Were the blood and treasure Canada spent in Afghanistan worth it? Ask a shattered soldier: Neil Macdonald

Kushi and her sister made a living selling cheap scarves outside NATO's Kabul headquarters. Then, one day in 2012, an al-Qaeda suicide bomber made it into the green zone. Until Kushi's murder, Charlie had held it together.

The shock and more so the guilt associated with Kushi's murder pulled Charlie into the darkness of PTSD

Kushi and her sister made a living selling cheap scarves outside NATO's Kabul headquarters. (Supplied)

Looking back, my boyhood pal Charlie's path in life was foretold. Even as a teenager, his sense of service and duty was pretty obvious, certainly compared to the rest of us.

He became a military officer, just as his father was, and eventually rose to become Col. Charles "Chuck" Hamel, peacekeeper and, later, warrior.

To me, he remained Charlie.

He commanded a task force in the Congo, the longest UN peacekeeping mission of them all. Later he commanded an entire combat brigade group. We'd talk from time to time; I visited war zones as a reporter, but he really walked the walk. Unlike me, he didn't brag about it.

Even in Canada's volunteer army, you had to volunteer a second time for the mission in Afghanistan, and Charlie did two tours in that dusty graveyard, ultimately as senior adviser to the Afghan defence ministry.  

Col. Charles "Chuck" Hamel did two tours in Afghanistan. (Supplied)

It was Canada's (and remains America's) longest war. It consumed the lives of 158 Canadian soldiers and wounded 2,000 others. The mission cost Canadian taxpayers at least $18 billion.

That's a lot of blood and treasure, all spent to please our most powerful ally: "Boots on the Ground," blared the nakedly ingratiating Canadian government advertisements in Washington during our decade-long Afghanistan expedition.

We are still in fact paying for it. All those soldiers who came home with crumpled bodies and minds need care. My friend Charlie falls into both categories; he needed reconstructive surgery after his vehicle rolled over an IED, and today, this former commander relies on a cocktail of potent antidepressants to navigate life.  

Still, that sense of honour persists. Charlie gets irritated when I suggest the whole Canadian expedition was a pointless slog into an immutable, martial, religious culture.

"Did we make the situation worse? No. Did we make it better? Yes." Then he pauses. "Marginally."

He points to improvements in Afghan quality of life that Canadians helped create: building water infrastructure, schools and eradicating polio.

"And we protected the civilian population."

But did we? Any intelligent person who has carried the burden of command inevitably reflects on the consequences of militarism, particularly the unintended ones, upon the people you are trying to help, and whether it is even possible to help.

He talks about the practice among some Afghan fighters of putting a bullet in their wives' heads before combat (to blame the enemy? To dispose of a replaceable chattel?).

But to Charlie, nothing personified the dilemma of consequences more than Kushi, a lovely teenage girl who, with her sister, made a living selling cheap scarves outside NATO's Kabul headquarters.  

Kushi made a point of remembering soldiers' names, which was charming, and they all liked her.

"I met her on my first tour and she was still there on my second one," says Charlie. "I'd give her $10 for a cheap scarf and tell her to keep the change, and that would be my donation. I thought I was doing something good."

Kushi made a point of remembering soldiers' names, which was charming, and they all liked her. (Supplied)

A clutch of other children sold trinkets in the same area. At one point, the U.S. military publication Stars and Stripes did a feel-good story on them, providing a moment of local fame.

Then, one day in 2012, an al-Qaeda suicide bomber made it into the green zone. He walked right past important command centres, ignoring obvious targets. Instead, he made for Kushi and her sister, stood beside them as they flogged their trinkets, and detonated.

"Why," asks Charlie, "would al-Qaeda invest all the money in bribes and time in setting up an operation like that to kill a few kids?"

The answer, he says, is "we made her a high-value target, and we contributed to her murder." It was, he says "a calculated al-Qaeda-level operation targeting the hearts and minds of senior ranking military officers who knew Kushi. It worked."

Charlie possesses an archive of Kushi material, and he shares emails fellow officers sent him that day. They roil with rage and frustration, and share stories of their kindnesses to Kushi. Charlie kept his opinions on the matter to himself.

Stars and Stripes, with no evident irony, wrote a feel-bad story about her murder.

Until Kushi, Charlie had held it together. ("A soldier is trained to be resilient" he says. "Guts and bones and bullets and bombs are part of the job.") But the shock, and more so the guilt associated with Kushi pulled him like a tractor into the darkness of PTSD, where he now lives. 

"We had no idea what we were doing to her and her family by giving her money. She might have been taking $100 a day home. Imagine the position it put them in? The bribes they had to pay to keep it quiet? But it didn't stay quiet. Al-Qaeda found out about it."

To Charlie, clearly, Kushi stands for the consequences of military intervention in a culture the invaders simply do not understand. Iraq is the single greatest modern example of that. So was Afghanistan, to a lesser extent.     

Charlie believes it is not a soldier's job to question the mission. He's right. That's the way it has to be.

But was it worth it?

Well, he says, the mission did turn Canada's military from peacekeepers back into war fighters, which is what an army has to be.

He also believes it was ultimately about helping America establish a permanent military footprint on the ground — and fighting the Taliban was merely a means to that end.

Charlie talked about his time in Afghanistan on Global TV. (Screen grab)

But was it worth it? He answers with a question: Do Canadians think it was worth it?

"What I couldn't cope with was when you come back, no one greets you at the airport, the military barely recognizes what you did, and people are always asking did we really accomplish anything.

"That really hurt the soldiers. You feel like you wasted your time, and then you find out [the Department of National Defence] will turf you for sustaining a mental injury."

And there were so many mental injuries.  

PTSD, he says, can be caused by kinetic trauma — actual violence — but even more by moral trauma. Kushi's murder was moral trauma. So was the indifference of the Canadian public to the Afghanistan mission.

Even in retirement, even struggling with dark thoughts, Charlie is involved in Canadian projects to support Afghan women, and to fight Afghan illiteracy. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

And here, perhaps, is another moral trauma: Donald Trump has just announced he is sending thousands more soldiers to the country, turning that long war into an infinite war, and that from now on, there'll be no more of this foolish "nation-building."

Nation-building, in the Trumpian view, is for saps. In the America-first era, American soldiers are there to "kill terrorists," and nothing else.

Charlie, meanwhile, cherishes nation-building. Perhaps as therapy, perhaps as redemption.

Even in retirement, even struggling with dark thoughts, he's involved in Canadian projects to support Afghan women, and to fight Afghan illiteracy, which he believes is a rot that creates enemies.

Charlie was taught a soldier's view; that when a trooper is blown up on some dusty road in the middle of nowhere in a country that doesn't want you, well, that trooper has nonetheless given his life to protect his country.

It's just not true. It wasn't true in Iraq, and it's no longer true in Afghanistan, if it ever even was.

The Taliban didn't attack America, even if they gave refuge to the al-Qaeda people who did, and who are now, by all accounts, mostly dead.

Plus, the Taliban will still be there when the Americans finally leave, which, remember, Trump promised to do immediately while he was on the campaign trail.

Well. At least my friend Charlie came home alive. In Afghanistan, other troopers — and Afghans — are now dying for ideological reasons. Or, perhaps, for nothing at all.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.