Image credit: U.S. Army
By David Carment and Dani Belo
With a price tag of over $2 trillion for the U.S alone, and 240,000 lives lost, the intervention in Afghanistan turned out to be one of the costliest and most unsuccessful campaigns undertaken by Washington and its allies. Afghanistan is but one of many failed states that were the targets of US military intervention since 9/11. Though possibly well intentioned most of these interventions have assured civil strife would be prolonged and deadly. We have witnessed their brutal consequences with a lengthy civil war in Syria and Libya, long-term economic and political instability in the case of Iraq and Ukraine, and unremitting humanitarian catastrophes in Mali and Yemen. Yet Afghanistan stands out as the most prominent of failures not just for the United States, but for its allies as well. Within three weeks of the U.S withdrawal and the Resolute Support Mission winding down, the Taliban defeated Afghanistan’s national military and conquered all major population centers. To add to this humiliation, few remember that the Moscow-backed government in Kabul lasted for nearly three years following the 1989 Soviet withdrawal.
The Afghanistan war was the longest in Canada’s history by the time our soldiers left in 2014. Canada’s impact on bringing equality, peace and stability to the peoples of Afghanistan was limited. Evidence indicates that Canadian priorities often stood in the way of progress especially in regards to gender equality. Poorly planned and mismanaged projects led to widespread mistrust among Afghan civilians and many projects collapsed after foreign troops left an area. In 2018, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported that stabilization efforts that had been central to military and foreign policy in Afghanistan had largely failed. Canadian aid efforts were implicated in that report in that they appeared to be fuelling corruption more than development goals.
Accusations of war crimes committed by both the US and the Taliban remain unanswered. In terms of Canadian aid, hundreds of millions of dollars went unaccounted for. Such was the pressure, according to former Deputy Minister David Mulroney, to spend money through multilateral channels without evaluating its impact. The views of those critical of Canadian spending were routinely discounted.
A summative evaluation of Canada’s Afghanistan Development Program for the period 2004 to 2013 concluded that “there were more short-term achievements than long-term development results.” The Country Indicators for Foreign Policy project housed at Carleton University conducted yearly assessments during the period in which Canada was engaged in Afghanistan and continues to do so. Their reports indicate that Afghanistan remains a country trapped in fragility and is likely to remain among the worst performers in the foreseeable future. Afghanistan was performing at a better level in 2002 than it is today. Whereas some of its peers have gone on to exit the ‘fragility trap’ due in part to concerted international action, Afghanistan was actually more fragile by the time Canadian troops left in 2014.
There is, unfortunately, no evidence that any of this information found a permanent home within Canadian government decision-making. Indeed, despite a significant interest in the tools to engage in conflict situations, investing not only in analytical expertise but bridge-building partners and transnational organisations, the Government of Canada was not making effective use of them. For example, two international conferences organised by the Marshall Fund and the Carnegie Endowment, in 2004, brought together experts from these organizations as well as the World Bank, FCO and the State Department to examine the situation in Afghanistan and the impact neighbouring states such as Pakistan were having on the region. Canadian representatives, apart from Carment, an academic, were notably absent from the discussion. As Carment and Samy note: “The truth is that a lot of the momentum and investments made during this period were either squandered or forgotten…the Harper government halted, within a year of being elected in 2006, the whole-of-government initiatives, including the engagement of civil society and support of knowledge networks. Canada Corps, an interdepartmental body based within CIDA to promote good governance, mutated into the Office for Democratic Governance for a brief period and was then abandoned in 2007.” A related problem was the lack of interest within the government of Canada in evidence-based decision-making other than that which was narrowly focused on the state and state security. This major lack of interest characterized the Canadian government even before the election of the Conservatives in 2006, but has been acutely problematic since then.
So in addition to squandered investments and resources on the home front, how did things go from bad to worse? There is an oft used adage that a successful intervention entails getting the strategy right at the outset. No matter how much one changes tactics, a bad strategy is doomed by path dependency. Among the most egregious strategic errors was the dominance of a security first mindset since 9/11. This perpetuated the belief that security for the US primarily, and its allies secondarily, was also good for Afghanistan. But we know that complex problems defy military solutions.
