Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Canada’s armed forces left Afghanistan in 2014. Canadian diplomats, at least those who could, left this weekend in the kind of scene usually reserved for the end of movies about the Vietnam War.
News Clip: Taliban fighters have flooded the capital. They took the city of 6 million people in a matter of hours.
News Clip 2: What you’re seeing right now, US helicopters over Kabul shuttling out American personnel.
News Clip 3: Video shows masses of people scrambling up a gang plank to get on board a plane.
News Clip 4: I can’t believe the world abandoned Afghanistan, our friends are going to get killed. They’re going to kill us.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: There are millions of Canadians for whom the rapid fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has been a shock. After all, it’s a world away. Our forces have been home for years now and as a country, we don’t do very well at keeping tabs on nations we no longer have investment in. But seeing the images of what’s happening over there right now should maybe wake us up from that.
This war was the longest in Canada’s history, more than twelve years of military efforts. For America, it was almost two full decades. But now that the United States has left the country, it’s worth asking: if this is the result, why were we there? Why did we stay? What were we doing? What did decades of death and trillions of dollars actually get the Afghan people? What have we left them to now? How can we help them? And will we?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Stephen Saideman holds the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carlton University. Among the books he’s written is ‘Adapting In the Dust, Lessons Learned from Canada’s War in Afghanistan’. And he also co-hosts a podcast about Canada’s National security called ‘The Battle Rhythm’. Hey, Stephen.
Stephen Saideman: Hello, Jordan. How are you doing?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’m doing all right. Like many Canadians, I kind of spent the weekend seeing progressively more and more disturbing images coming out of Afghanistan, especially Kabul. And I’m wondering if you could maybe describe what we’re actually seeing and hearing about in Afghanistan right now.
Stephen Saideman: Well, it’s the collapse of the government that we’ve been trying to build for the past 20 years. The Taliban were kicked out of the country by American forces. And then in 2002, there developed the UN effort that became a NATO effort called ISAF, the International Security Assistance Forces, which, along with a variety of other international partners, tried to build a self-sustaining Afghan government. And then in 2014, NATO largely pulled out. Three years after Canada pulled out of combat. And for the past seven years, there was a NATO effort to train the Afghan Army. And last year, Donald Trump negotiated deal with the Taliban that would pull the remaining few Americans that were left in Afghanistan out. Before this summer, there were about 2,500 Americans soldiers, mostly doing training and doing coordination type stuff. And so that was Trump’s decision last year.
And then when Biden became President, there was a question about whether he would live by the deal, which had a deadline of May 5th, that all Americans are supposed to be out by May 5th, and the Biden administration thought that would be too fast, that we wouldn’t be able to get our stuff and our people out in his mind. And so they set the date of September 11th. And over the course of the summer, the Taliban had made a series of deals with a variety of actors within Afghanistan that led to the collapse of the Afghan National Army Forces that were guarding a variety of places around the country until the only thing that was left was Kabul, which fell this weekend.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How did this happen so quickly? The speed of it seems astonishing.
Stephen Saideman: Well, I think that’s the thing that surprised most people is the speed. I don’t think there are that many people that didn’t expect the Taliban to be successful. They’ve been gaining more and more territory and more power over the past several years. The Afghan government was not doing particularly well in terms of gaining unity and marshalling its efforts and all the rest of it. So it’s not surprising to many folks, many observers, that this happened. But in terms of speed, it was clear now, wasn’t clear a few weeks ago. But it was clear now that there were deals being made. And part of it is is that the Afghan government had not done a good job of feeding, supplying, or paying the soldiers of the Afghan National Army.
And ever since Trump made that deal last year. And then when Biden came in and reinforced that deal, it became obvious that the Taliban were going to take over. And so who would want to be the last person to fight against the Taliban? And over the spring, the Taliban made deals. They said, okay, to these groups of soldiers, if you put down your arms, we’ll let you pass through. The problem with the Taliban’s promises, they may not be worth that much. But when you’re not getting paid by the government and, you know, or you suspect that things are going to fall eventually, why would you want to fight now? To be fair to the Afghan National Army, they fought really hard that since 2014, they were largely on their own, and they paid a tremendous price fighting the Taliban day in and day out for years. But what became apparent this spring was that the end was near, and then that created its own cascade.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: We’re going to talk about what comes next and what can be done in a little bit. But first, because I think a lot of Canadians tuned out of Afghanistan when our army left, can you maybe just refresh us and summarize what Canada’s role was in Afghanistan and when it ended and why?
