More than 160 Canadians lost their lives, more than 1,000 were wounded, and the government spent over $20 billion during Canada’s mission in Afghanistan.
Stephen M. Saideman, a scholar and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University, re-evaluates Canada’s performance in Afghanistan in his new book Adapting in the Dust: Lessons Learned from Canada’s War in Afghanistan.
Why Afghanistan and Kandahar
“Canada did not go to Afghanistan to turn it into a democracy that respected human rights and fostered functioning institutions,” Saideman writes. Canada’s objectives were to support its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, particularly the U.S., and change its own international standing.
NATO connects Canada to Europe and gives Canada, at least in theory, equal standing to the more powerful U.S., writes Saideman. It may also prevent American unilateralism, as the U.S. will have to take into account the preferences of other members of the organization.
“Canada did not go to Afghanistan to turn it into a democracy that respected human rights and fostered functioning institutions.”
Moreover, Canada has a strong interest in strengthening its relationship with the U.S. given its economic interdependence, limited defence budget and geographic location. The Afghan mission cemented that relationship.
The insurgency was much less intense in northern and western Afghanistan, but Canada decided to deploy to Kandahar in southeastern Afghanistan, which became one of the most violent sites of the war.
The conventional argument has been that the Canadian Forces (CF) had intentionally downplayed the risks associated with a mission in Kandahar. However, Saideman says that the mission in Kandahar met the aspirations of then prime minister, Paul Martin, the CF, and department of foreign affairs, trade and development.
Each was interested in redefining their own role and Canada’s role in the international arena. They also believed they could make a meaningful difference on the ground.
Warriors and/or peacekeepers?
The CF, over the course of the mission, changed its rules of engagement, its culture, and its status, both in Canada and with its international partners, following the adverse effects of the Somalia Affair. The 1993 military scandal involved the death of 16-year-old Somali national Shidane Arone at the hands of two Canadian soldiers during a humanitarian mission in Somalia.
Saideman is extremely critical of parliamentarians from all political parties in their handling of the mission in Afghanistan.
The current generation of CF officers, Saideman says, were keen “to be seen as warriors and not as peacekeepers.” General Rick Hillier, former Chief of the Defence Staff for CF said “[t]he immense frustration at the ignorance of so many who labeled us ‘only’ peacekeepers had disappeared” following the Afghan mission.
Saideman notes the sacrifices made by the CF, but is also critical of characterizations of the Afghan Mission that “were too optimistic.” It is in the CF’s interest, the author says, to address this credibility gap created by its representation of the Afghan mission; “otherwise, it will be ignored as politicians will find its overly optimistic perspectives to be less than useful.”
Canadian Afghan detainee issue
In 2007, reports emerged that the CF and the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not address reports that Afghan detainees held by CF were subjected to torture after they were transferred to Afghan forces. This could have potentially constituted war crimes.
Saideman is extremely critical of parliamentarians from all political parties in their handling of the mission in Afghanistan. He says that the opposition parties’ fixation on the detainees was at the expense of addressing a much more important issue – the mission’s failure to establish any semblance of good governance.
Is fighting a violent war in a foreign country to enhance our international standing a Canadian value?
He also notes that members of the Standing Committee on National Defence do not have security clearances and are therefore not authorized to see classified documents.
In other words, they do not know what the CF may be doing. This lack of knowledge and context can prevent parliamentarians from holding the Minister of National Defence accountable.
A good start
“If Canada deployed troops to Afghanistan to build a self-sustaining, stable, secure democracy,” its mission failed, writes Saideman.
However, Canada supported its allies, honoured its commitments, and made serious efforts to change things for the better in Afghanistan. Therefore, the mission “was worth it insofar as it constituted significant support for the most important multilateral security organization and its most important ally.”
Saideman’s book is replete with strong analyses. However, it does not study the success or failures of Canada’s Counter-Insurgency principles and efforts. If Canada is to get involved in similar missions in the future, the lessons learned from this effort in Afghanistan will be helpful.
Furthermore, while the author says that deploying troops to Afghanistan “was consistent with Canadian interests and values,” he does not mention what those values are. Are they only to support our allies?
Since Saideman says that helping the Afghans and building a democracy were not Canadian objectives, then we have to ask a tough question: Is fighting a violent war in a foreign country to enhance our international standing a Canadian value?
Saideman’s normative assessment poses moral questions about “Canadian values” and the construction of national interests with regard to the Afghan mission that his book does not answer. His contribution remains a good start to revisiting Canada’s Afghan mission.
Alireza Ahmadian is a Vancouver-based writer and researcher. He has a master’s degree of arts in international affairs and diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He has appeared on BBC World News and BBC Persian to discuss world affairs and is published on online forums such as New Canadian Media, BBC, and foreign policy blogs.