In The Media

Afghanistan, the sequel. Why would Canada return to a war it would rather forget?

by Andrew Potter (feat. Steve Saideman)

National Post
May 19, 2017

The last time Canadians paid any serious attention to Afghanistan was just over three years ago. It was March 2014 when we ended our training mission in Kabul with a quiet flag-lowering ceremony in Kabul.

It wasn’t exactly the Fall of Saigon, but there was a definite sense of Mission Unaccomplished to the proceedings. For all our efforts, first in support of Operation Enduring Freedom to rout out al Qaeda, then as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force that had committed to bring stability, security, good governance and democracy to Afghanistan, the job was far from complete. But many of our close allies, such as the Dutch, had already headed for the exit, and with President Obama determined to end the war on his watch, the Americans were drawing down as well.

Afghanistan was our most ambitious foreign adventure since the Korean War, but it’s an adventure most Canadians, including their government, seem keen to forget. The American journalist Dexter Filkins wasn’t wrong when he called it The Forever War though, which is why the United States is readying a “mini-surge” of potentially 5,000 troops back into Afghanistan. Once again, they will be asking NATO countries to help out. And as Postmedia’s David Pugliese reported last week, Canada will be asked to chip in.

If we agree, we’ll be sending troops back to a country we left after 12-year military presence that cost the lives of 158 soldiers as well as those of a diplomat, two aid workers and a journalist. We’ll also be returning to a country where we left behind a great deal of unfinished business.

It’s no surprise Americans are looking to beef up their troop levels in Afghanistan: the place is on the verge of collapse.

The Afghan government in Kabul controls less than 60 per cent of the country, and that number is going in the wrong direction. In the parts of the country that it does control, the government is widely seen as deeply corrupt and barely functional. The Afghan security forces that are doing the bulk of the heavy fighting against the Taliban are suffering jaw-dropping (and unsustainable) casualty rates. In one shocking incident in late April, 140 Afghan troops were killed in a single Taliban attack on a base in the north of the country.

The peace agreement with the Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his “triumphant” return to Kabul earlier this month is a sign of how bad things are going for the government. Meanwhile, ISIL’s franchise in the region is clinging to a foothold with about 800 fighters regularly engaged in terror attacks and assassinations, mostly against Shia targets.

The Americans might have blowed things up real good when they dropped the MOAB onto an ISIL cave complex near the eastern border with Pakistan, but many analysts expect that its most significant effect will be to draw more jihadis to the cause. Right on cue, five ISIL jihadists attacked a television station in Jalalabad this week, killing four journalists and two police officers.

In short, there’s a lot of bad news, and the best predictions are things will get worse.

In the face of all this, the mini-surge of troops will have a pretty modest mission. Strengthen the government and train and assist the Afghan National Security Forces, while trying to stabilize the deteriorating security situation. The aim would be give Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s government just enough credibility while bombing the Taliban hard enough to force some sort of peace deal.

The problem with this is that it was former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s strategy for virtually his entire term in office, and it is the same strategy former President Obama pursued with his surge in 2010. Its failure was and always will be overdetermined because, to begin with, you can’t kill enough Taliban to force them to the table. If anything, what this does is play along with the Taliban’s parallel strategy, which is to kill enough western troops and Afghan civilians that we leave and then the Afghan government sues for peace. To ask which side has been more successful is to answer the question.

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