Southern Afghans call it “The American War”. In July, it ended not with a bang but with a whimper, when the Taliban took Kandahar and the district of Panjwayi, where Canadian troops had fought so hard in 2006 and afterward. On August 15, the insurgents arrived in Kabul and entered the Presidential Palace unchallenged, a full two weeks before the planned US withdrawal. 

By the time Canada closed our Embassy and evacuated our diplomats, along with Locally-Engaged Staff and their families, Afghanistan had long been out of fashion in Ottawa. Many of us who served there, especially in the early days, learned not to talk too much about it unless we wanted to see colleagues’ eyes glaze over, or worse, have our experience discounted by those who knew better after the fact. 

The chaotic final weeks of the war in Afghanistan prompted old friends – Foreign Service Officers, current and former soldiers, interpreters, humanitarian workers and journalists – to reconnect. Some wanted help getting Afghan contacts out of danger, and others wanted to talk to someone to help make sense of what had happened and what it meant. Many were haunted by questions about how “we” had “lost” Afghanistan, and others wondered whether we should ever have hoped to “have” it in the first place. 

Many of us were surprised to find how much we still cared, and it’s telling that when I put out a call for friends and contacts to help me with this article, many came forward but did not want to speak for attribution. Still, they were eager to talk about why they went to Afghanistan, whether they had succeeded in their goals, and whether they would do it again.

In August 2003, I found myself with Canadian and German soldiers at a former Soviet airbase in Uzbekistan. The night air was surprisingly cold, and we were too excited to sleep anyway, so we huddled around the firepit. I had just come from Sarajevo, Bosnia i Hercegovina, where I worked for High Representative Paddy Ashdown, and most of the Canadians had also spent time as peacekeepers in Bosnia. 

For a student of Russian and Soviet politics, joining a NATO mission to support a fledgling democratic government in Afghanistan was almost as daunting as it was exhilarating. But, as we boarded the military flight to my new assignment as Political Advisor to the NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, I felt confident in the experience of my military colleagues. Afghanistan would be a challenge, but, as one Canadian officer said, “We thought we were ready for it. Even our most junior captain had three missions under his belt. We were some of the most experienced peacekeepers in the world.” 

The pilot invited me to sit in one of the few spots behind the cockpit, giving me a full view of the beautiful terrain below. As the plane navigated between the jagged mountain peaks, I saw a shepherd and his hardy mountain sheep gazing down from above. He smiled and waved at us with what I thought was amusement but, in retrospect, might also have been pity. 

When my eyes met that enigmatic gaze, Afghanistan ceased to be an abstraction for me. The mission became intensely personal, as it would to the many Canadians who served over the 20 years of our engagement there. It was that sense of commitment that made many of us, including me, volunteer to return multiple times, even after the US shifted the bulk of its resources and attention to Iraq in 2004. 

I returned in 2006 as the Political Advisor to the Commander of Operation Enduring Freedom/NATO’s Regional Command South in Kandahar. At that time, the prevailing wisdom held that it was just a matter of time before we “crushed the insurgency” with a combination of force and political persuasion so democracy could flourish. Canada’s strategy prioritized engagement with the local population through the Provincial Reconstruction Team. My work within the military chain of command involved advising the Commander on the effects of the political environment on military operations and vice versa, including how to support the provincial governors in extending central government authority. A typical day could involve anything from giving input on targets to negotiating with village elders on compensation for civilian casualties in an airstrike to organizing a regional conference. Our mission was called Task Force AEGIS, for the shield carried by Athena and Zeus in Greek mythology. 

None of it was as easy as we or our allies had hoped. In Kandahar alone, we faced a complicated web of tribal politics, opium interests, centuries-old conflicts within the local population, regional interference and animosity – some of it justified – towards the central authorities in Kabul. Within a couple of years, Canada had well over 3,000 soldiers and 100 civilians at Kandahar Airfield (KAF) and the Provincial Reconstruction Team struggling to secure the south. The war was urgent and intense and the most exciting story out there, dominating the 24-hour news stations and the front pages of national newspapers. 

For a decade, Canada’s foreign policy revolved around the mission and what it meant to our global alliances and relationships. Although we spent less time and effort understanding Afghanistan itself, our commitment to the cause cost over $3.6 billion and 165 Canadian lives. One of those lost was career diplomat and former PAFSO member Glyn Berry. 

The toll on the Afghan side was even more devastating. Within five years, the Taliban killed four of my six governors and injured a fifth in a brutal IED attack. Even after Canada ended the combat mission in 2014, our Embassy in Kabul remained one of the largest in our diplomatic network, and Afghanistan was our largest bilateral aid recipient, but that did little to stem the suffering of the Afghan people. According to the Costs of War Project, Afghanistan and the border areas of Pakistan lost more than 200,000 people between 2001 and 2021, including nearly 90,000 military and police and 71,000 civilians.

