The Chosen War

By: /
July 11, 2011

Canada’s withdrawal from Afghanistan on Thursday occasioned thoughtful commentary on what the past 10 years – and approximately $1,500 per Canadian household – has meant. On this site, Andrew Cohen placed the engagement within a historical context, while Taylor Owen and Graeme Smith imagined a post-NATO Afghanistan; elsewhere, Smith compared his first visit to Kandahar to his last, while Steve Saideman and Matthew Fisher disputed over whether the mission was worth it.

Within this mass appraisal, two related trends jumped out at me. First, Canadians evaluate the Afghanistan mission according to different criteria than those associated with the mission’s objective. Secondly, Canadian commentators have a propensity to overestimate the role the Canada-U.S. relationship played in shaping Canada’s role in the war.

Both of these trends are important to note: the first because it points to a disparity between what Canadians thought the mission was about and what it was really about; the second because it demands a re-evaluation of the conventional narrative about Canada’s longest military commitment ever.

NATO’s goal in Afghanistan is explicitly concerned with state security, with “creat[ing] the conditions whereby the Government of Afghanistan is able to exercise its authority throughout Afghanistan.” In Weber’s overused terminology, the mission was about granting the Afghan government a “monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.”

Evaluations of Canada’s performance, however, tend to focus on human security: how individual Afghans feel about their personal livelihood. They quote locals commentating on their living conditions and polls assessing whether Kandaharis “feel safe” (see Smith’s article on why these polls should be treated cautiously).

There is a fundamental discrepancy between how Canadian soldiers organized their efforts and how we evaluate them.

One could simply blame the media. But it’s not just journalists and academics who judge our performance in measures of human security; so, too, does our government. The above poll results, after all, were pulled from the Canadian government’s latest quarterly report on the mission. Moreover, soldiers who were involved in the mission unfailingly share stories about individuals: women finally free to go out of their houses, children going to school for the first time, etc.

One way to reconcile this apparent divergence might be to argue that human security is achieved through state security; that is, only in a state in which the government has a “monopoly on the legitimate use of violence” can individuals pursue their fundamental rights to their fullest. One must look no further than President Assad’s “monopoly” in Syria at the moment to question this claim.

To resolve the difference between what Canadians clearly thought the mission was about, and what it was really about, we must go back to the beginning. This is where the second trend becomes relevant: We must re-evaluate why we were in Afghanistan in the first place.

The conventional wisdom (most widely perpetuated by Janice Stein and Eugene Lang’s thoroughly researched The Unexpected War) is that Canada went to Afghanistan in 2001 because, after 9-11, it had to; in 2005, Canada said “Yes” to dramatically increasing its commitment (including deploying to Kandahar) because it had said “No” to the U.S. on Iraq.

This account fails to explain many of the choices Canada made regarding Afghanistan. In 2001, Canada was obliged by its NATO commitment to involve itself in the mission in Afghanistan; it could have, however, assumed a very different role. With enough diplomatic pressure, Canada could have surely convinced the Europeans to include it in the more passive International Security Assistance Force mission in Kabul, rather than the American-led Operation Enduring Freedom.

Similarly, in 2005, Canada had the option to station itself in Heart, Chagcharan, or Kandahar provinces. Many external observers were shocked by Canada’s choice to serve in the most volatile of these areas.

Moreover, on other issues being negotiated between the U.S. and Canada during this period, such as Ballistic Missile Defense, Canada showed little concern for the U.S.’s feelings. As Brian Bow reminds us in his insightful The Politics of Linkage, had Canada been so concerned with its relationship with the U.S., it would surely have treaded more lightly on Iraq. Instead, it directly challenged the White House on what it saw as the primary national security issue of the day, and did so very publicly, in a way that would be embarrassing for the Bush administration in terms of wider international audiences, and also American voters.

Though the troops have pulled out, Canada’s decade in Afghanistan should not be a closed book. Let last week’s reflections on Afghanistan represent the beginning of a much longer and more fruitful dialogue. Only in seeing the war less as unexpected, and more as chosen, can we begin to make sense of many of the mysteries of this mission, and to match our criteria of judgment with our criteria of engagement.

Photo courtesy Reuters.