Brutal honesty meets 'prudence': Canadian and U.K. parliaments dissect the Afghanistan withdrawal

Two Parliaments — the U.K. and Canadian — released reports recently on the chaotic withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan. The U.K. report was brutally direct in its description of the fallout for Afghans and British interests. The Canadian report was considerably more gentle.

While U.K. parliamentarians called it a 'disaster,' their Canadian counterparts were far more vague

Thousands of refugees wait outside the Kabul airport for evacuation in August 2021. (Submitted by David Lavery)

Some moments call for plain language. Evaluating the chaotic end to western involvement in Afghanistan is one of those moments. 

The Canadian and U.K. parliaments recently delivered committee reports on the war in Afghanistan and the tumultuous withdrawal of Western forces. Only one of them offers a searing example of the kind of brutal self-reflection that is supposed to be at heart of our democratic system.

"The international withdrawal from Afghanistan has been a disaster in terms of planning, execution and consequences for the U.K.'s wider interests," wrote the British foreign affairs committee in its final report, released May 22, 2022.

"It was a betrayal of our partners in the country and, worst of all, undermined the security of the United Kingdom by encouraging our enemies to act against us."

And that was just the first two sentences of a blistering 60-page report that unflinchingly dissected Britain's evacuation efforts and the way Afghanistan's allies left it to its fate.

Western military involvement in Afghanistan ended in August 2021 when allied nations, led by the U.S., completed their withdrawal.

The two-week airlift that removed Western troops from the country brought with it scenes of desperation and horror. In the early days, people desperate to flee Taliban rule flooded the airport tarmac in Kabul and some fell to their deaths after clinging to departing aircraft.

"The former head of the armed forces told us that the decision to withdraw was 'strategically illiterate and morally bankrupt,' while the former National Security Adviser has called it 'a bad policy, badly implemented," said the British foreign affairs committee report. "It is an act of strategic self-harm.'"

In this image provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, a Canadian coalition forces member walks through an evacuation control checkpoint during ongoing evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. (Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/U.S. Marine Corps/The Associated Press)

The U.K. committee report, endorsed by members of both the governing and opposition parties, went on to say that the decision to leave Afghanistan "damaged the reputation of the U.K. and its allies, and will affect the [U.K.] government's ability to achieve its foreign policy goals for years to come."

That kind of frank assessment seems absent from the Canadian parliamentary report.

In fairness, two former Canadian generals, other former members of the military and officials from humanitarian agencies delivered candid and clear-eyed testimony to Canada's Special Committee on Afghanistan over the last several months.

'Greater prudence'

But when it came time for a committee of Canadian parliamentarians to speak truth to power, the result was decidedly more restrained.

"Even if the exact point at which the Taliban's ascendancy became inevitable could not have been predicted with certainty, the Special Committee believes that greater prudence — and, therefore, a more proactive approach — was warranted in response to Afghanistan's clearly worsening trajectory," reads the assessment of the Special Committee on Afghanistan — buried on page 38 of its 86-page report, which was tabled with little fanfare last week.

While the phrase "greater prudence" might sound like fighting words to the Ottawa bureaucracy, it's likely cold comfort to the thousands of Afghans who believed in what countries like Canada were doing in Afghanistan and who have had to flee for their lives. Some of them are still on the run.

"Testimony underscored the peril facing those who were associated with the international coalition. Given the Taliban's history and the long campaign it fought against coalition forces and the Afghan republic, the risks were known," the Canadian parliamentary report said.

A U.S. Marine checks a woman as she goes through the Evacuation Control Center (ECC) during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, August 28, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps/Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/Handout/Reuters)

The call for "greater prudence" also may be a bitter pill to swallow for tens of thousands of military and non-military Canadians whose lives were forever altered by more than dozen years of warfare.

"The Special Committee acknowledges the complexities and danger involved with the operation of the air bridge from Kabul, and it commends those who made it possible," the Canadian parliamentary report said.

"At the same time, it believes that, long before 15 August 2021, the risks associated with the Taliban should have compelled greater urgency and a more systematic policy and planning effort across the Canadian government to help people reach safety before it became much harder to do so."

No excuses

It's a typical Canadian approach — polite and understated — to a humanitarian catastrophe.

The Canadian House of Commons committee report dwells on the "machinery [of] government" and its systemic failures while pointedly avoiding passing judgment or pointing fingers — a sharp contrast with the tone of the report out of the U.K.

"There were systemic failures of intelligence, diplomacy, planning and preparation which raise questions about machinery of Government, principally the National Security Council," said the U.K. Parliament report. "The U.K. government failed effectively to shape or respond to Washington's decision to withdraw, despite having had 18 months' notice."

The U.K. report adds that even if other allies struggled to predict the speed of the Taliban takeover, "the fact that this came as a surprise to many, including the militants themselves, does not excuse the U.K.'s failures, but rather makes it more urgent to identify where its intelligence-gathering, analysis and planning fell short."

You find no such blunt stock-taking in the Canadian report.

In fact, the Canadian special committee suggested that Global Affairs, the Department of National Defence and Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada appeared to have taken steps to insulate themselves from criticism.

"Some departments have conducted an internal lessons-learned exercise or after-action review," said the Canadian parliamentary report.

"However, the results of those exercises were not communicated to the Special Committee, and it was not clear that a formal, comprehensive and whole-of-government review has been completed."

When the U.K. committee found itself being stonewalled — notably on questions related to the evacuation of a British charity for homeless animals from Afghanistan — it didn't hesitate to call out the British Foreign Office in its final report over a lack of transparency.

"The FCDO has repeatedly given us answers that, in our judgment, are at best intentionally evasive and often deliberately misleading," the U.K. report said.

Federal law interfering with aid delivery, MPs hear

Aside from examining the evacuation and resettlement of Afghan refugees, the Canadian parliamentary committee heard from humanitarian groups saying federal anti-terror legislation stands in the way of delivering aid to Afghanistan — where the economy has collapsed and more than three-quarters of the population will soon be below the poverty line.

The Taliban is on Canada's list of terrorist entities and the prevailing view is that indirect payments to Afghanistan in any form would risk violating the Criminal Code.

Canada is alone among its allies in not carving out an exemption for charitable work.

It's here that the Canadian Commons committee came closest to an admonishment.

"The Special Committee wants to communicate that it does not believe that Canada taking its own policy, regulatory and legislative steps to facilitate legitimate humanitarian action would equate to legitimization of the Taliban," said the Canadian report. 

"The Special Committee, as noted, appreciates the complexity of this situation. However, it is concerned that many months have passed since the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, while the needs of the population are known to be dire."

An Afghan man carries food supplies in a wheelbarrow during a distribution of humanitarian aid for families in need in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (Hussein Malla/The Associated Press)

That's an understatement. As many as 23 million people in Afghanistan now face the possibility of starvation.

International Development Minister Hajit Sajjan told the committee earlier this spring he could not provide a timeline for addressing the issue but assured MPs that Global Affairs Canada "is working with Justice and Public Safety to figure out the best step to move forward."

While Canada is debating its next actions, the U.K. parliamentary committee — in a flash of goodwill in an otherwise scalding report — praised the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson for sending representatives to Kabul on two occasions and for taking "any opportunity that presents itself to sit down with" the Taliban at the ministerial level outside of Afghanistan.

Johnson, the report said, has decided that there is "no point" in the U.K. "standing on the sidelines."


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.