The Dutch are putting the Afghanistan mission under a microscope — critics say Canada should do the same

There is a lot of soul-searching and serious study going on among allied nations about what went wrong in Afghanistan. The crisis over last summer's disastrous evacuation has claimed two cabinet ministers in the Netherlands and prompted three investigations. In Canada, there is largely silence.

A public probe could determine what the war cost and whether it achieved any of Canada's aims

A Taliban fighter sits on the back of a vehicle with a machine gun in front of the main gate leading to the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, on Aug. 16. (Rahmat Gul/The Associated Press)

Twenty years of involvement in a lost war and a botched military evacuation from Afghanistan last summer have prompted a political and institutional reckoning in the Netherlands — the likes of which may never happen in Canada.

It's a soul-searching exercise that the commander of Dutch forces said he fully supports because he believes his country has something to learn from the experience.

"Will this have an impact on our future missions? I hope so, because we have to have our lessons identified and our lessons learned on Afghanistan towards the future," Gen. Onno Eichelsheim, a veteran of his country's military campaign in Afghanistan, told CBC News in an exclusive interview.

In fact, the Netherlands is conducting three separate investigations of how the country handled different aspects of the Afghanistan mission. The first examines last summer's troubled evacuation. The second takes a broader look at the country's two decades of involvement in the ruined south Asian nation.

And the final review — which promises to be the most politically charged of the three — explores what the Dutch government knew about U.S. evacuation plans and when it knew it.

WATCH | Dutch general on how his country is learning from Afghanistan mission: 

Dutch general outlines investigations into Afghanistan mission

2 years ago
Duration 1:36
Gen. Onno Eichelsheim, chief of defence of the Netherlands, speaks with the CBC's Murray Brewster about his country's investigations into its mission in Afghanistan.

The Netherlands' approach to the Afghanistan mission's aftermath stands in stark contrast to that of its ally Canada.

This country has conducted no major, all-encompassing assessment of its two decades of military, political and development efforts in Afghanistan. No plans have been announced to publicly examine the evacuation of 3,700 people from the country. Most of those evacuated in the chaotic aftermath of the Taliban takeover were Canadian citizens and military interpreters.

Fury over the apparent mishandling of the Dutch military evacuation at the end of August saw some politicians' heads roll. The Dutch defence minister Ank Bijleveld and the foreign minister Sigrid Kaag both resigned after they were censured over the evacuation by the Dutch Parliament in September.

'It would be strange if we do not learn from it'

Specifically, the ministers were criticized for failing to prepare safe passage for thousands of Afghans who could have been eligible for asylum in the Netherlands after the Taliban took over — but never made it out.

Eichelsheim — who served in Afghanistan twice, first as a helicopter attack pilot and later as an air detachment commander — said the Taliban takeover was painful for him and his soldiers to watch. The Netherlands lost 25 soldiers to the mission in Afghanistan.

"It would be strange if we do not learn from it," Eichelsheim said. "And we will see what the outcome will be from these investigations."

Former Canadian major-general Denis Thompson has been involved in his fellow Canadian veterans' efforts to evacuate former military translators. He called for an investigation into the federal government's handling of the airlift out of Kabul and the aftermath.

A U.S. soldier holds a sign indicating a gate is closed as hundreds of people gather — some holding documents — near an evacuation control checkpoint on the perimeter of the airport in Kabul on Aug. 26. (Wali Sabawoon/The Associated Press)

"There should be a whole-of-government review, there's no doubt in my mind," he said. "However, for us, it's not over, right?"

On Wednesday, Global Affairs Canada said efforts to evacuate vulnerable Afghans and bring as many as 40,000 Afghan refugees to this country are continuing. More than three dozen Canadian citizens and other individuals made their way out of Afghanistan in the past month, the department said in a media statement.

Thompson said he's not sure how much of a political appetite exists in Canada for an all-encompassing investigation of this country's two decades in Afghanistan — the reasons Canada went in, how the war was handled and what was (and wasn't) accomplished at the cost of 158 lives and billions of dollars.

There has never been a "fulsome government review, but boy there certainly has been a lot written" about Canada's mission in the academic and media worlds, Thompson said.

"I'm not sure we'd learn something we don't already know," he said.

No clear estimate of the war's cost

One thing the public would learn from such a probe is the true cost of Canada's involvement. There has never been a full accounting of what was spent on the war and development efforts — not one that has been released publicly, at any rate.

On Wednesday, the Speaker of the House of Commons turned aside an NDP motion to hold an emergency debate on the Afghanistan crisis.

"As you know, Mr. Speaker, the election was called on Aug. 15, the very day in which the Afghanistan government collapsed," said NDP MP Jenny Kwan, arguing in favour of the motion. "As a result, many people have been put at risk under the Taliban regime. We know this is an urgent situation that has not dissipated since August.

"We need to have this debate to talk about the government's response in the face of Afghanistan's humanitarian crisis and what other action must be taken to save lives."

U.S. Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, shown in Halifax earlier this month, said she was disappointed with the Biden administration's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. (Halifax International Security Forum/CBC)

Despite Canada's stubborn refusal to reflect, there was ample evidence of soul-searching among other allies last weekend at the Halifax International Security Forum — where a leading Democratic senator and supporter of President Joe Biden questioned the wisdom of his decision to proceed with the withdrawal last summer. 

"I was very disappointed," said New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.

She said the peace deal negotiated by the previous Trump administration amounted to a "surrender" to the Taliban.

"It wasn't really a negotiated peace treaty because we didn't we didn't require any conditions on the Taliban for our withdrawal," Shaheen told a panel at the security conference last week.

'Sold out to terrorists'

The sense of betrayal runs deep among Afghans — especially those in civil society and women, whose advancement was at the centre of the international community's war aims.

"I feel that we have been sold out to terrorists," said Sabrina Saqeb, a former Afghan member of Parliament. She said the message from the West to Afghans seems to be that "terrorists ... are good for us but bad for the rest of the world."

WATCH | Former Afghan MP discusses what international community should do for Afghanistan: 

Former Afghan MP on the future of Afghanistan

2 years ago
Duration 4:27
Sabrina Saqeb, who served as an MP in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2010, discusses the fall of the country to the Taliban and her hopes for the future during a talk at the Halifax International Security Forum.

After watching her country disintegrate — along with the hopes raised by western intervention — Saqeb said she doesn't know how she has managed to sleep over the past few months.

The United Nations warned a few days ago that Afghanistan's banking sector is on the verge of a "colossal" collapse and the country's entire financial system could implode within a few months.

The international community is still deeply divided on how — or even whether — to engage with the hardline Taliban government.

Eichelsheim said he doesn't believe engagement can be avoided.

"You have to have contact with the Taliban government," he said. "We have to talk with them, and you have to look at the humanitarian disaster that is coming up. You have to act on that.

"And you have to show the Taliban that yes, education should be there, human rights should be there and female rights should be there."

Shaheen said she's talked to President Biden about what happens next and is urging "world leaders to continue to speak out about what's happening to women in Afghanistan."

Along with other countries, Canada has negotiated with the Taliban in a multilateral forum to secure safe passage for its citizens. Beyond that — and beyond offering assurances that Canada is still committed to the Afghan people and women in particular — the Liberal government's policy position is unclear.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.