Did we win? Canadians who served in Afghanistan reflect on the prospects for peace

Did we win? Canadians who served in Afghanistan reflect on the prospects for peace
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Bickering and divided, Afghan leaders are expected to stumble toward the peace table with the Taliban at some point soon. It’s an event that likely won’t register on officials’ radar in Ottawa — where COVID-19 and plunging oil prices have nailed decision-makers to their desks.

It will, however, receive the rapt attention of tens of thousands of Canadians whose lives have been intertwined with — or irrecoverably altered by — a war that came within a whisker of defeating former prime minister Stephen Harper’s minority government.

The sixth anniversary of the flag coming down on Canada’s military mission in the ruined south Asian country passed on Thursday without fanfare. It has been almost a decade now since Canadian combat operations in Kandahar ended and were handed over to U.S. forces.

Exhausted and impatient after nearly two decades of war, the Trump administration last month cut a deal with the Taliban. The fine print of that deal still has not been shared with the American public, or with NATO allies such as Canada and Britain.

It commits to a full withdrawal of foreign troops as long as the enemy — which waged a ceaseless, bloody guerrilla war for nearly 20 years — commits to not allowing Afghanistan to be used as a base for international terrorism by (among others) al-Qaida, the Taliban’s most stalwart ally.

The agreement was negotiated over the heads of the Afghan government, which has already balked at one of its key provisions and is mired in divisions so deep that rival presidential candidates held their own separate swearing-in ceremonies last weekend.

There is a palpable sense of dismay among Canadians who committed a good portion of their lives and professional careers to Afghanistan.

CBC News spoke with seven people, three former soldiers, three diplomats and one Afghan-Canadian, many of whom saw combat. We asked them one straightforward question: Is this the moment you fought for?

Cpl. (ret) Bruce Moncur

Bruce Moncur, right, in southern Afghanistan in 2006. ‘All for nought, for ours is not to question why.’ (CBC News)

Badly wounded in 2006 during the seminal battle Operation Medusa, retired corporal Bruce Moncur looked at the deal and said he doesn’t understand why this moment could not have arrived 14 years ago, or more. He wonders about the stubborn refusal of successive U.S. administrations and Canadian governments to negotiate with the Taliban.

“Our failures created nothing more than a generational quagmire in which some soldiers and children born after 9/11 are now fighting for a cause we were never given a chance to win,” Moncur said.

The Afghans were guaranteed security, protection and prosperity, none of which truly materialized.

“This failure sits at the feet of all the governments, which did not do a proper job, and leaves me wondering about the blood I left in the sands of Kandahar, the 13 soldiers that I knew who gave everything, and the ten soldiers that I have known since whose demons proved too great.

“Such sacrifice has inevitably resulted in nothing. All for nought, for ours is not to question why.”

Chris Alexander

As Canada’s former ambassador to Afghanistan (2003-2005), Chris Alexander could not believe the terms of the deal cut by Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. President Donald Trump’s point man in negotiations with the Taliban.

“No, this is not at all the peace for which we fought and worked for so many years,” said Alexander, who went on to serve in the former Conservative government as immigration minister. “The exclusion of the Afghan government from these talks has been a hugely counter-productive mistake from the start.”

Parliamentary secretary Chris Alexander, seen here while serving as Canada’s ambassador in Afghanistan in 2005, says there can be no reconciliation with the Taliban while the group’s campaign of violence continues. (Terry Pedwell/Canadian Press)

The war was prolonged, he said, by the “U.S. failure to sanction Pakistan for its comprehensive support to the Taliban,” an omission he called “totally inexplicable.”

Individuals, companies and state agencies in Pakistan, he said, “should face wide-ranging sanctions for their continuing sponsorship of terrorist groups and proxy war in Afghanistan, as Russia, Iran and Syria now do for their misdeeds in Ukraine, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere.”

Bashir Jamalzadah

At the outset of the war, Bashir Jamalzadah read a Pakistani news article which said that country’s top generals warned the Americans not to ally themselves with Northern Alliance warlords — that there would be trouble if they did.

“And now, after 19 years, I am witnessing that superpower giving in to the demands of Pakistani generals and signing a shameful defeat agreement with a group of zealots who don’t know anything other than killing innocent people,” said Jamalzadah, a Canadian citizen of Afghan origin who served as an adviser and interpreter with the Canadian army during some of its toughest days of combat.

“I totally agree with the Canadian soldiers that we didn’t fight for this. This is the worst outcome for all the sacrifices we made.”

A teacher in a former life, Bashir Jamalzadah was 55 when he went to war as a contract employee of the Department of National Defence. (Supplied)

Like Moncur, Jamalzadah wonders why we didn’t arrive at this moment a decade and a half ago, and shares Alexander’s bafflement over Washington’s tolerance of Pakistan’s behaviour.