Adding to this complexity is the fact that in 2001, two parallel missions were launched in Afghanistan. The first, a US effort called Enduring Freedom was intended to destroy the capacity of Al-Qaeda to prevent it from launching further attacks on the United States and its allies. Around the same time NATO’s ISAF mission focused on stabilising Afghanistan, so it no longer served as the crucible for forces hostile to western interests. The problem is that the first strategy required covert action that focused on targeting terrorist cells in neighbouring states most notably Pakistan. Many civilians were killed in the process.
Covert missions were eventually supplanted by increased drone strikes. By 2019 Afghanistan was witness to 40 drone attacks a day. Since 9/11 the US has launched close to 7,000 drone strikes in numerous failed states with an estimated 12,000 dead of whom 1,700 have been civilian casualties. Drones provided some initial tactical advantage, but those benefits were ephemeral. There is no evidence drones induce regime change, bring stability to failed states or help the people on the ground. Indeed, the covert war on Pakistani soil destabilised Pakistan considerably and reinforced a shift in its support for the Taliban to America’s detriment.
More generally, the US and its allies were never properly prepared to overcome the disconnect of conducting two separate missions simultaneously, nor did they confront the fact this was a regional war, not easily contained by artificial state boundaries. Politically, many Pakistanis considered U.S. drone attacks, and continued U.S. interventions on their soil, as violations of their country’s sovereignty. The decline in U.S. influence over Pakistan coincided with America’s failures in Afghanistan.
Carment’s experience collaborating with US and Canadian security and intelligence directorates involved in the strategic planning aspects of the Afghanistan mission reinforces this point. The US and its NATO allies were hard pressed to shift their thinking out of the security first paradigm (which we have written about elsewhere). Innovative ideas that emerged from Effects Based Operational concepts and experimental forward planning developed by the Canadian Forces Experimental Centre ( CFEC with whom Carment worked) and J1 (DOD’s intelligence arm) as well as multinational experimentation were seen as too radical, complex and unwieldy for real world application. Interdepartmental coordination, communication and compliance would be needed, but the heavy hand of political interference from elected officials prevailed.
In essence, Afghanistan was the world’s biggest laboratory for Canada’s whole of government approach to failed and fragile states. Touted by successive governments in Canada from Paul Martin onward as the key to operational success in fixing failed states, the results were visibly and palpably thin even in the early stages of the intervention. Despite exhortations from the likes of UK PM Tony Blair to go deep there was an inadequate analysis of the country’s political, cultural and ethnic background which resulted in promoting inter-ethnic rivalries rather than preventing them. Some of that inadequacy arose from inconsistencies in the American approach. Some from Canadian timidity. Part of Canada’s failings can be traced to the fact that senior officials, including those from the government as well as CSIS and DND did not question the American premise for being there in the first place, favouring deference to American strategies and questionable human rights violations over vigorous public debate.
By the time Trump announced that his government would focus on a renewed security strategy in Afghanistan, Canada had already departed the scene. The Trump administration’s Afghanistan policy largely continued Obama’s trend of de-emphasizing nation-building in favour of security. Early in the 2016 presidential election, Trump described the invasion of Afghanistan as a “mistake” due to its having become a quagmire, although he quickly backtracked and denied his previous remarks in favour of considering the conflict necessary, owing to Afghanistan’s proximity to Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal.
America’s primary security objective in Afghanistan did not change much under George Bush, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump. But while that strategy might have been good for the U.S., it proved to be a fatal flaw for America’s NATO allies, who became increasingly frustrated with policy incoherence. Each ally had a different understanding of the resources and capabilities necessary for Afghanistan’s stability and development.
Under Jean Chretien, Canada’s mission focused on a mix of political, economic and security programmes. Paul Martin’s government stressed Afghanistan’s security and de-emphasised institutionalization and development, quietly, and without public debate, moving Canadian forces from Kabul to Kandahar during Operation Apollo. Growing instability in Afghan provinces such as Kandahar, and uncertainty about Pakistan’s influence on Afghanistan, contributed to this shift.
