In The Media

Canada in Afghanistan: assessing the costs

by Daryl Copeland

October 3, 2012

Last weekend, as I participated in a conference entitled Armed Intervention: Lessons from Afghanistan, the U.S. reported its 2000th military death in that long-running conflict. Although the exact circumstances remain rather murky, the killing was apparently the result of an Afghan recruit turning upon his ISAF trainers.

Like so much else about the Afghan conflict, NATO’s exit strategy is not going according to script.

In remarks prepared for the conference, I observed that Canada has been intensely engaged in Afghanistan – mainly militarily, but also as a substantial aid donor and to some extent diplomatically – almost continuously for more than a decade. Something approaching $30 billion has been expended on the war, some 160 lives have been lost, and perhaps ten times that number of soldiers have been seriously injured or wounded. Of the approximately 40,000 Canadian soldiers who have served in Afghanistan, more than 10% have returned home suffering from PTSD, or from related mental health issues.

Canadian casualties have been the highest among ISAF contributors on a per capita basis, and by any measure these figures represent an enormous commitment.

With the striking increase in recent months of so-called “green on blue” insider attacks, the ongoing shrinkage of the ISAF coalition, and the decision to withdraw the bulk of all NATO combatants by the end of 2014, two fundamental questions must be put:

What objectives have been achieved?
Can these be justified by the high costs?

In addressing these questions, it becomes clear that many of the most important issues have not yet received the attention they deserve.


Forsaken gains

Insurgencies are notoriously difficult to counter. In that respect, I believe that NATO’s essential strategic misjudgment was the failure to recognize that most achievable objectives – dismantling the Al-Qaeda network, scattering its leadership and removing the Taliban from power – had been realized by early 2003. That error is looking increasingly irrecoverable, especially in the wake of rising civilian casualties (collateral damage), rogue killings of women and children, epidemic government corruption, failed elections and a persistently bad economy.

Widely publicized incidents such as Koran burnings, urinating on dead insurgents and posing with severed body parts have done for Afghanistan what Abu Ghraib did for Iraq. Foreign forces are now seen as occupiers rather than liberators, and have become an integral part of the problem rather than the solution.

Although there have been some modest improvements in areas such as women’s rights, education and health, the democratic nation-building project has largely collapsed, and overall the country is arguably worse-off now than was the case in the immediate aftermath of the intervention. The Taliban are not only re-established, but they are by many accounts ascendant and quite possibly poised to resume control – or try – following the almost certain collapse of the current regime or its post-war successor.

Meanwhile, a host of regional players with competing, and largely divergent interests – Pakistan, Iran, India – are waiting anxiously in the wings, eager to intensify their engagement in the vacuum which will follow ISAF’s drawdown 2013-14. Western intervention has contributed to state failure, and persistent instability is poised to emerge as a hallmark of the ISAF mission.


Domestic damage

Insufficient attention has been devoted to an estimation of the internal and opportunity costs associated with Canada’s lengthy international policy pre-occupation with Afghanistan. By my reckoning, within the Government of Canada the Afghanistan file functioned somewhat like a malignant disease. With by far the most attractive terms and conditions on offer, the seductive rewards of service proved a gift for ambitious careerists in the bureaucracy. The past decade, moreover, has been near bliss for those keen to acquire new military kit and to restructure the Canadian Forces away from peacekeeping and in the direction of expeditionary war fighting.

The impact on public policy and administration has been debilitating.

Within DFAIT, for instance, the Afghan Task Force and two new missions in Afghanistan siphoned large-scale human and financial resources away from other critical areas. In an environment of scarcity, this set back the government’s capacity to address effectively a host of pressing threats and challenges, especially the sprawling suite of transnational issues rooted in science and driven by technology. These range from climate change and diminishing biodiversity to resource scarcity and conservation of the global commons.

Other costs have been less obvious, but are in many respects even more profound. Canadian society and our national institutions have suffered under the corrosive impact of the war. The military succeeded in having their way with the establishment of international policy priorities, but even at that appeared at times to bridle under civil authority. Media scrutiny has been for the most part inadequate. Public servants have been vilified for trying to do their jobs. With the prorogation of Parliament, accountability and transparency have taken a huge hit. In their place has emerged a culture of stonewalling, prevarication and track-covering.

Checks and balances have failed, and the quality and standards of governance have been seriously degraded.

Recovery will not come easily, or soon.

I will return to a consideration of the lessons learned – or not – in a future article.

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