Stephen Saideman: Sure, that Canada went into Afghanistan actually late 2001 with Special Operations Forces, and then early 2002 with a Battalion to help the Americans defeat the Taliban. And then after that was done, the Canadians left. But then they returned in a series of missions in Kabul, which was again originally UN and then became a NATO peacekeeping mission, more or less in Kabul. And then in 2005, there was an agreement by NATO that they would expand coverage over the course of the country, and that meant that they had to go and cover and be in parts of the country, that there had been less presence before. And Canada got Kandahar. Canada chose Kandahar. That was very controversial decision, but Canada got an important hunk of the country.
And so Canada was deployed to Kandahar in late 2005 and then 2006, and that became a combat mission. And to be clear when that happened, the Canadian military and Canadian politicians defined it as a combat mission. It was very clear that it was going to be tougher than what was going on previously, but that became very, very costly. And it was not very, very popular. And I’ve always wondered whether unpopularity had to do the casualties we were catching, or was it that the Canadians were doing some killing. Either way, the popular admission declined, and it might have also declined because the Liberals took lost power in the Conservatives game power. And then the Liberals became divided about the mission. So the public discussion amongst the politicians became murky. Anyway.
Over the course of time, the haggling within Ottawa ultimately meant that a deadline was put in place, that we would leave in 2011. And so Canada left combat in 2011. And then Stephen Harper put in a training mission in what was called Kabul Centric. But it was basically anywhere but Kandahar. And for three years or so, the Canadians trained Afghan National Army at a time where a lot of other countries were doing the same thing. But we took far, we didn’t have any green on blue attacks where the Afghans or at least not deadly ones that I can recall where the Afghans we were training would shoot at us. That happened to our allies. That didn’t happen to us. And then we pulled out in 2014, and that was pretty much the end of it. We have been still giving foreign aid development assistance to Afghanistan, but we haven’t been involved militarily for the past seven years until past month or so, where now Canadian Special Operations troops are trying to safeguard the airport and help people get from the embassy to the airport.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How many people have we left behind in terms of, we did an episode a little while ago about interpreters who served with Canadian forces there and our failed efforts to bring all of them back to Canada and how that program ended. And now, from what I’m seeing, and this does not just apply to people who are helping Canadian diplomats but I’m seeing and hearing about hundreds and thousands of people who helped allied forces in some way or another and are still stuck there. How many people are in that position?
Stephen Saideman: Your guess is as good as mine. Trudeau, in his speech said that there was something like 800 Afghans who are on the planes that had thus far flown out of Kabul. And what he also said was that as long as the air field is secure, there’ll be more Canadian planes landing and trying to get more people out. So it’s not over yet that there’ll be efforts to try to pull out more of these people. And the Americans have sent in more troops, that there’s going to be something like upwards of six to 8,000 American troops at that airfield. It really depends right now on who’s willing to fly planes into the country and what’s going on in the ground, whether the Taliban will fight because the Taliban would have a hard time beating 8,00 American soldiers in that space. But they might be able to make it unpleasant enough that for planes to land, whether that’s shooting at rocket propelled grenades or missiles at airplanes or just making the airport unsustainable to hang out at.
But it looks like the Taliban thus far are letting this take place. We’ll see how long this lasts, but that’s really the big question. But if they let it last for several days, then the Canadians can get out, you know, hundreds and hundreds of people per plane. We have a handful of C17s, which each can take ostensibly. Well, we saw pictures last night of 800 people. Maybe a normal flight takes less than that. We can take out a bunch of people. Will it be all of the people? No, because I don’t think everybody that worked with us made it to Kabul, made it to the airport. It’s not going to be enough. The procedures that we were going through for a while required for them to have access to the Internet and require them to an extensive paperwork. And that’s very difficult when the Taliban are knocking door to door looking for people who help us out.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Can I ask what probably seems like a really simple question with a huge answer? How did 20 years of American investment and trillions of dollars and 12, 13 years of Canadian forces involvement. How did it end with this this disaster?
