Thousands of Canadian soldiers, diplomats, aid workers, contractors, and journalists can bear witness to the hopes, struggles and heartaches of Afghanistan over the past twenty years.
As the Taliban take back the country, it’s worth reflecting on the multiple facets of our involvement.
I hope others will tell their stories, as well, so that we may at least have a historical record of what we did.
I was the Canadian notetaker at a rescheduled G8 foreign ministers’ dinner meeting in Manhattan on November 11, 2001.
The traditional September meeting around the opening of the U.N. session had been delayed due to the horrific 9/11 the attacks. (The G7 group had become eight with the inclusion of Russia in 1997, suspended in 2014 when it seized Crimea from Ukraine.)
At the dinner, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell provided a progress report on the Afghanistan invasion, already underway and very public.
Though fifteen of the nineteen hijackers had been al-Qaeda affiliated Saudi nationals (the others from UAE, Egypt and Lebanon), the goals were to knock out Osama bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan and dislodge the Taliban government that hosted his al-Qaeda bases.
Like a good general, he was clinical and determined and asked G8 partners to increase their commitments.
Having lost its own decade long war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, one can only imagine what Russia thought.
Canada had already announced its Operation Apollo on October 7, 2001, the same day that the U.S. began its bombing campaign.
We would contribute sea, land, and air forces to America’s Operation Enduring Freedom.
Two days later, HMCS Halifax was redeployed to the Arabian sea, joined soon after by other Canadian warships.
Kabul fell in November and the Bonn Agreement installed Hamid Karzai as the interim leader.
The Taliban were on the run and surrendered Kandahar on December 9.
Canadian special forces were sent to Afghanistan to prepare the way for deeper involvement by the end of 2001.
In February 2002, the first regular Canadian soldiers arrived at the U.S. base in Kandahar.
The centre of Taliban territory, this was among the most dangerous assignments.
Meanwhile, in Ottawa, we had been conducting a foreign policy “update” beginning in 2000 from within my Policy Planning division at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
It was going nowhere until the 9/11 attacks.
Our recommendations to focus on modernizing Canada–U.S. border management and to leaven our values-based foreign policy with greater focus on interests, had met with glazed eyes until then.
When the U.S. closed the border, causing Canadian trucks to be backed up for miles on the days following the terrorist attacks, it all made sense.
On December 10, 2001, the Canadian government delivered an emergency budget with $7.7 billion in new security initiatives.
It included $646 million for border security and billions more for National Defense, the RCMP and the intelligence services, all of whom required resources for new efforts.
And with that, the substance of what could actually be achieved in any foreign policy review was completed, in my mind at least. (You don’t normally conduct a review while deploying for war, though the government persisted in doing just that, pro forma at least, until 2005).
The traditional autumn G8 dinner is actually meant to be a handover meeting to pass the baton to the next host, which happened to be Canada.
For obvious reasons, Secretary Powell wanted our 2002 process to focus on fighting terrorism.
So we wrote the first draft of a G8 counter-terrorism strategy, one element of which was enhanced measures to track terrorist financing.
Detailed negotiations among multitudes of experts from the eight countries went on for months leading up to the Whistler foreign ministers’ meeting and the Kananaskis leaders’ summit in June 2002, where the new initiatives were announced publicly.
Less than a year later, in March 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq, drawing considerable focus away from Afghanistan.
The rationale seemed weak and the connection to 9/11 tenuous, so this time Canada stayed out of it.
Arguably, the Afghanistan mission could have ended then, with its original objectives achieved. In fact, U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld declared major combat operations over on May 1 of that year on a visit to Kabul.
NATO took over in August, its first ever mission outside of Europe.
But al-Qaeda leader bin Laden had not yet been caught.
I was relieved of my policy planning and G8 roles that summer and appointed as ambassador to Indonesia.
Al Qaeda-inspired terrorist attacks in Jakarta and Bali, along with the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and a large earthquake in Yogyakarta in 2005, meant that Afghanistan was soon back of mind for me.
As a result, returning to Ottawa in 2006 as Director General for Asia, I was genuinely surprised to see the depth of our continuing involvement in Afghanistan five years after the initial commitment.
U.S. mission creep had clearly swept us along with it.
As part of my new responsibility for South Asia, I was tasked with overseeing the small Afghanistan Task Force in the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Among other things, it meant travelling to Kabul and Kandahar, first with our foreign minister, Peter MacKay, in January 2007, and then with our Governor General and Commander in Chief, Michaëlle Jean, in March of the same year.
Security was extremely tight for every movement, despite how long the country had been occupied and how many coalition forces were there. Travel to aid sites around Kandahar was by helicopter gunships.
On departure from Kandahar on the foreign minister’s visit, our Hercules aircraft came under rocket fire.
That trip included a swing through Islamabad to meet with Pakistani President Musharraf on January 9, 2007.
We had long known that the main problem for our troops was the ability of the Taliban to attack them in Kandahar and then retreat across the nearby border to safe havens in Pakistan.
When we raised the border control problem, President Musharraf offered to place landmines in the frontier tribal areas – something he had already said to the media – knowing full well how we would react, given the Ottawa convention banning anti-personnel landmines.