A desolate road meanders through the Parmir mountains an hour outside Bagram Airfield.

Although many of us wonder if our governments have absorbed the strategic lessons of Afghanistan, we know the mission changed us personally and shaped our approach to our work forever.

Like me, most of those I talked to were not sorry they went, although the reasons for doing so varied depending on the mission’s timeline. For example, James Johnson, an FS02 with Global Affairs Canada, saw his 2010–11 deployment to Kandahar as an advisor to the Governor as “an opportunity to participate on the front lines of diplomacy within a whole-of-government, multinational environment” and “promote Canada and Canadian values.” He returned to Kabul in 2016–18 to do similar work with the Ministry of Interior, NATO and the International Police Coordination Board. Gwen Temmel grew to care deeply about Afghanistan and its people as a new FS in the geographic division. She saw her first posting to Kabul in 2019–21 as “a way of continuing that important work and building relationships.” 

According to James, “success is hard to measure because it was always a cat-and-mouse game … Afghan officials used key phrases, like “women’s rights,” to secure funding without seriously addressing the systemic challenges in their community. The goal was the cash. It was a feeding frenzy better suited to Shark Week … When I walked the Palace grounds on the weekend and realized many of the provincial leaders were staying at their expensive properties in Dubai – not bad for relatively low paid functionaries – it was clear long-term success was unlikely, and the house of cards would fall once the international community left.” In one of the defining moments of his time in Afghanistan, he describes preventing the theft of an expensive generator from the Governor’s Palace only to be banned from the premises, with little recourse. 

I recall similar feelings of cognitive dissonance in Kandahar at an early briefing for one of our higher allied headquarters on a new series of patrols in a remote area of a neighbouring province. No foreign troops had entered that valley since the departure of the Soviets. Upon hearing that the units had encountered what seemed like hostile fire for reasons unknown, the principal angrily berated the briefer. “I don’t want to hear f—ing unknown,” he sneered. “If it’s drugs, you tell me it’s drugs. If it’s Taliban, you tell me it’s Taliban.” The message was clear: ambiguity and uncertainty were not welcome, even in this murkiest of operating environments.

At the next session, the briefer attributed the entire day’s worth of incidents to the “insurgency.” From then on, any problems in that area would be solved by military might alone, with no prospect for persuasion or the softer methods of an engagement strategy like Canada’s. Within weeks, American A-10s, designed for ripping the bellies out of Soviet tanks, had bombed dozens of mud-walled family compounds, killing civilians along with the alleged enemy. By the time I left Kandahar eight months later, that area was an unambiguous hotbed of Taliban activity. My colleagues and I feared that this represented a pattern across the theatre. After all, if you have a big enough hammer, you might be able to pound anything into a nail. 

Most of us also have hopeful memories of our time there. One of mine involved a mob of curious little girls during a visit to Zabul with the Governor who couldn’t believe a woman could participate as an equal with political or military leaders. A decade later, Gwen hosted an embassy event for female students where a panel of professional women and men spoke about their work in Dari and English. They included two women from the Canadian Military Police detachment in Kabul and the Locally-Engaged Staff of the Embassy. Gwen hopes “the current state of affairs won’t take away all their memories or the way they felt while participating in the programs we supported.”

As one military intelligence officer who served in 2006 and again in 2009 said: “it’s easy to be cynical and sad. We did some good things … We built roads, schools and hospitals and improved infrastructure. We gave people hope when they had none. In the end, the US did defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and got Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mansour. Everyone did as much as they could at the tactical level, at the human level.” 

Although many of us wonder if our governments have absorbed the strategic lessons of Afghanistan, we know the mission changed us personally and shaped our approach to our work forever. After all, if those kinds of experiences don’t affect you, nothing will. And, in the words of a senior US diplomat who spent considerable time in the south, “institutions don’t learn lessons, but the people in them do. And we use them every single day.”

In August, I spent a couple of hours on the phone with another friend, who had worked as a security contractor in Kandahar before leaving to train as an emergency-room nurse. Without Afghanistan, she said, “I would never have been ready for the stress and trauma of the pandemic. The war gave me the mental equivalent of calluses on my hands, earned through hard work, and that’s made everything else seem easier by comparison.” 

Gwen reports that her time in Kabul made her think about “how we represent the values we promote within our service at home and abroad.” She notes that “many of us dedicate our hearts and souls to serving in extreme circumstances. We get bruised by the stress, the crises, the bureaucratic boundaries and the discrepancies between the public awareness and realities of our work.” 

In the end, she concludes that “it’s not easy, but it’s worth it, so long as we continue to take care of ourselves, our families, and one another.”

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