Stephen Saideman: Well, the goal was to build a self sustaining Afghan government, and we failed. And we failed for a variety of reasons. We failed because a lot of the initial decisions were bad ones. So when the Americans went in in 2001, they were led by a government, the Bush administration. It was very hostile in nation building. And they were very much determined to focus on the next thing. And that next thing was Iraq, which meant they didn’t put enough troops down to the ground to do the job themselves. They had to rely on the warlords on the ground in Afghanistan. And so when the shooting mostly stopped, the Americans had to depend on those people. And those people included some truly awful, awful people. And that meant that was a very bad way to start a new government.
And then we helped them develop a new Constitution that was overly centralized. They gave too much power to the President. And that’s a problem for a variety of reasons. And I’ll name two. One is it meant that every provincial governor was more focused on what was going on in Kabul than in their home territory, which meant they weren’t really responsive to the needs of the people. The other problem with that is it made who becomes President of Afghanistan to be a really, really important thing. And so it was winner take all, every single election, and every single election was highly contested. And then after every single election, that the loser would demand and then get some sort of extra constitutional role that meant that the system really didn’t work the way it was designed. So we had a bad Constitution, we were relying on bad people. And our own problem is that we were spending six months or a year for a general or colonel running whichever show you want to talk about. And so every six months or a year, there was a new strategy, so that made it hard to develop consistency. It made it hard to develop knowledge in relationships with the people on the ground. We had Pakistan working against us the entire time by supporting the Taliban. Iran was also working against us, but that was possibly survivable. But Pakistan doing it was not. Afghanistan was a country that was really, really broken by 20 years of awful, awful war before we got there.
So there’s a lot of different things that were going on the same time. But it fundamentally comes down to this, that it’s far easier to break things than to build things. And it’s far easier to undermine a government than to build a government in a society that’s coherent and resilient. And so it was easy for us to break the Taliban in 2001, and it was hard for the Taliban. But still, they were persistent, to work away at our efforts over the 20 years. When we think about our efforts, we have to remember that the other side had agency, that they had intelligence. They had a strategy, they had support. And so it wasn’t as if we tried to build a tower of cards. We knocked it down ourselves. We built a tower of cards, and there was somebody trying to knock it down every single day.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Was there ever a situation in which this mission could have been successful? I think a lot of people speak to the fact that this is our Vietnam or another Vietnam, and that just it was never going to happen in Afghanistan.
Stephen Saideman: I think I’m still trying to wrestle with this myself. I don’t know. I think if we made the right decisions the first year or two, then maybe. But again, one of the problems with doing counterinsurgency by outsiders is that it means that the insiders have their own preferences, their own incentive structure, and they may not be work at the same ways as we want. Our politicians and our governance people were very disturbed by the fact that in Kandahar where we were operating, Ahmed Wali Karzai, half brother of President Hamid Karzai at the time, was using his position to extract pretty much everything out of the province. He was taken every dollar that he was being given by the federal government or the government of Afghanistan, as well as all the money the CA might have been given him to buy off, as well as every dollar could extract from his own people and shipping it out of the country. It’s one thing to depend on client list that is, people who extract resources through corrupt ways to govern a country. It’s another thing if the client lists don’t really have any interest in actually doing the governing part. Had the Karzai brothers and others been willing to share some of the proceeds of their corruption with a wider array of people, then you wouldn’t have had as much antagonism.
One reason why the Taliban existed and gained strength was because you had all these different people, tribes that were competitors to the Karzai’s tribes and the like, being excluded from all these deals and having their property taken from them. And so the Taliban were able to regenerate, in part, because the people of Afghanistan were being misgoverned by the folks that we were working with. But a lot of it rides in us as well that we could have done a far better job of of linking things together, of being consistent and coherent and thinking about what was necessary. But, yes, it was really, really hard. It was always going to be really, really hard. We’ve done this kind of thing in other places to more or less success. Bosnia, Kosovo don’t make the news these days for a reason most of the time, not perfect, but they’re certainly better than what Afghanistan turned into.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What happens now, the images we’re seeing already out of Kabul are pretty bad. What do you expect to see in the coming days, weeks, months?
