Once there were reasons for the costly, long and deadly Canadian commitment to Afghanistan. Now there are none.
Even if that judgment is arbitrary and contentious, there’s no better time to consider it than this week as the country pauses to remember the sacrifice of this and other wars.
After the best part of a decade on the ground, the military is now actively planning withdrawal from an Afghanistan still steeped in corruption, drugs and violence. Come summer 2011, Canada will pull back — but apparently not completely out — from a conflict so snarled in local and regional intrigues that it’s certain to continue years after the troops are home.
A few glimmering achievements illuminate a bleak situation. Those beating the Afghanistan drum loudest point to the number of girls in school, the infrastructure restored and the first faltering steps taken toward democracy as proof that the investment of lives and money has not been wasted.
Satisfying in themselves, those often-ephemeral advances toward modernity fall well short of justifying a mission that has now claimed 133 soldiers as well as one diplomat and will cost some $20 billion before it’s over. If the effort’s worth is to be fairly weighed, evolving outcomes must be tested against original motives.
Canada’s reasons for its blood and treasure offerings to Afghanistan have never been quite what they seemed or exactly as first Liberal and then Conservative governments explained. Creating a model democracy and civil society from warring factions and feudal customs is a softly engaging narrative that gains veracity through repetition. It’s not the hard-headed stuff that persuades prime ministers to put their political hegemony at risk by putting lives in harm’s way.
Make no mistake, troops were sent south to Kandahar after the Taliban was toppled in Kabul because it was thought to be in Canada’s interest. Taking a point position in the George W. Bush war on terror would prove to Americans that Canadians are serious about U.S. security, help keep the border open to sustaining trade and provide a welcome opportunity for the Armed Forces to prove to allies, as well as to themselves, that this country is again willing and able to do the world’s dangerous work.
What could be accomplished has now been accomplished.
Even if U.S. appreciation isn’t strong enough to see off the current “Buy American” threat to northern access to southern markets, those who matter most in Washington know what Ottawa has done. They understand that Canada got its hands dirty while some other NATO partners were keeping their skirts clean.
Less discussed is how the mission has restored the military. Sixteen years after its reputation was deeply stained by the photographed murder of a Somali teenager, pride in the Armed Forces is back.
Better equipped, sure of itself and its place among national icons, the military has good reasons to trumpet Afghanistan, despite the casualties, cost and continuing insurgency, as a significant victory.
But in politics and war, triumphs are fleeting.
Bowing to U.S. pressure to continue a losing battle won’t appreciably improve cross-border relations now shaped as much by domestic economics as international threats.
Any extension of the combat mission beyond 2011 would jeopardize current military success by demanding more than can be sustained by a small force already stretched too thin.
Whatever the motivations for going to Afghanistan, Canada has no compelling reason to stay longer.
Jim Travers writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.