What went wrong in Afghanistan? Our MPs don't seem to be in a hurry to find out

Canadian soldiers spent a dozen years fighting a war in Afghanistan. Almost 160 of them lost their lives to that mission. A new report out of Washington says the war failed to achieve its aims. So why aren't our MPs asking questions?

If joining the war was a mistake, Liberals and Conservatives have to wear it together

Canadian soldiers help a comrade, center, get on a helicopter after he was injured in an IED blast during a patrol outside Salavat, in the Panjwayi district, southwest of Kandahar, Afghanistan, Monday, June 7, 2010. (Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press)

The House of Commons spent Tuesday debating a Conservative proposal to establish a special committee of MPs to study Canada's ongoing "diplomatic crisis" with China.

Whatever the actual merits of that proposal, the timing of it at least underlines another significant matter in Canadian foreign policy that could use some accountability.

On Monday, the Washington Post published the first of its stories based on newly revealed U.S. government documents that raise profound questions about the execution and results of the war in Afghanistan and the massive nation-building effort that surrounded it.

Even though Canada played a major combat role in that mission, not one MP raised the Post's reporting during question period in the Commons on Monday or Tuesday.

But if the current dispute with China deserves special attention from Parliament, surely the 13 years this country spent fighting an actual war in Afghanistan deserves at least as much scrutiny.

It's not hard to see why the Conservatives would jump at an opportunity to launch a prolonged inquiry into the Trudeau government's differences with China. Two Canadians are effectively being held hostage by Beijing and there are no simple solutions.

No points to score

Committee hearings (for as long as they last) would provide a regular forum for poking and prodding government ministers, second-guessing the government's handling of the situation and dwelling on the lack of a resolution. There are partisan points to be scored here.

But both Liberals and Conservatives would find it much harder to score points over Canada's intervention in Afghanistan — which began under a Liberal government and was then enthusiastically embraced by a Conservative government. In 2006 and 2008, Conservative and Liberal MPs voted together to extend the mission. The Canadian military's involvement ended in 2014, before the current government came to office.

Master Cpl. Daniel Choong (left), Cpl. Harry Smiley (centre) and Cpl . Gavin Early (right) take down the Canadian flag for the last time in Afghanistan on Wednesday March 12, 2014, bringing an end to Canada's 12-year mission there. (Murray Brewster/Canadian Press)

So there's little to no short-term political incentive for any of the parties to push for parliamentary hearings now. Even the NDP would stand to gain little, although its former leader Jack Layton was an early mission sceptic. 

But the Post's investigation of the war raises questions that should transcend partisan manoeuvring ahead of the next federal election.

Though the Post's reporting is focused on the U.S. government's handling of the American campaign, its conclusions — that the war lacked clear direction and purpose, that the American government misled the public about the war's progress, that the effort to establish a new government in Afghanistan was misguided and quickly corrupted, that billions of dollars in aid and development money were mishandled — should trouble every country involved in that war.

Where are the 'lessons learned'?

Maybe there were no such shortcomings in Canada's contributions to the military and development campaigns. But here we are, five years after the Canadian mission ended, and we still have no comprehensive public examination of that mission and its successes and failures. That omission is now harder to ignore.

More than 40,000 members of the Canadian Forces served in Afghanistan. One hundred and sixty-five Canadians — 158 soldiers and seven civilians — died there and 2,000 were wounded. In 2008, the parliamentary budget officer estimated that the mission could cost as much as $18 billion, including military operations, aid and development, caring for veterans of the conflict, and diplomatic efforts.

Steve Saideman, a professor and researcher at Carleton University, was able to obtain an internal Canadian report on "lessons learned" in 2017. But that report, which covers the period from 2008 to 2011, is only 10 pages long — "a shallow cut at best," in Saideman's words.

Pte. Glen Kirkland, seen here in a wheelchair, was one of five soldiers injured in a direct fire explosion in Afghanistan on Sept 4, 2008. Here he's seen attending a ramp ceremony for fallen comrades in Khandahar. (Tobi Cohen/Canadian Press)

A year ago, Chrystia Freeland ordered an internal review of Canadian aid spending in Afghanistan, which at that point totalled $3 billion. According to Global Affairs Canada, the results of that review are expected in the new year.

Few acts of the federal government over the last 20 years, if any, were more consequential than its decision to join what became a 13-year military and development mission in Afghanistan. So it follows that few federal decisions, if any, are more worthy of study and scrutiny.

When it was still going on, the mission in Afghanistan was the subject of loud and often acrimonious debates in this country — including a prolonged dispute over the Canadian Forces' handling of Afghan detainees. Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Québécois MPs eventually united to force Stephen Harper's minority government to provide Parliament with internal documents related to the detention and transfer of detainees.

In the absence of easy points to score, it's hard to imagine MPs summoning that kind of collective curiosity now. But Parliament now includes a chamber that's supposed to be above the pursuit of political points.

By virtue of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's reforms, the Senate is supposed to be an independent and non-partisan institution. It's a chamber filled with accomplished Canadians who should be preoccupied with dispassionately reviewing legislation and studying important matters of public policy — and empowered with all the authority and resources that the upper house of Parliament possesses.

If any public institution is capable of a thorough study of Canada's war in Afghanistan, surely it should be this new Senate.

There will come a day when Parliament is asked to consider another military mission like Afghanistan. The resulting debate inevitably will be heavy with a sense of responsibility and appeals to principle.

When those future MPs gather to consider such life-or-death decisions — or hold the government to account for the consequences — will they be drawing on a clear understanding of what happened the last time Canada tasked its soldiers with fighting a war and building up a country?

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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