Stephen Saideman: Nothing good. I mean, the best expectations we can have is that the Taliban may have learned their lesson from 20 years ago and aren’t quite as willing to host the international terrorist groups because they will get hit back again and they don’t want to go through that. That might be the best we can expect. But they made promises about treating people well, but, you know, I’m very skeptical. I mean, one of the most striking images in the past couple days has been the former President of the country, Hamid Karzai, reassuring people everything’s going to be fine. Like, why aren’t they stringing you up? Why aren’t you worried about things and so that might mean that he has struck a side deal. But I want to trust the Taliban.
It’s like that old fairy tale or a story about the Scorpion and the frog where the Scorpion as the frog for a ride across the river. And the frog says, hey, but you’re going to sting me and I’ll die. And then you’ll die. And the Scorpion says, no, I won’t. I promise I won’t do that. And so the frog goes, okay. And they go halfway across the river and the scorpion stings the frog and then they both sink into the water and the frog goes, Why did you do that? And the scorpion said, I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature. And I can’t help wondering about the Taliban that they have not kept their deals in the past. And so they may be trying to assure people now that they’re not going to be brutal and awful to their people. I’m pretty sure they’re going to be brutal and awful to their people, particularly those who helped us, and particularly to the women and girls in the country. It’s in their ideology. It’s in their nature.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What do we do when that happens? Anything, you mentioned US troops are already heading back in, at least to secure the exits. Are we going to start this cycle all over again when the images get bad enough, graphic enough, like what happens here?
Stephen Saideman: No. And I’ll say no for a couple of reasons. No. First of all, there may not be that any camera around, cause I’m not sure it’s gonna be safe for journalists to hang out. So you might not see this. There are other countries in the world that have been incredibly brutal to the journalists. So that way the journalists leave and then they can get away with what they want. So that’s the first step. The second step is that as long as the Taliban don’t host Al Qaeda, ISIS, or some other group that ends up targeting the outsiders, there’s not any will by anybody to go back to Afghanistan and do anything. So you’re not going to see anybody intervene in Afghanistan to save the Afghan people.
Canadians might have supported responsibility to protect the doctrine, which suggests or requires that we intervene to help people when they’re not be protected by the own countries. But that rarely happens. And it’s not going to happen this case because everybody will learned their lesson that Afghanistan’s awful place to operate. It’s an expensive place to operate. And it didn’t work out when we tried really, really hard. And so we’re not going to intervene to protect the Afghans. That’s simply not going to happen. We can keep Afghanistan out of the various games we play, keep them from International organizations, keep them from getting aid, but that will probably do more harm than good. So I expect the Taliban to come back into power and various countries will engage them. And there’ll be very little we can do to persuade them not to be awful.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That sounds so bleak. Before I let you go, I want to ask you just personally in your head what’s going on? You’ve studied this war for 20 years. You’ve written a book about it. This is something that’s obviously, you’ve spent a lot of time on. How have you been feeling over the past few days? What runs through your mind?
Stephen Saideman: Well, first of all, I’m not an Afghan expert. I’m an expert on folks who intervene in Afghanistan, but I’m profoundly sad and frustrated and angry, and it’s confusing. I’m still trying to figure out some of these questions you’ve asked me. Was it worth it? I think in the end, it wasn’t. And that’s really a hard thing to tell people who’ve lost friends, family, children, fathers, mothers, siblings. It wasn’t worth all the tax dollars. Probably not. What does that mean for the taxpayers? It’s just a very, very sad event. We tried. The people who went there put a lot of effort into it, and they’re going to experience a lot of trauma this week as they watch us go on because they know people who are getting killed and they know that what they put into themselves was for naught. But this is what defeat. And this is defeat. Well, that’s what it looks like. That’s what it feels like.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Stephen Saideman of Carlton University. That was The Big Story. For more, head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us anytime on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Email us at thebigstorypodcast, all one word, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. And as always, we’re in whatever podcast player you choose to use. Please rate us and review us.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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