’s coalition partners also deserve much of the blame.

Canada, specifically, had around 2,500 soldiers in the province of Kandahar in 2006, and was at the forefront of the counterinsurgency effort at the time. Some 158 Canadian troops have died since 2002, more than any other conflict since The Korean War. Canada may have turned its eyes away from Afghanistan, much like the rest of the world, its legacy in that country remains bloody and troubled.

The damage of sustained optimism

Smith’s compelling account of his time in Afghanistan, as laid out in his excellent war memoir The Dogs Are Eating Them Now, recounts how early optimism distorted complex realities. Coalition troops fighting near villages in Kandahar wanted to convince Afghan civilians that the foreign presence was there to fend off the real invaders: the Taliban. As laughable an idea as that may sound now, Smith’s writings show that the notion didn’t seem so far-fetched at the time. Of course, the Afghans weren’t exactly on the same page. They didn’t buy the hearts-and-minds campaign, and soon expressed their dismay against the invading forces.

Smith notes how disappointed he was when he recognised, as a journalist, the gap between this reality and public perception of the war. The Canadians led two battles in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar, the second being Operation Medusa, which Smith writes about in length. His own optimism was further tested when he realised how many Afghans fighting against the coalition troops had little affiliation with the Taliban. He began to realise just how little the foreigners really knew about how tribal feuds would complicate the “Good Afghans vs. Taliban” dichotomy. The lofty ideals of nation building and delivering democracy to Afghanistan gave way to the reality of internal discord and confusion.

In Greg Shupak’s excellent analysis of how progressive intellectuals and analysts encouraged the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, he notes that more children now die in Afghanistan than in any other country, according to the CIA’s 2014 estimates. He also notes that the Afghan state is weak, and that Afghanistan still remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The Asia Foundation reports that around half of around 6,500 surveyed Afghans fear that they may be subjected to violence in their local areas. In 2013, three scholars from Yale and Princeton published a study in the American Political Science Review that show why ISAF violence leads to support for the insurgency, but not vice versa.

Despite these depressing realities, the United States and its allies are all about saving face and exiting quietly. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is too busy these days planning for the upcoming federal elections to say too much about Afghanistan. When he and his cabinet have talked about Canada’s role in Afghanistan, honesty wasn’t always presented as the best policy.

Complicity in torture

One of the darkest aspects of the coalition’s role in Afghanistan is their relationship torture of Afghan detainees. The handing over of detainees by Canadian Forces (CF) to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) resulted in these detainees being systematically tortured.

Law professor Amir Attaran from the University of Ottawa sparked the controversy when he obtained documents in 2007 (via access-to-information requests) from the Department of National Defence that show how Canadian military police saw injuries on the bodies of detainees after being questioned by Afghan interrogators.

The Globe and Mail then published its own investigation that year, where Smith interviewed 30 men who “were beaten, whipped, starved, frozen, choked and subjected to electric shocks during interrogation” in Kandahar’s infamous prisons. A 2011 report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan states that investigators found “compelling evidence” that 46 percent of the detainees who were interviewed “experienced interrogation techniques at the hands of NDS officials that constituted torture, and that torture is practiced systematically in a number of NDS detention facilities throughout Afghanistan”.

In 2009, Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin, who served in Afghanistan for 17 months, testified to Members of Parliament that Canada’s “complicity in torture” severely damaged its effort in southern Afghanistan. Colvin testified that he began to report his concerns about torture to his superiors in 2006, and was met with what can only be described as sustained indifference.

The response from Harper and his cabinet was underwhelming to say the least. Then Minister of National Defense Gordon O’Connor stated to Parliament that the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent were responsible for ensuring that abuses of detainees didn’t occur. The Red Cross took exception to this statement by accusing O’Connor of misinterpreting its actual mandate, and that the aid organisation had no role in overseeing the detainee transfer processes between Canada and Afghanistan. O’Connor eventually apologised to Parliament and a new detainee transfer agreement was negotiated later in 2007.

Military police were later tasked with investigating whether the military were negligent when it came to transferring detainees to Afghan officials. Eight investigators were involved in this inquiry, and were overlooked by the Military Police Complaints Commission (MPCC). The commission came out with a report of its own in 2012, revealing that the Harper administration actively tried to thwart the original investigation.

Canada’s role in this bloody debacle cannot be overshadowed by the thin propaganda of how ‘good’ a war Afghanistan is supposed to be, or by the now-anachronistic representation of Canada as a peacemaking nation.

Furthermore, indifference among Canadian officials wasn’t exclusive to the Conservative Party. In 2010, the CBC reported that diplomat “Eileen Olexiuk, who arrived in Afghanistan in 2002 and was second-in-command at the Canadian Embassy in Kabul, said she told the Liberal government then in power that the transfer agreement didn’t do enough to protect detainees”. Then Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, along with his entire administration, didn’t respond to Olexiuk’s warnings in any meaningful way.

A deeply ambiguous legacy

As opposed to the invasion of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan is still portrayed as the “good war” for US President Barack Obama and his allies. But feel-good ideas like ridding the world of terrorism and delivering a stable democracy to Afghanistan have given way to reality. The West isn’t just leaving a country when it comes to Afghanistan. It’s leaving a conflict.

Just as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) romp through Iraq, the Afghan insurgency will continue to challenge the Afghan government. Though it’s unlikely that the Taliban will overtake the country and regain its pre-9/11 status, its rivalry with the Afghan state is still a source of great violence. Having gone through an election at this particularly difficult juncture, allegations of electoral fraud have yet again plagued the Afghan political system, a structure that the West has invested in and helped prop up. Meanwhile, it’s the Afghan people who are stuck between the indiscriminate violence of both the Afghan forces and the Taliban.

Canada’s role in this bloody debacle cannot be overshadowed by the thin propaganda of how “good” a war Afghanistan is supposed to be, or by the now-anachronistic representation of Canada as a peacemaking nation. As the main Western combat mission in Afghanistan draws to a close, the world seems to have forgotten about the troubled nation, along with the hubris and misunderstanding displayed by global interventionism in the months immediately after 9/11. Western hubris claimed that a foreign presence in Afghanistan would eventually turn Afghan popular opinion against the Taliban. That was and has never been the case.

Steven Zhou graduated from Carleton University with a Masters of Journalism and went on to work for the CBC and The Ottawa Citizen as a reporter. His writings have also appeared on The Globe and Mail, Counterpunch, Electronic Intifada, and J-Source, among other publications.

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