What lessons did Canada learn from its Afghanistan mission?


On Cross Country Checkup: Afghanistan retrospective

The last five years were hard combat for Canadians in Afghanistan ...and the re-examinations of the war have just begun.

Author Terry Glavin has produced one such account.  He says there wasn't enough honest discussion at home, and not much understanding either.

What do you think?

Did Canadians know what they were there for ...and what was done?  Was it worth it?

What lessons did Canada learn from its Afghanistan mission?

With host Rex Murphy and his guest.

Guests and Links      Mail       Download mp3 (right click and choose 'Save Target As')    


Today we want to look back at Canada's mission to Afghanistan. Canadian soldiers are still there training Afghan troops and police officers but after five years they are no longer fighting on the frontlines.

Canada's combat role in Afghanistan ended this past July and despite the recent Remembrance Day observances, the long and difficult period seemed almost to disappear into history. Not everyone has forgotten, thousands of soldiers and their families are still dealing with the legacy.

Also, there have been a couple of works published recently that take a longer closer look at Canada's first real sustained combat mission since the Korean war. One is a research paper by military historians David Bercuson and Jack Granatstein. It's entitled, "Lessons Learned? What Canada Should Learn from Afghanistan," and it is highly critical of the political decision making behind the mission. We will talk to Professor Granatstein later in the program.

The other work is a book by Canadian author Terry Glavin entitled, "Come from the Shadows: The Long and Lonely Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan." It reveals a surprisingly different picture of life and politics in Afghanistan ...a picture at odds with much of the description and analysis we have seen here over the years. Terry will be joining us for part of the program.

Glavin's book is a very strong presentation of the "real" Afghanistan as he sees it -- and Afghanistan in contrast with the media version he labels "Absurdistan." It's also a very passionate appreciation of Afghan history, the resilence and kindness of its peoples, and a fierce rebuttal of certain criticisms of the mission.

We'd like to hear your thoughts on the ideas presented by our guests ...and your own reflections on Canada's whole mission to Afghanistan dating back to 2002.

Did Canadians know the original purpose of the mission? Was it clear? Was it properly explained? Was it properly discussed? Were they noble goals ...or merely expedient? Did they have a reasonable chance of success ...or was it an uphill battle to begin with? And in the end -- although the mission is not completely finished, the combat is -- was it all worth it?

 Our question today: "What lessons did Canada learn from its Afghanistan mission? And was it worth it?"

I'm Rex Murphy, on CBC Radio One, and on Sirius satellite radio channel 159, this is Cross Country Checkup.




Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute

Ottawa Citizen

National Post

Globe and Mail

Policy Options magazine (IRPP)


Get out now! We agreed to make it safe for the west, and we did by 2003, we never agreed to 'Nation-Build', that's not our job. Afghanistan to the Afghans, I'm sure they'd agree.

Ted Rosa
Montreal, Quebec


This 'mission' was a waste of Canadian lives and billions of taxpayer dollars. Your guest Terry Glavin says Afghanistan is a far better place today, with one of the fastest growing economies in that part of the world. It should be, given the billions of dollars spent there over the past decade by the US, Canada, and other NATO partners. Let us see what happens when the west leaves that godforsaken place - a place that your guest seems so determined to romanticize for reasons only he knows.

Don Masters
Ottawa, Ontario


Speaking purely from a layman's perspective, I believe that we have had some great temporary achievements in Afghanistan - but as we begin to disengage resources from the region, those achievements will slowly whittle away.

I don't know how we could have gone about it differently because it is a multifaceted and complex issue. All I know is that I believe our intentions were more noble than the Russians' were, but then again the ending could well be the same.

On the other hand, perhaps Afghanistan is further along as a society than it was in the 80's and will have enough wind in it's sails to continue its progress.

Greg Enns
Ottawa, Ontario


Not to disparage the good work that many Canadians are doing in Afghanistan, but we need to put this in a somewhat broader or wider context. We have to realize that the concentration of our resources (people, funds) in that country has an impact elsewhere. I don't have any statistics easy at hand to back this up, but it seems to me that our focus on Afghanistan means that we are unable to make significant contributions elsewhere - and this is particularly the case when funds for international work are scarce, as they are right now. I'm thinking here about our engagement in sub-Saharan Africa, which seems to be on the wane. In this wider policy context, our decision to go "all in" on Afghanistan - which in my opinion was more of a strategic geopolitical decision (to back our allies) than one based simply on the economic or development needs of the residents of any particular country - has costs elsewhere, which I think our policy-makers and the media have not been keen to examine.

