Back in autumn 2006, I attended a conference at the Chateau Laurier here in Ottawa at which a Canadian general waxed lyrical about the just completed Operation Medusa in the Panjwai District of Afghanistan. The Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan were the best the country had every produced; the Taliban had been utterly crushed; it was now just a matter of some final mopping up. Victory was ours!
It was a glorious display of triumphalism, echoed in just about every other talk at the conference. It was also completely unjustified. The Taliban were far from defeated, and the Canadian army had to go backwards and forwards in Panjwai for several more years (“mowing the grass” as they called it) before packing up and going home.
Now, the tables are turned, with news emerging from Afghanistan that Panjwai has fallen fully under Taliban control. It’s estimated that Canada spent $18 billion in Afghanistan. 159 Canadian soldiers lost their lives – many more were injured. After the country paid such a price, you might imagine that our press would be interested in the news that the Taleban have captured Panjwai. But not a bit of it. On the CBC website, there’s not a word. In Canada’s premier newspaper, The Globe and Mail, not a word. In my local rag, The Ottawa Citizen, not a word. It’s as if it all didn’t happen.
To my mind, this is deeply problematic. If we are to learn any lessons from the fiasco of the Afghan operation, we first have to admit that there’s a problem. Instead, we seem intent on forgetting.
The military campaign in Afghanistan was a mistake from the very start. It’s tempting to believe that we could have got a different result if we’d committed more resources or tried different tactics. But political limitations meant that more resources were not available. Afghanistan simply didn’t matter enough for the government to be able to persuade the public to commit significantly more to the conflict. As for tactics, different commanders tried a whole succession of different methods; none worked. Failure wasn’t a product of military incompetence. The war was fundamentally unwinnable.
Against this, some might argue that winning was never the point. Canada, like many other NATO members, wasn’t there to defeat the Taliban but to be good allies to the United States. But this isn’t a very effective argument. The only point of showing oneself to be a good ally is so that you get something back in return. But Canada – like, I suspect, other US allies – appears to have got diddly squat. For instance, helping the Americans in Afghanistan didn’t stop Trump from tearing up the NAFTA treaty or stop Biden kicking Canada in the teeth by cancelling the Keystone and Line 5 pipelines (both of great importance to the Canadian economy). Besides, if the point of fighting is to be an ally, you achieve your strategic goal just by turning up. Consequently, what you do thereafter doesn’t matter. Military operations thus get entirely detached from strategy. The result is inevitably a mess. In other words, it’s a poor strategic objective. It’s not one we should have set ourselves.
There is a simple lesson to draw from all this: we shouldn’t have sent our army to Afghanistan. It didn’t help Afghanistan, and it didn’t help us. Let’s not repeat the same mistake somewhere else in the future.