What is worth it for Canada? 157 soldiers, a couple of aid workers, one diplomat and one member of the media lost their lives and billions of dollars were spent. If one thinks that there is nothing that is worth the life of a Canadian, then the answer is easy. It is hard for me to answer this question, as I am not a Canadian although I do pay tax dollars. I have no relatives and few friends from here who put themselves in harm's way. Still, as a scholar of International Relations and having researched the NATO mission in Afghanistan (plus my ten days in Afghanistan make me an expert, right?), I have some opinions.
First, one must focus on what was accomplished over the past five years in Kandahar and the nearby areas (Uruzgan, Helmand) as that is where the sacrifices were mostly made. While lives were lost in Kabul and before 2006,* the commitment was most seriously made in Kandahar since 2006 (as the figure illustrates). Progress over the last five years lets us dodge a huge question (for another blog post) about the future of Afghanistan, as it is not clear how sustainable the gains will be. After the rest of NATO leaves in 2014, will the Afghan government survive? Will it cede the South to the Taliban and only keep control of the North and West?
* I hate it when news reports start the timeline in late 2001 for Canada since Canada was not consistently deployed in Afghanistan until 2005 and only doing "this" since then.Second, one must consider the baseline of where Kandahar stood in 2005. Likewise, what would be Canada's position in NATO and in the world without participating in ISAF or if only participating in some out-of-the-way locale in Regional Command West under Italian command? One must also take seriously the size of the task compared to the size of the task force. That is, Canada was asked to handle (with help, not entirely on its own) a huge area with only a small force, and not just any area but the backyard of the Taliban. So, some perspective is required.
Third, even if Afghanistan ultimately loses its battle, the effort can be "worth it." There were plenty of lost battles in World War I and II (Dieppe, anyone?) where experience, knowledge, and influence all accumulated even if the immediate goals were not met. Oh, and, by the way, Canada's effort here in Afghanistan was far less futile than so many of the WWI battles which left entire Canadian towns bereft of a generation of young men. In the old war, hundreds or thousands would die with very little gained in territory--just more destruction. In Afghanistan, with a far more modest death toll, there were gains in the lives of Afghans and in Canada's place in the world, even if perhaps temporary.
Ok, with those caveats, was it worth it? I believe so. I think Canada made a difference while it was there, improving conditions in Kandahar even if the quarterly reports might over-state the gains. Infant mortality is down, the percentage of women dying while giving birth is down, polio vaccinations have been taking place, the marketplaces are apparently doing pretty well, and the Afghans are more secure than they used to be. Canada did help to prevent Kandahar and the nearby provinces from falling to the Taliban--that is not a small feat, but a significant contribution. Some will say that not losing is not winning, but given the situation, the limited assets for a large hunk of land, it is a meaningful contribution. There were no big massacres of civilians in Kandahar by the Taliban (lots of small scale violence but no mass killings a la Srebrenica [see below]). Canada defended Kandahar quite well, even if it did not possess the means to take control of the province.
But the picture is, of course, mixed. The second prison break reveals the limits of the Canadian effort. The Canadians were deeply involved in improving the prison, especially how Afghan guards treat Afghan prisoners, but the successful escape indicates how flawed this key element of the security sector is. The insurgency is still managing to coordinate and launch symbolically significant attacks in Kabul (not Canada's responsibility) and Kandahar (the second prison break). Economic improvements are modest, the big dam project may not have an enduring impact if it is not maintained. Governance has pretty much failed, given the constraints via the Karzais (President Karzai undermining things from Kabul, his brother running the province behind the scenes).
Again, it comes down to this: are things better than they were six years ago? Yes. Could someone else have done it? Perhaps. More on that below, but first there is another dimension to all of this. Canada, as far as I can tell as an outsider, has larger interests than Afghanistan: fostering multilateral solutions (since having the US act unilaterally is not good for Canada); fulfilling alliance obligations; raising Canada's profile (is it better to have forty Canadian flags on UN maps of the world with Canada not having any influence anywhere or one big flag and having influence on how it is used?); and, yes, doing the US a favor. The last gets the most attention (see the Stein and Lang book that overstates the "placating the US" argument), but these are the realities of international politics for medium-sized countries. Canada depends critically on the US and NATO for its security. While Canada can talk the talk of defending the Arctic from whatever threats, the reality is that the US will be assisting Canada in deterring the Russians. Canada has always participated in NATO missions (Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya) because it is a multilateral institution that both constrains the US (a bit) and gives Canada some influence.
It comes down to this: militaries are instruments of policy. Using these instruments can be costly. This instrument can be used to make a country more relevant and influential than it would otherwise be. Did Canada have more influence because of its Kandahar effort? Absolutely. The big question (that Phil of the video link above always asks me) is whether this influence existed outside of Afghanistan. First, let me backtrack a bit: Canada has often been in places where it has had little influence over what it is doing. So, it is significant that Canada had influence over stuff within Afghanistan because that is quite distinct from previous UN/NATO efforts. Canada had leadership positions within NATO, it rotated command over a key sector (Regional Command south), it had major positions within the UN in Kabul, and so forth. So, yes, Canada had significant influence in the theatre.
But, of course, one could ponder whether Canada gained anything beyond Afghanistan. I think so, but the evidence is less clear. One way to consider this is to consider the demise of Germany. By being caveated in Afghanistan, Germany has lost influence within NATO on other issues. This could have been Canada's fate. In my interviews at NATO HQ, I was told (and yes, we cannot buy into everything folks say there) that Canada had influence on other aspects of NATO than the Afghanistan mission precisely because it made a contribution in Afghanistan. That Canada shaped the new Strategic Concept that is supposed to shape the organization down the road. A different piece of evidence is that the Canadian three-star general became the natural choice for commanding the Libyan effort because of Canada's performance in Afghanistan. There was no way that an Italian or Spaniard or other NATO country that was heavily caveated in Afghanistan would be given this major position.
While the memories of American leaders and of other folks can be quite short, so that Canada's influence from its Afghanistan contribution may not last very long, it is clear that Canada now is harder to overlook. Given the traditional concern about being forgotten in international situations, Canada solved this problem for the short term. The reality is that no effort will have an enduring impact--sustained engagement is required for sustained influence.
Finally, there is also a moral question that has been raised by the Dutch yet again. A hidden reality of the Bosnian conflict was that Canadian troops were in Srebrenica before it fell, but were re-deployed because the Canadian commanders knew what was likely to happen. So, the Dutch took their place and took the fall when Bosnian Serbs overran that safe area and committed genocide. The good news is that the Dutch have borne the guilt for that failure and the Canadians have not had to do so. If Canada let someone else take Kandahar while it took a safer spot, what would that say about Canada and what it stands for?
Canada cannot be everywhere, nor should it try. Canadian soldiers and civilians extended a tremendous amount of effort at great cost to themselves and their families. Was it worth it? Yes, it was. The effort both made things better for the Afghans in the short term and increased Canada's influence in the world. If you believe that Canada has good intentions and good values, a more important Canada is a good thing. Despite my grumbling about Canada [too much hockey ;) ], I think that more Canada is, indeed, a good thing.