Brian Egan
Vancouver, British Columbia


Between 2009 and 2011 my company was engaged by CIDA to carry out stabilization works to supplement and or extend the military civilian cooperation (CIMIC) initiatives in Dand District in Kandahar province. These consisted of the repair and upgrading of irrigation structures, the provision of drinking water and health training, and vocational traning. This work was arranged through and with the village leaders (Maleks) and done by the villagers in 12 villages. This was a highly successful initiative, so much so that the American colonel who took over command in the Dand District during the withdrawal of the Canadians reported clearly differences in economic conditions between the villages we had worked in and the ones we had not. My major regret at the end of our assignment there was the feeling that we had lost a great opportunity by starting these initiatives too late in Canada's mission and that the effort had little if any stretic impact. The lesson learned, was that if we were ever to get inot a situation of this nature again we should have a more emphatic civilan effort from the very beginning.

Alex Schumacher
Calgary, Alberta

First and foremost I ask myself whether Canada has done all that it can, and are we throwing money, resources, and troops in to what is now a lost cause? Being Middle Eastern myself, I feel that no stability will be reached while Afghanistan is occupied by multiple military groups. A country can not gain stability, democracy, or any necessary reform if not achieved by members of their own community, so we must continue to empower afghan civilians in a more distant manner, rather than impose on them a system which we see fit. Afghanistan has been occupied and invaded by one country after another, which has not lead to any significant increase in safety, but rather a severe decrease. Although educational buildings and such have been created, can the programs we've created continue to stay afloat if the people themselves were not the ones to build it?

Maral Farrokh
Calgary, Alberta


I hate it,  war wherever it takes us. I lost my brother, missing for 7 years in WWII, so I know the damage it causes to a family.  I have no problem with helping needy Afghanistan but why by war!

We need a Canadian policy of "NO WAR." There are better ways to solve problems (unless we are attacked).  Let us lead middle powers rather than fall in when the USA wants us. Leave NATO, it would make things easier and demand that we define our own policy.

We could have spent hundred of billions on our needy soup kitchens (IN CANADA) and on our own children who do not all have enough to eat. We should strengthen our own society before wading into distant worlds where we do not understand what we are doing or what we are about.

We foolishly went there because of weak unclear leadership. Let's stop trying to solve problems by going to war.

William Lawrence
Victoria, British Columbia


Mr Glavin said "The Afghan mission has changed over time," but he downplays two critical issues: the geopolitics of the region and Afghanistan's importance as a transit state for natural gas. I'm an international petroleum economist who has studied the region closely from that point of view since 2006.

Turkmenistan, north-west of Afghanistan, has the world's fourth largest reserves of natural gas. It's gas goes to China and to Europe via Russia. The US was negotiating with the Taliban before 9/11 (in Texas even) for a pipeline to move Turkmen gas south. Negotiations have continued to this day and are much advanced (though rarely talked about in Western press).

Senior US diplomats have told Congress that part of their Afghan strategy is to link Central and South Asia so that energy can flow through Afghanistan. This year Hilary Clinton has been publicly promoting the same in Asia, using the term New Silk Road, and actively promoting the trans-Afghan pipeline. Canada has been supportive.

The US has spent $440 billion on Afghanistan so far. They do this for power – and petroleum. That's geopolitics. I'm not right wing or left wing. I'm just sharing reality.

John Foster
Kingston, Ontario


I enjoy listening to Cross Country Checkup every week, but today I'm disappointed to listen to a one-sided point of view from the guest, Terry Glavin and indeed Rex himself.

The show so far, as I'm listening, appears to be an apologia for our involvement. So far between 100 and 150 dead, between 600 and 700 horribly wounded and between 3,000 and 4,000 suffering from post-traumatic stress and other blast injuries.

The real politik reason we went originally to Afghanistan (at the time a smart move by Chretien) was so we didn't have an army to send to Iraq.

I've just today finished reading reviews of 3 books on Afghanistan: Bazaar Politics by Noah Coburn, Afghanistan by Thomas Barfield and Can Intervention Work? by Rory Stewart & Gerald Knaas. All three reflect a totally different perspective from Mr Glavin. Mr Glavin appears to present a sort of propaganda and dismiss everyone else's point of view, despite their experience in Afghanistan if it's contrary to his point of view.

John Bullick
Mississauga, Ontario


Your guest Terry Glavin appears to be well informed and quite convinced of his position on Canada's engagement in Afghanistan. While I usually appreciate the civility with which we discuss issues on CBC, I find chilling the coolness with which Mr. Glavin sorts it all out into a just occupation. I would appreciate hearing what his response would be to the former Afghani parliamentarian and activist Malalai Joya who calls for the west including Canada to withdraw from her country.

Sandra Slobodian
Victoria, British Columbia

Einstein said that the problems of the world cannot be solved by the level of thinking which created them, ergo the problems of Afghanistan were created by firepower and therefore will never be solved by it. The current level of Canadian thinking, in terms of learning from the far and near past and talking things out before they become problems, is dimishing week by week with the current government. ie: "Let's fill  more prisons rather than prevent conditions which lead one to a life of crime."

"Guns 'ablazin" is not a morally acceptable foreign policy.
Thomas Brawn
Ottawa, Ontario



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