Canada and the failure to end the “thousand little wars” in Afghanistan

John Siebert Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 35 Issue 2 Summer 2014

April 1 marked the end of Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan. It was Canada’s longest and costliest expeditionary war since Korea in the 1950s. It failed. And that failure has been evident since 2006. Far too much faith was placed in military options to defeat the Taliban and other insurgents.

Today we are left crossing our fingers, watching the withdrawal in 2014 of the majority of international troops, hoping that a newly elected Afghanistan President will be able to consolidate the Afghanistan government’s control of the country and Afghan security forces will be able to eventually defeat the insurgents.

Neither Canada nor its allies stopped to reconsider their options and make the types of investments in diplomatic and other efforts to advance the only real alternative to war: a comprehensive peace process that addressed local, national, and regional sources of tension. Canada can still choose to make this its priority in Afghanistan, but there is no indication it is prepared to do so.

Phases of the war

The Canadian Forces engagement in Afghanistan can be roughly divided into three phases. The first, launched after 9/11, primarily provided protection and stabilization for the new government in the capital of Kabul until 2005. Important work was accomplished in taking heavy artillery out of the field and supporting an emerging Afghanistan government administration after decades of civil war.

The fateful decision was made in 2006 that Canada would take responsibility for one of the more difficult assignments: responding to the resurgent Taliban in the south of the country. From 2006 to 2011 Canada conducted counterinsurgency warfare in Kandahar Province, spiritual heartland of the Taliban with easy access to Pakistan as a refuge for its fighters.
In the final phase, between 2011 and 2014, Canada focused on training the Afghan military and police so that they could carry on the questionable counterinsurgency strategy, replacing foreign with local troops.

Optimists and pessimists

The massive investment of Western development assistance in Afghanistan since 2001 resulted in measurable improvements in the lives of Afghanis, particularly in Kabul and other swelling urban centres in the north and west, where fighting had the least impact. In rural areas, particularly in the south and east, the situation was much different. Insurgents effectively took control of large parts of the countryside and provided justice and limited services with shadow government-like administrators.

Not surprisingly, defenders of Canada’s mission, particularly those in official circles, are quick to point to the improvements in Afghanistan. But the cost has been high. Canada has spent at least $18-billion to date and will bear the cost of meeting the needs of Canadian veterans of this war for another 60 years. One hundred and fifty-eight Canadian Forces personnel died and thousands more were injured. Canadian civilian officials, development workers, and journalists also were killed and injured, along with tens of thousands of Afghan civilians.

In his book Chris Alexander, Canada’s former Ambassador to Afghanistan, former Deputy Head of the UN’s mission there, and now a federal cabinet minister, speaks from the sunnier side of the street: “The three plagues of Afghan life since the Soviet withdrawal—factions, drugs and terrorists—are now all in stasis or retreat” (Alexander 2011, p. 245). Alexander points to material improvements brought about in Afghanistan by the presence of international troops and large investments in aid assistance:

The pundits seem to proclaim with one voice: Afghanistan will never change….
Yet it has changed. The last decade has seen a dramatic shift in the country’s human landscape. Over 5 million Afghans have returned home, mostly from Iran and Pakistan. Per-capita income has grown, by some measures, sevenfold. A new road system is the backbone for a reviving economy, with agriculture, handicrafts, telecom, construction and even mining all booming. (p. 244)

But there are many others with intimate knowledge of the country who doubt that there is a bright future for Afghanistan under current circumstances. Graeme Smith, former Globe and Mail correspondent in Afghanistan and now lead International Crisis Group (ICG) analyst there, provides a more pessimistic assessment:

The NATO surges into the south will almost certainly be remembered as a spectacular mistake. Many of the aims were noble: peace, democracy, rule of law. We thought that a sweeping program of armed nation-building might improve the lives of people in southern Afghanistan and simultaneously eliminate a haven for terrorism. Both of these guesses proved incorrect. (Smith 2013, pp. 278-279)

Pakistan and the future of Afghanistan

No one can say with certainty what the future holds for Afghanistan. Optimists and pessimists alike hedge their analytic bets. Alexander sees the continuing role of Pakistan in giving shelter to the Taliban and other insurgents as a key variable. Smith sees local conditions and sources of conflict as primary.

Pakistan, according to Alexander, has been chiefly responsible for the sustained insurgency in Afghanistan:

The victims of violence over the last decade have lost their lives, either directly or indirectly, because of a misguided Pakistani policy that treats Afghanistan as a mere pawn in an ongoing battle for regional supremacy against India. Conflict will not yield to peace in Afghanistan unless and until this policy is abandoned. (pp. 245-246)

Alexander begs the question: If the powerful United States cannot significantly alter the contradictory dynamics of Pakistan, with its commitment to fighting the “war on terror” while also providing sanctuary and sustenance to the Taliban, what good does Alexander do in pointing to this problem? At one level it provides an analytic get-out-of-jail-free card if his optimistic projections don’t pan out. If Afghanistan descends into civil war again, Alexander can point to Pakistan’s role with great sadness. No concrete policy follows from his analysis.