Stephen Harper portrayed the war in Afghanistan in historic terms. He declared in 2006 that Canadians did not “cut and run.” Yet Harper’s support for whole of government policies was weak. The Cabinet level Afghan Task Force saw to that. Where the Task Force did make decisions independent of US direction its policies did not appear to be informed by regular situation analyses. If such analyses were factored into programming, it may have been a “one-off” exercise or an external analysis that did not reflect local perspectives. The construction of the Dahla dam is a good example. Of the $50 million assigned to the project, roughly $10 million was paid to Watan Risk Management, a private Afghan security firm with an alleged history of crime and corruption. The impact of Canadian activities was thereby reduced because of a lack of coordination and strategy emanating from the Harper government, which was not interested in public policy.
At the same time Harper was confronted by the “Afghan detainee scandal” which came to light after Foreign Service Officer Richard Colvin, among others, revealed ongoing war crimes despite the Conservative government’s continued denial. Canadian forces were implicated in handing Taliban fighters over to Afghanistan forces who then tortured them. For Canada, this scandal remains the lowest point in the war and speaks directly to the failure to understand why Canada was there in the first place. It not only forced Harper to call an election in the face of a non-confidence motion regarding the Conservative government’s unwillingness to make public the facts around the case, it also called into question the integrity and accountability of politicians and bureaucrats alike. Although several senior bureaucrats resigned or left their posts in protest, several key figures chose to stay on and still work with the Government. To this day, Canadians do not know the names of all those who were aware that detainee torture occurred regularly and did nothing. Former diplomat Eileen Olexiuk raised the possibility that detainees transferred from Canadian to Afghan custody were at risk of torture back in 2005, but the Liberal government at the time felt it would play poorly at home in the way that Gitmo and Abu Ghraib had for the Americans.
More broadly, instead of securing peace through long-term development, local economic capacity, and improved human rights, the coalition largely focused on achieving short-term military objectives. According to the US Department of Defense, the total military expenditure in Afghanistan from 2001 until 2019 reached $778 billion, while only $44 billion were spent on local infrastructure projects. This was in line with Washington’s own preference of pursuing foreign policy goals with kinetic means, rather than diplomacy and genuine state-building efforts.
With a significant focus on security and terrorism, aid distortions skewed Afghanistan’s development such that the core ultimately did not have a legitimate governance over the periphery. There were numerous national programs meant to encourage economic development and community-based governance in rural Afghanistan, but most were unsuccessful in bridging the urban-periphery gap. As a consequence, Afghanistan was at best a hybrid system with a weak central government unable to enforce rules across the entire territory and deeply corrupt.
With reduced investment in the country’s independent economic capacity, Afghanistan was destined to become reliant on foreign aid. According to USAID, assistance to Afghanistan reached its peak at $11 Billion in 2011. However, this aid did not facilitate a self-sustaining Afghan economy. The amount of aid as a percentage of the national budget rose by 25 percent annually since 2002, increasing from 32 percent of GDP in 2002 to 42 percent in 2008.
Moreover, the strategy of aid distribution across Afghanistan embraced by foreign donors guaranteed that the most peaceful provinces also remained the poorest and underdeveloped. Through an approach of ‘buying peace,’ 80 percent of foreign aid was allocated to the five most conflict-ridden provinces. However, after spending a trillion dollars, audits and risk analysis show that aid and SSR were not having a significant long-term impact on peace. In the meantime, peaceful provinces such as Bamyan and Dykundi were excluded from economic development opportunities and capacity-building initiatives.
However, even with such a focus on short-term security, the ISAF coalition did not provide the Kabul government sufficient capacity to maintain a monopoly on force. The expected outcome of the withdrawal from Afghanistan was that the Taliban and the Kabul government would reach a strategic and tactical stalemate that would compel the militant group to negotiate. This false assumption regarding the Taliban’s willingness to negotiate emerged from the signing of a historic peace deal between the U.S and the Taliban in February 2020 in Qatar. However, this calculation proved to be misguided. The withdrawal of NATO forces left a weak national government in Kabul, that was swiftly defeated by a well-trained, equipped, and reenergized Taliban.
