Opinion

Official inquiry needed to avoid repeat of Afghan failure

Tracking the mental health of veterans is a good first step, but an investigation into how Canada ended up in the Afghanistan theatre would be more effective, says Scott Taylor.

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance, left, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan and parliamentary secretary Sherry Romanado unveiled a suicide prevention strategy in Ottawa on Oct. 5. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

PUBLISHED :Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017 12:00 AM

OTTAWA—There were news stories out of Afghanistan last week detailing how the United States is expanding and entrenching the so-called Green Zone in the centre of Kabul.

An ambitious two-year construction project will bring together currently isolated outlying facilities into one massive protected zone. In addition to U.S. military and diplomatic posts, the “new and improved” Green Zone will now house all embassies and most of the international non-governmental organizations.

This full-scale investment in building an even stronger set of fortifications reveals that, while the U.S. obviously intends to remain in Afghanistan for decades to come, the Americans no longer have any false hope that they will eventually win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

The corrupt and demoralized Afghan security forces have proven woefully inept at containing the Taliban and other active insurgent groups, which now include Daesh (also known as ISIS, Islamic State, and ISIL).

  

Canada cut its losses back in 2014 when it ended a 12-year military commitment to the mission in Afghanistan. However, that mission came at a considerable cost, with 158 soldiers killed, another 2,000 wounded or injured physically, and an estimated 4,000 suffering the unseen mental wounds known as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Worse still is the fact that Canada’s withdrawal from the mission did not stop the suffering for many of our veterans. An estimated 130 soldiers have taken their own lives since returning from that war.

To their credit, last Thursday the Department of National Defence in conjunction with Veterans Affairs Canada announced a joint strategy to better track the mental health of veterans after they leave the military. While care and comfort for our suffering soldiers is a positive step, an even bigger gesture to demonstrate that veterans’ lives matter would be to start investigating just how we could have gotten Afghanistan so wrong for all that time?

When Canada jumped on the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force bandwagon in 2002, the plotline was that we would commit a 600-man battle group until the Afghan security forces were self-sufficient and Afghanistan staged national elections in 2004. In 2002, we were told that the hated Taliban had been deposed, Afghan women were liberated from their burkas, and the U.S. was bringing democracy to a fun-loving bunch of thankful Afghans. Who would not want to be part of that success story?

  

Even once it became a shooting war in earnest and Canadian soldiers found themselves targeted and killed by fanatical insurgents, the media dropped the ball by taking on the role of unquestioning cheerleader instead of diligently reporting the truth.

The regime of former president Hamid Karzai was elected by a population with a low literacy rate, many members of which are ignorant of what democracy even means. However, it was glaringly apparent that this regime was composed of the same ruthless warlords who had driven suffering Afghans to support the Taliban. It was for this corrupt cabal that Canadian soldiers fought and died.

To keep Canadians on side with the war effort, then-prime minister Stephen Harper claimed that to question the mission was to question our soldiers. Others, like former Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan Chris Alexander, repeatedly claimed that we were one schoolhouse away from success, and he chastised the media for focusing on the negative.

When Canada concluded its military commitment in early 2014, the apologists and tub-thumpers claimed that it was “too soon” to reflect on whether Canada’s expenditure of blood and gold was worth it. They still held out hope that Chris Alexander’s final schoolhouse would finally turn the tide in the war.

  

Now, almost four years later, the U.S. is digging deeper bunkers instead of schools.

Last year, Britain established the Iraq Inquiry under the direction of Sir John Chilcot. The results tabled last July savagely criticized former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair for his decision to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. While Blair shrugged off the findings, the Chilcot report nonetheless mauled his reputation and shone some light into heretofore very dark corners.

Canada should do the same sort of official examination of how we ended up sending our soldiers into a war they could not win, and one in which they should never have had to fight. Holding our politicians, diplomats, and senior military members accountable for the fiasco might go a long way to reassuring our soldiers that it won’t happen again.

Scott Taylor is editor and publisher of Esprit de Corps magazine.

The Hill Times