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COMMENTARY: Canada’s war in Afghanistan was complicated, but it was no failure

Pentagon chief visits Afghanistan for look at U.S.’ longest war
WATCH: U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper visited Afghanistan on Sunday for a firsthand look at America's longest war. While there, he met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

An internal Pentagon report, savagely critical of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, made front-page news last week in the Washington Post.

In Canada, meanwhile, the story has provoked much hand-wringing and negativity about what our own country achieved there after spending 12 years and $20 billion in the fight and on humanitarian aid — all at the cost of 158 lives and more than 2,000 wounded.

Headlines such as “Canada utterly failed in Afghanistan” are sweeping generalizations and therefore unhelpful. And they ignore the Ottawa context, where expectations of what the use of armed force can achieve are very different than in Washington.

Besides, who decides how to measure whether Canada’s Afghanistan mission is judged to have been a victory or a defeat? No matter what metric is used, the verdict cannot be a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Any judgment of the mission’s success must fall somewhere between these two extremes.

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READ MORE: New documents show U.S. government misled public on progress in Afghanistan war

The Post’s revelations, while interesting, were not actually a scoop. Almost everything in the so-called Afghanistan Papers has been chewed over for years by military leaders and think tanks. Some of the shortcomings were discussed in the U.S. and in Canada as far back as 2002.

This is not to say the Pentagon’s conclusions, as published by the Post, were wrong. The Americans’ many mistakes in Afghanistan began immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. From the outset and even today, with 13,000 U.S. and 17,000 NATO forces still in-country, there has been no clear strategy and no end game for what has accurately been dubbed the Forever War.

There were several American strategic blunders. One was the decision not only to find and eliminate those who planned the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but also to take on the much bigger, more difficult project of ridding the world of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Another was to fund a huge nation-building project in a country that, economically-speaking, was not far removed from the Stone Age. Much of the cash ended up being spent by Afghan political and tribal leaders on gaudy mansions in Kabul or Dubai.

Afghan air pollution could be deadlier than war
Afghan air pollution could be deadlier than war

Perhaps the worst was the pure folly of trying to do this without also taking a much, much harder line on Pakistan, which has abetted such terrorist organizations for decades. Pakistan harboured and still acts as the biggest incubator for many of the jihadists who have attacked U.S. and Western interests in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

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As forward-deployed troops in Kandahar lamented 10 or 12 years ago, most of the extremists killing Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan spent their winters recuperating in Pakistan’s frontier regions. While in these sanctuaries, they received protection, medical care, weapons and training.

Meanwhile, the U.S., Canada and other countries fighting in Afghanistan were handing over billions of dollars to Pakistan in the form of humanitarian aid and funding for infrastructure projects.

Nor were NATO and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency able to cut off the production and exporting of opium, with which the Taliban financed many of its operations. Another persistent problem was that the Afghan political leadership was always divided and often were not the most dependable allies.

READ MORE: U.S. and Taliban enter into new round of peace talks

I witnessed all four iterations of the Canadian mission. It started in 2002 by using the heavily bomb-damaged airfield at Kandahar as a base to hunt for Osama bin Laden, then moved north to patrol the perimeter of Kabul from Camp Julien. The mission returned to Kandahar for five years of combat, and ended in 2014 with the closure of a Kabul-based training mission.

Although there was certainly no victory in Kandahar, Canada’s accomplishments in southeastern Afghanistan cannot easily be characterized as a defeat, either, thanks to a Whole of Government team that included not only combat forces but diplomats, agricultural experts, prison wardens and police officers.

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After a shaky first few years where there was an emphatic victory over the Taliban in Operation Medusa — which wasn’t sustainable, mainly because of a lack of troops and some unsuitable kit — there were some more positive battlefield results.

This was particularly true once the Harper government and the Liberal opposition jointly embraced the Manley Commission’s recommendations in 2008 that Canada urgently needed big Chinook transport helicopters and better drones to reduce the number of lethal Taliban homemade landmine attacks, as well as a couple of U.S. battalions to fill gaps in our lines.

After that, there was a significant drop in the number of Canadian dead and wounded.

Reine Samson Dawe named 2019 Silver Cross Mother
Reine Samson Dawe named 2019 Silver Cross Mother

The Pentagon report was understandably parochial, barely mentioning Canada. This is one of many reasons why it would be worthwhile for Canada to have its own look at the Afghan years before more of the institutional memory is lost.

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One aspect that bears examination and elaboration is the relationship and interaction between Canadian soldiers and Canadian government officers who were sent to Kandahar. There were some rough patches, but the two sides eventually found a way to coexist and sometimes thrive. Regrettably, the trust they developed appears to have been largely lost and they are once again living in two solitudes.

Most of the military gains made by NATO’s International Strategic Assistance Force (ISAF) in Helmand and in western, northern and eastern Afghanistan were reversed by the Taliban soon after Afghan troops took over responsibility for fighting the war in 2015. It would be interesting to find out why Canadian-trained Afghan forces held the line far better than Afghans elsewhere, who had been trained by other NATO armies.

One possible explanation was that Canada deployed small numbers of troops to mentor and then fight alongside Afghan soldiers and policemen. Another was the “ink spot” approach developed by the current chief of defence, General Jon Vance, who led Task Force Afghanistan in 2009 and returned again in 2010.

Vance’s strategy, much admired and sometimes copied by senior U.S. military leaders, put small groups of Canadian soldiers into Afghan villages where they got to know the lay of the land better than combat troops who lived inside two or three heavily fortified compounds, or the bulk of Canadian troops based at Kandahar Airfield where, with Tim Hortons, Burger King and pizza joints, life was surreal — very different from life “outside the wire.”

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READ MORE: (Nov. 10, 2018) Canadian Jon Snyder helped save 50 Afghan recruits from the Taliban. Three days later, he died

Having been embedded with U.S., British and Dutch forces, and having seen the Romanians, Germans and Turks over there, I would argue that Canadian troops and government officials in the field did a better job than their allies, relatively speaking, at winning Afghan hearts and minds. They did so by reopening the Dahla Dam and scores of schools and by building roads to help farmers get their pomegranates, grapes, wheat, saffron and, alas, their opium crop, from western Kandahar to Kandahar City.

There was also a successful nation-wide Canadian signature initiative to vaccinate all Afghan children against the very real scourge of polio.

That some of the schools and the Dahla reservoir, which cost Canadians $50 million, are now in disrepair is not a Canadian failing, unless you hold with the politically untenable view that Canada should still have a battle group in Kandahar to protect those projects, or the more realistic opinion that Canada’s ambition in Afghanistan should not have grown to include nation-building — though doing so made the war more palatable at the time for the people at home.

Marking five years since the end of the Afghan mission
Marking five years since the end of the Afghan mission

With six of the seven Canadians who commanded Task Force Afghanistan already retired, it is getting very late to study what was achieved in that parched, impoverished and always suffering corner of the world. The biggest reason this has never happened is that the troops, the politicians, the media and the public have all suffered Afghan mission fatigue.

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Such an examination should start with the motives and logic that caused Canada to expand the mission from its initially narrow, intense combat focus into a leading force in Washington’s and NATO’s grand nation-building scheme. It should absolutely not begin with the premise that Canada failed in Afghanistan.

Canadians must not only find out what Canada got wrong in the Kandahar desert, but what it got right and why.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas