Only days after U.S. President Donald Trump triumphantly announced a big peace deal with the Taliban, the jihadis attacked an Afghan government checkpoint. The U.S. responded by launching an airstrike on those Talibs who it believed were responsible for the attack.
This happened hours after Trump personally spoke on the telephone with a Taliban negotiator to warn him that other post-deal attacks must stop. In fact, according to a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, the Taliban carried out 43 attacks on Monday alone.
This bloody little tempest, which has apparently further emboldened the Taliban, was utterly predictable. It has been thus since U.S. forces threw the Taliban and their al-Qaeda backers out of power months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
The difference now is that Trump has finally decided to end the Forever War. He wants all the troops home before November’s presidential election and must claim it as some kind of victory, even though it is anything but.
What with the railway blockades and grave uncertainties arising from the global coronavirus drama, the peace deal between the White House and the jihadis responsible for the deaths of 158 Canadian soldiers has not received much attention in Canada. However, as I know from many discussions in Ottawa this week, the agreement has been closely watched by many of the tens of thousands of Canadians who served in Afghanistan.
The question being asked by Canada’s Afghan vets is how to square the deaths of 158 of their comrades with the imminent pullout of the last U.S. troops in Afghanistan without any guarantees that peace is at hand. This is something every Canadian should consider, too, as well as whether the $18 billion that Ottawa spent was worth it.
As for the deal itself, as has been widely noted, it is outrageous that the Afghan government had no representation at the negotiations, though it must cope entirely on its own with the consequences of dealing with an enemy that believes, with some reason, that it has just won a great triumph around a negotiating table after failing to win on the battlefield.
One of Trump’s diktats was that the country’s democratically elected government must release 5,000 hardcore jihadis now being held in Afghan prisons. As no good can possibly come from letting so many terrorists loose, President Ashraf Ghani rightfully says his government should have been part of such discussions.
Though not as much discussed, also missing from the peace talks were any of Washington’s NATO partners, though over the years they contributed several hundred thousand troops to the war. Not forgotten in NATO capitals is that many of those troops — and especially the Canadians, Brits, Danes and Estonians — ended up fighting and dying in Afghanistan after very public American appeals for help.
Still, how can Canadians condemn Trump for abandoning Afghanistan when our Parliament insisted that Canada’s combat mission in Kandahar end in 2011? In fact, all the original coalition players are still over there, albeit in greatly reduced numbers, except for Canada and France.
I have decidedly mixed feelings about the agreement with the Taliban. I welcome the end of any war. But there is almost no chance that there will be peace unless it is entirely on the jihadis’ inevitably disgusting terms. What is in prospect is an unelected Islamic caliphate with exactly the same mindset as the one that provided a haven in Afghanistan to Osama bin Laden as he organized al-Qaeda’s devastating attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
My opinion has been shaped by personally witnessing the still-burning aftermath of the suicide jetliner attack on Washington, D.C., and by my years in Afghanistan and the many Afghans, coalition soldiers and others I met over there.
My Afghan experience began in 2002 with the futile mountain hunt for bin Laden by a brigade of the U.S. army’s 101st Airborne and a Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) battle group led by Col. Pat Stogran. It ended in 2014 with visits to NATO’s Canadian-led training mission under Maj.-Gen. Dean Milner.
When I arrived in Kandahar in April 2002, the mood was grim but determined. It was hours after the Tarnak Farms friendly fire incident in which a U.S. Air Force Air National Guard pilot mistook a Canadian live-fire exercise for a Taliban attack and dropped a 500-pound laser-guided bomb on a platoon of PPCLI troops, killing four of them.
WATCH (March 31, 2019): Canada marks 5 years since end of Afghanistan mission
Mostly forgotten by the public now — though not by the troops — is that a Canadian task force led by then-Brig.-Gen. Dave Fraser scored a victory over the Taliban to the west of Kandahar City in the Arghandab River valley that was unique in its decisiveness. Nobody talks much about it, but hundreds of Talibs were killed in that battle.
When Canada was still deeply involved in Afghanistan, many locals praised its signature polio vaccination project, which was run by what was then called the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. There has also been loud Afghan praise for the deft touch of Canadian army trainers who mentored soldiers and police in Kandahar and the much bigger follow-on project they ran for Afghan security forces from Kabul in 2011 and 2012. However, almost nothing could be done by those trainers to slow the staggering attrition rate through desertion of Afghan security forces that has largely been caused by the appallingly high death rate (38,000!) of Afghan security forces.
Canada made two other significant contributions in Afghanistan. Canadian technical expertise and military protection helped to restore the Dahla Dam, which brought life-giving water to farmers in and near the Arghandab, though anecdotal reports suggest that with no Canadian direction, the dam, which was built by the U.S. in the 1950s, has sadly been reverting to its former ruinous state.
And in the last months of the Canadian combat mission in Kandahar in 2011, Canadian engineers, with overwatch provided by Royal Canadian Air Force Griffon helicopters, financed and supervised local workers who risked frequent Taliban attacks to build Hyena Road. This project was critical because it gave Afghan farmers a much quicker and safer way to bring their wheat, grapes, pomegranate and, alas, opium, to market in Kandahar City.
None of this answers the question of whether it was all worth it. I think it was for the 12 years that the Canadian Armed Forces spent in Afghanistan. So do most of the soldiers that I know who served over there.
But I also understand how Afghans in particular feel betrayed by Trump’s deal with the Taliban and how many Americans today, like the Canadians before them, have thrown up their hands in despair and said: “Enough is enough.”
The Afghan government and the Afghan people are certainly the losers. Bad for them and us, the Taliban gets to restart the ugly medieval project that caused this tragedy to first blow up 19 years ago.
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.