But he also said he would give us time to try to come up with a better idea.
With this opening, my team in Ottawa started working on a Pakistan-Afghanistan border management initiative. After all, Canada had plenty of technical expertise on setting up and managing borders, particularly fresh in our minds following 9/11.
We knew from the start, however, that it was a Hail Mary effort, since Afghanistan doesn’t actually recognize the border, the infamous 2,670 km Durand Line established by the British in 1893.
Yet, perhaps reflecting the desperation for something constructive to do, the idea found support.
At the same time, with surprisingly only one diplomat stationed in Kandahar, we also devised a proposal to scale up our diplomatic capacity to balance our military activities there.
With that, the Prime Minister established a Cabinet committee on Afghanistan in February 2008 and shifted management of the taskforce to higher level officials at the Privy Council Office.
After nearly seven years, the word quagmire was already seeping into conversations among the less evangelical.
I was relieved to be out of it.
Or so I thought. Having become deeply involved in the border initiative, I was asked within months to go to Pakistan as High Commissioner (ambassador) and continue the effort.
At its height, we managed to get Foreign Ministers Rassoul of Afghanistan and Qureshi of Pakistan to signal their support for the initiative in a bilateral meeting on March 11, 2010.
Their endorsement was important for obtaining potential funding from the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank.
Pakistan’s CIA equivalent, the ISI, played along with it, though as everyone knew they had a close relationship with the Taliban and a different agenda.
When the Soviets departed Afghanistan in February 1989, the U.S. backed mujahideen reverted to fighting among themselves over control.
Pakistan supported the faction led by Mullah Mohammed Omar, which had been formed in Afghan refugee camps.
They came to be known as the Taliban (students) for their studies of strict Islam at Saudi Arabia-funded madrassahs.
And, hence, a useful proxy force was created for control of Afghanistan, funded by the opium trade and mining.
Pakistan had other relationships to consider as well.
In 2002, China had begun the first phase of development of a key port at Gwadar, in Balochistan province of Pakistan, strategically located near the border with Iran and key oil shipping lanes of the Persian Gulf.
Foreshadowing its 2013 Belt and Road Initiative, China and Pakistan signed an MOU in June 2006 to expand highway connections from the port to roads extending over India’s northern frontier and into China, adding another thorn to perennially tense relations with India.
Neighbouring Afghanistan, with its geographic position and wealth of untapped minerals, became strategically important to all three countries.
None of them wanted westerners involved.
Coincidentally or not, at the same time, Canadian mining company Barrick Gold saw its shared rights to a large gold and copper project in Balochistan challenged and eventually taken away.
We spent considerable time advocating on behalf of these Canadian interests at the highest levels in Pakistan for several years, to no avail.
In any case, in July 2010, after two years, I was reassigned to Malaysia.
I left Pakistan believing that, with funding and continued international pressure behind it, the border initiative might just continue.
Within weeks of leaving, however, Pakistan was hit by biblical-scale floods, submerging 20% of the country’s fertile agricultural land, destroying crops and infrastructure, and affecting millions of people.
With the need for billions in international aid, the border management initiative was virtually swept away.
Bin Laden was finally found and killed by U.S. special forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011.
Canada’s mission in Afghanistan continued until 2014 nevertheless.
By the end, we had given over $3.6 billion in aid alone. More than forty thousand Canadian armed forces and diplomats had dutifully served there. Two thousand were injured and 165 killed.
One of my former junior staff members, just recruited from university, courageously volunteered to go and was badly injured in an attack, requiring extensive surgeries and rehabilitation back home.
Like her, Canada will take years to recover from this war.
Our decision to take up to 20,000 Afghan refugees opens yet another chapter, the consequences of which we cannot predict.
The Biden Administration is getting credit now for leaving, but blame for mishandling the exit.
But the main lessons yet again are the dangers of proxy wars and the limits of foreign intervention.
Spending over a trillion dollars on nation-building mostly fueled corruption among Afghanistan’s leaders and security forces, which bred deep cynicism and resentment locally.
Officials spinning stories about great progress to western publics did the same.
In reality, the Taliban doesn’t operate without backers and supporters.
And their latest offensive didn’t materialize from out of nowhere.
Neither the world’s superpower, nor NATO with Canada included, had the power, the understanding, or the enduring will to stop it.
Western liberalism is alien to tribal cultures, and the governance structure imposed from outside has dissolved like a desert mirage.
An important question remains: have the Taliban and its backers at least learned that harbouring terrorists for attacks like 9/11 isn’t worth a devastating invasion? Let’s hope so.
As a post script: today the Pakistan–Afghanistan border is fully fenced and under Pakistan military control. In the end, they did it on their own, and for their own reasons.
The author is a three-time Canadian ambassador and former VP of BlackBerry, who also served as Director for Foreign Policy and DG for Asia.
He currently heads MankGlobal Inc. and serves as a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and the Balsillie School of International Affairs.
He is co-author of a forthcoming book: Crisis and Pandemic Planning: Quarantine, Evacuation and Back Again.
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