Canada’s flights out of Kabul have come to an end and with it our involvement in Afghanistan will recede from the front pages and, for most Canadians, from the collective consciousness. As a veteran of that campaign, I have been asked by a number of friends and family over the past weeks about what my thoughts were as I watched the fall of Kandahar and the humanitarian disaster at the Kabul airport descend into the inevitable bloodshed.
We must do what we can to get them out
I have a great well of sympathy for those Afghans that clung to the sides of aircraft, because those tragic people actually internalized the Western rhetoric we espoused. That throng of people ringing the airport, kept at bay by barbed wire and now the target of suicide bombers, represent those who risked their lives as educators, doctors, lawyers and government workers to rebuild their civil society. Above Afghans attempt to flee. Photo Al Jazeera
Now their involvement with us, no matter how trivial or benign, has become their death warrant both as individuals and as entire families. It was right and moral for us to fly them out when we could. It was wrong and immoral for us to have waited so long. But this is not the end of our obligation. When a school teacher from Zhari arrives at our embassy in Kazakhstan after a perilous 500 kilometer journey we must continue to support them.
Retired Generals – It’s over. Can we dim the gaslight?
However, in all the coverage I watched and read there was one distinct group of individuals that I found I had no sympathy for. There has been a virtual parade of former Generals from the time period of our involvement feigning “surprise” or “shock” about the “sudden collapse” of the Afghanistan National Security Forces. It is as though they are all saying that “it wasn’t broken when I left.” Here is but one example from a CBC news interview with Maj.Gen (Retd) David Fraser. 13 Aug 2021:
“I think what is surprising is that after a trillion dollars and 300,000 Afghan Security Forces being trained and equipped it should be more than capable of managing 60,000 Taliban.… The Afghan leadership had no sense of will or determination to take care of their own country – that is surprising.”
If we read the Parliamentary reports on the training of the Afghan National Army from the time period when I was deployed, the situation portrayed to the public by the Army, bureaucrats and politicians looked pretty good. Historians will note that, officially, we thought:
“that Canadian Afghan National Army (ANA) training efforts in Kandahar have ‘shown promising progress’ and that the ANA could be capable of autonomous operations by 2011. The significance of ANA progress cannot be overstated and should be celebrated as a major Canadian and Allied achievement.”
Not necessarily lies, but not quite the whole truth
So how did an Afghan National Army that we thought would be capable of autonomous operations by 2011 fade into nothing by 2021? Was it corruption? Was it duplicity? Was it simply a craven political calculation on the part of the Afghan high command? Historians, I am sure, will find a million fathers for this disaster. It is with some confidence that I can add another: Institutional fear of giving a true picture of the ability of the Afghans to protect their own country.
Yes, there was a possibility in 2008 that the Afghan Army “could be capable of autonomous operations by 2011.” But what was never officially transmitted was the general feeling that many of us had that it was equally, or even more possible, that by 2011 that they could fall apart, break into factions based on tribal lines, or desert en masse if left to their own devices.
Given the amount of money Canada was spending, there was immense pressure for a lot of military leaders, professional bureaucrats, and politicians to ensure that the trend line was always seen to be moving forward. The idea that the Afghan forces could plateau or, God forbid, slip backwards in capability was simply anathema.
A little Officer in a little office
How would I know? Well, for nine months during 2008-2009, I served as a lowly staff officer in the Canadian Task Force Headquarters in Kandahar. My duties included tracking and reporting on the development of the Afghan National Army and Afghan Police. On a weekly basis we used to report to the Canadian Expeditionary Forces Command (CEFCOM) (referred to at the time as “the Eye of Sauron”) using a scoring matrix where various training goals, or benchmarks, would be assessed and scored. We would then tally up the scores and give the Afghan National Army a score out of 4. Months went by where reports from the trainers to the Afghan forces would come in showing that they were consistently missing benchmarks and for months these reports were scored by my office as a 2. As you can imagine this was problematic for a lot of people in the system.
Working the ref
It started subtly at first with senior staff officers inquiring “Are you sure it isn’t a 3 this time?” progressing to “would be great to see that number go up” and finally moving to questions surrounding our professional competence with “perhaps you are applying the criteria a little too harshly.” Each time I was asked about it, I would answer: “We are following the criteria you gave us. We give the score based on what the people on the ground are seeing and reporting” and discussed how the actual assessment of the Afghan National Army is critical because it is showing our headquarters, higher headquarters in Canada and our political leadership that the Afghans just aren’t getting it.
Finally, remembering the Somalia affair, I recognized that a day would come in the future when there would be a “blamestorming” session so I took the opportunity to memorialize my concerns and I sent an email saying that if people higher up the chain of command wanted to change the scores they could do so, but that it could not be under my signature block and that they themselves would have to sign it. Then for a few days there was … silence.
Having trouble scoring? Make the goal posts wider!
Resolution was found in two ways. First, locally, myself and another officer were told that we no longer had responsibility for doing this reporting and that another agency would do it. Second, we were informed that the old scoring system was being “updated” as it “wasn’t discrete enough.” The new scoring system was now out of 8. So the Afghan Army that had been a consistent “2” instantly became a “4.” I can remember on a later video conference a staff officer back in Ottawa remarking that “it was nice to see that number finally go up – nice work everyone.” The movie Borat was still quoted from back then and one of my compatriots leaned over to me and whispered in an Eastern-bloc accent, “Great Success!”
A metaphor for you to visualize
For 20 years the US and NATO (of which we are a part) ran beside the Afghan Army like a parent holding onto a bicycle as a child tries to ride for the first time, the whole time telling the world that any time now he is going to ride right down the driveway unaided. Rotation after rotation of dedicated Canadians ran beside that bicycle, coaching, instructing, cajoling awaiting the day that we would let go of the bike and watched the Afghan forces pedal on their own.
When the time finally came and the West decided to leave, we let go of the handles and watched the Afghan Army not even pedal but rather coast a few feet, careen into the ditch, remove the tires and sell them, then go and sit in the shade under a pomegranate tree.
We can say a great deal about this situation. We can be angry or disappointed but we cannot say that in our heart of hearts that we are truly “shocked” or “surprised.”
Finally, the question that I get asked the most
Do I think that my time there was a failure? No. Canadians gave the Afghans years of protection and years of opportunity, with the Americans giving even more years after we as a nation left. The fact that they didn’t take advantage of it is no more our national failure than calling people who take part in a drug intervention ‘failures’ if the person they wanted to help returns to drugs. It was, overall, a noble undertaking that ended in tragedy. The fact that this time it failed should never be allowed to be used as our national excuse to never be noble again. That would be the true disservice to our service personnel who died there.
About the author: Michael J. McCloskey CD is a retired Canadian Forces Officer and veteran of multiple operational deployments that included Kosovo and, immediately prior to retirement, a nine-month tour in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2008. He holds an Honours Degree in Political Science from Laurentian University, and is a frequent writer and commentator on municipal politics. He resides with his family on a property outside of Quadeville, Ontario.