Looking ahead, Afghanistan’s future will be determined by regional actors who have a vested interest in regional stability. The exclusion of geopolitical adversaries like Iran, Russia, China, and other smaller neighboring nations from local conflict management efforts came at the expense of Afghanistan’s long-term political stability. As a country dominated by a Shi’a majority, Iran had a long-standing political rivalry with the Taliban throughout the 1990s. Recently, geopolitical considerations in relation to Washington superseded the ideological differences with the militant group. In anticipation of NATO mission failure and the departure of Western troops, Iran began supporting both the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) and the Taliban. Once NATO troops left Afghan soil, Tehran could exercise its influence over the two major non-state groups vying for control of the country. Based on unconfirmed reports, Tehran has struck a deal with the Taliban to purchase some of the military hardware left behind by the fleeing ANA.
With the departure of the NATO coalition from Afghanistan, China and Russia’s regional influence is strengthened. On the one hand, confidence among western allies has been diminished given the lack of US coordination with allies in its chaotic, ill planned and haphazard pullout from Afghanistan. This breakdown may well portend the future of how America will work with allies. Act first. Consult later.
On the other hand, with the advance of the Taliban on Kabul, the U.S, UK and Canada quickly evacuated their embassies, while China and Russia maintained their fully staffed diplomatic missions. For example, Russia received a Taliban delegation in Moscow in July 2021 to gain assurances that the borders of former Soviet republics in Central Asia and Russia’s interests therein will be secured. On August 12, Russia presided over a multilateral dialogue involving Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and the Taliban to discuss the future of regional trade with Afghanistan, in exchange for regional security guarantees. Whether the Taliban’s promises remain credible is yet to be seen, but such extensive multilateral conflict management attempts with the Taliban were the first of its kind.
China’s regional influence will continue to grow as Beijing indicated it will do business with the new Taliban government. Even though the U.S. departure from Afghanistan enables Washington to focus on its competition with Beijing and maintain its commitment to ending ‘forever wars’, the loss of strategic influence by the West relative to China and Russia in Central Asia will be significant and lasting.
Sending NATO troops back to Afghanistan is not a viable option. Sanctions against the Taliban and freezing assets, while less extreme, will only ensure they find support elsewhere. The best way forward requires multilateral dialogue and engagement with the new government, involving all regional actors who have the greatest stake in local security and stability. If Canada’s leaders think they have a role to play in that process, then they should make their voices heard.
On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, there is only one question for the federal government and the bureaucrats who oversaw this disastrous mission. It is time for Canadians to ask what we learned from this war. There have been repeated calls from all corners for the current government to conduct a thorough and broad foreign policy review. But what point is there in doing so if Canadians cannot come to terms with all that Afghanistan has come to represent both good and bad. Canada’s place in the world has slipped. Canadians need to know in what ways our presence in Afghanistan contributed to that decline and what we need to do to get back on track.
Unlike the British who conducted an arms-length review of their mission to Iraq and the Americans, who do regular evaluations, no Canadian government has seen fit to properly and thoroughly apprise Canadians of what our soldiers, aid workers and diplomats were doing there or the difference they made. True, there was the Manley Report but it was a means to justify extending Canada’s mission. The Report failed to address the Canadian government’s ineffective solutions to cross-border incursions and safe havens for the Taliban and said little about improving lines of communication and accountability especially regarding corruption, human rights, gender equality, aid effectiveness, and torture. It is time Canadians were told the truth.
David Carment is Professor of International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He is Editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal and Series Editor for Palgrave’s Canada and International Affairs. His research focuses on fragile states, diasporas and foreign policy, and grey zone conflict. His most recent books include Exiting the Fragility Trap and Political Turmoil in a Tumultuous World. His research website can be found here.
Dani Belo is a teacher and scholar of international relations specializing in conflict management and security. He is currently an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Webster University in St. Louis, MO, USA. His research focuses on gray-zone conflicts, management of ethnic conflicts, NATO–Russia relations, and the post-Soviet region. Among other places, his work was featured at the U.S Army Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, the Royal Military College of Canada, the University of Pennsylvania Law School Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, and the European Commission.