“The Taliban tried to negotiate with Americans in the early years when they were in a much weaker position, but Americans rejected them,” he said. “I wonder how the United States of America can [now] take such a historic humiliation.”

He is not optimistic about the future for the country of his birth.

“There are many gullible Pashtun (an ethnic group in both Afghanistan and Pakistan) and non-Pashtun political figures who believe that the Taliban will agree with a broad-based government and share power with them,” Jamalzadah said. “That is just a dream and will never [be] realized.”

Ben Rowswell

The peace accord, signed with the Taliban on Feb. 29, contains two secret annexes which have not been shown to American allies — or even to most American lawmakers. According to The New York Times, the documents lay out the specifics of the understandings between the U.S. and the Taliban — including which bases would remain open under Afghan control. The State Department told the newspaper the documents are classified because “the movement of troops and operations against terrorists are sensitive matters.”

Ben Rowswell, Canada’s former representative in Kandahar and now the president of the Canadian International Council, said that is not what allies fought for over the last two decades.

Ben Rowswell, Canada’s former civilian representative in Kandahar, speaks to reporters at Kandahar Airfield. (Murray Brewster/Canadian Press)

“This peace deal does not include the government of Afghanistan,” he said. “That is a betrayal of what NATO was there for. Our goal was to re-establish a government that would act on behalf of its citizens.”

The Afghan government was, and is, flawed in many ways, he said, but it was based on a mandate from the people of Afghanistan.

“The Taliban do not represent the people of Afghanistan,” Rowswell said. “To cut a deal with them and leave the Afghan government out of the deal completely undoes 19 years of sacrifice.”

Cpl. (ret) Matt Luloff

Retired corporal Matt Luloff, who served with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry battle group in 2008, wonders whether the Afghan government is ready to join the negotiating table.

“I would love to see the moment when Afghanistan becomes a free, open and democratic society,” said Luloff, now a city councillor in the Ottawa suburb of Orleans, Ont. “I fought for the rule of law and against thuggery and the use of violence for coercion.

“I’m not certain we are at that point. We need to see political stability and proper governance models that are wholeheartedly accepted in every corner of the country and everywhere in between.”

Retired corporal (now municipal councillor) Matt Luloff during combat operations in Afghanistan in 2008. (CBC News/Contributed/Matt Luloff)

He said he believes Afghanistan, politically and socially, is still a long way from a time when political platforms and doorknocking replace threats and intimidation — such as the unsigned “night letters” the Taliban have used to intimidate Afghans who support secular government and education.

“Expedient and easy solutions will not last.” Luloff said. “Solutions cannot be imposed from some outside power in the case of Afghanistan. Empowerment and legitimacy must come from within.”

Renee Filiatrault

Renee Filiatrault, a former foreign service officer with Task Force Kandahar, said there’s a difference between the peace deal signed by the U.S. and actual peace in Afghanistan — and conflating the two would be both unrealistic and unwise.

“While it’s not the moment” everyone was fighting for, she said, “it is a moment.”

She said we’ve already seen the challenges involved in implementing the withdrawal deal manifest themselves in the Afghan government’s reluctance to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners.

Renee Filiatrault in Kandahar in 2009. ‘What Canadians did mattered one way or another in where Afghanistan is now.’ (CBC News)

Filiatrault, who served in the federal defence minister’s office during the 9/11 terror attacks, recalled how one of the first demands of the American government was for the Taliban to renounce al-Qaida.

“Nobody could ever have believed it would take 19 years to secure that,” said Filiatrault, who most recently worked for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan. “What Canadians did mattered one way or another in where Afghanistan is now. There are better markers of having made a difference in the country than this handshake.

“Whether the agreement holds is unpredictable. Time will tell. And as many of us heard on the ground, we have the watches and the Taliban have the time. They have always shown strategic patience in meeting their objectives.”

Leading Seaman (ret) Bruno Guevremont

Getting to this moment in Afghanistan involved a lot of pain and suffering, said retired leading seaman Bruno Guevremont, a former navy clearance diver who disarmed Taliban bombs and booby traps — and, in one memorable incident in 2009, a live suicide bomber.

Bruno Guevremont says he’s the only member of the Canadian Armed Forces ever to dismantle a suicide vest on a live bomber. (Bruno Guevremont/Facebook)

He seems remarkably reconciled to the imperfections of the situation unfolding before him, saying he simply hopes that the peace agreement, the U.S. withdrawal and the upcoming direct Afghan negotiations will be successful and that “all these things that will stop the fighting in Afghanistan.”

One of the things he learned in Afghanistan and in the years since, while dealing with his post traumatic stress disorder, is that hope and grace are also weapons in war.

“I’m … thinking about the residents, the citizens of Afghanistan,” he said. “They were some of the nicest, most welcoming people I’ve ever met, and they deserve to live in a free country.”

 



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