With the end of combat operations for Canadian troops in Afghanistan, we are left to ask ourselves what was accomplished by this phase of our participation. There are probably a wide variety of answers to this question. My suspicion is that most of those answers are probably correct.
The human toll is easy to tally in terms of those who have been killed, injured or permanently changed by their service to the country. But, what of the benefits?
The common benefit we hear, girls going to school, is certainly an accomplishment. Actually sending more to schools in Afghanistan regardless of gender is an improvement. Remember that the aim of Canadian Forces trainers is to bring members of the Afghanistan Army and police forces to a Grade 3 level. Literacy in the country is at a dismal level and anything that increases that level is good. Also, at the beginning of the Afghan war, more than 4 million people were being fed by United Nations food development aid work. I heard an interview last year with Flora MacDonald who mentioned that there were now more than 1,100 NGO aid agencies working in the country. This is certainly a situation that would be impossible under the Taliban.
That being said, there is also a dark side to our participation. One of the more interesting items from the fall of the Taliban is that they were emphatically against the heroin trade and had drastically reduced the export of raw heroin. Now, no longer in power, the Taliban guerrillas are actively supporting heroin production for fundraising and Afghanistan is back to being the world leader in export of raw heroin. Also, it’s not like we are actively busy ensuring the survival of the “good guys.” Afghanistan has one of the most, if not the most, corrupt governments in the world. Most of the warlords whose support is a necessity to keep Hamid Kharzai in power are heroin producers and his own brother, a provincial governor, has been accused on numerous occasions to be active in the trade. Lastly, we can basically describe our participation to some extent as fighting someone else’s civil war for them.
So, after almost 10 years of combat operations and a horrendous human cost on all sides, the answer to the question of whether or not our participation in Afghanistan was worthwhile is probably impossible to determine. This is a question left to future generations and the application of hindsight. How the conflict will end, if it actually even does, will be seen by eyes younger than ours, and probably less biased by the currency of events…