Smith, on the other hand, sees the roots of the Taliban’s continuing hold over the south in a multitude of local conflict drivers. Pakistan is a factor, but not the primary reason that the Taliban may in the future fully control the south and possibly all Afghanistan:

Here is the most important thing I learned from surveying the Taliban: no matter how stupid, or stubborn, or ignorant, or xenophobic, or religiously misguided these men are—they are nonetheless nationalists…. They showed no fondness for Pakistan, despite the support from that country for the insurgency, and every fighter in our survey rejected the legitimacy of the border, saying that the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Peshawar belong inside Afghanistan. (pp. 208-209)

“A thousand little wars”

Obviously, Alexander and Smith view the nature of the conflict differently. As a primary author of the May 2014 ICG report, Smith interviewed key leaders in four Afghan states to determine the impact of the withdrawal of international troops and their replacement by Afghan security forces after 2014. The varying results point to myriad conflicts arising from their vastly different recent history and local conditions.

In a video commentary that accompanied the report, Smith described the continuing turmoil in Afghanistan as “a thousand little wars.” His detailed ICG report categorizes some reasons for these wars:

  • unresolved local and national grievances that have led to generations of feuding;
  • ethnic and tribal tensions;
  • discord within the Afghan security forces;
  • mistreatment of civilians by Afghan security forces;
  • the existence of safe havens for the Taliban in Pakistan, and continuing counterinsurgency and intelligence operations by Afghan security forces against Pakistan and in its territory;
  • the historical relationship between minorities and majority Pashtuns;
  • tactical decisions by the Taliban and other insurgent groups;
  • the existence of insurgent groups aligned with, or in competition with, the Taliban;
  • the play of local and regional warlords in the national government;
  • village tensions with provincial or national authorities;
  • conservative and rural religious authorities opposed to modernization policies;
  • grudges against the United States and other international forces for arresting and killing Afghans;
  • chronic unemployment, especially among the youth; and
  • tensions between secular and religious sensibilities.

The war in Afghanistan has never been simply a war on terror, but a civil war with many different local elements in which the international forces, including Canada, were fighting on one side.

Smith recounts failed attempts to initiate talks with the Taliban and other insurgents to end the civil war. The short-term prognosis is bleak:

There is an emerging consensus in Afghanistan that the insurgents will only talk seriously after testing the military strength of Afghan forces once the internationals exit. A post-election, post-transition government, provided it has broad acceptance and legitimacy, would be best placed to explore new avenues for reviving the peace talks, including through outreach to regional countries, particularly Pakistan. (ICG 2014, p. 5)

The initial round of voting for a new Afghan President in April went well, but the required runoff election between the two frontrunners has hit snags over claims of ballot stuffing and corruption, casting doubts about the acceptance and legitimacy of the new government. Afghan security forces fighting in the field without the assistance of international troops have had mixed success.

How Canada should advance peace in Afghanistan

In concert with The Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) and civil society colleagues, Project Ploughshares has maintained a steady public commentary on Canada’s role in the Afghan war since 2001. The observations and recommendations made along the way remain valid as Afghanistan faces its future without the presence of substantial numbers of foreign troops.

Many reasons were given for Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan: responding to terrorism, protecting women’s rights, creating opportunities for little girls to go to school, appeasing the United States after not joining the 2003 invasion of Iraq, being seen as a team player in a NATO effort.

For Ploughshares, Canada’s obligation was not to NATO or the “war on terror,” but to the people of Afghanistan, whose government had been overthrown in 2001 through international action in which Canada participated (Regehr 2006b). As a result, Canada had a responsibility to assist Afghan authorities and communities in protecting people whose government had been destroyed.

The best means to do that was through conflict resolution, peacebuilding, reconstruction, and humanitarian support. Combined, these were not a parallel or alternative strategy to military counterinsurgency in Afghanistan; they were the only viable strategy. The legitimate role of international military forces was to provide police-like protection to civilians until Afghanistan’s government could provide this in territory it controlled. Over time, the government’s legitimacy would expand.

In 2006 Ploughshares questioned the military-centred counterinsurgency response of Canada in the southern province of Kandahar. We argued that Canada should reject self-defeating attempts to crush the insurgency in favour of multidimensional peacebuilding efforts (Regehr 2006a) that built confidence in public institutions, found alternatives to dependence on opium production, and marginalized warlords and insurgents.

A 2007 letter from The Canadian Council of Churches stated that the priority of the current military campaign against terror was misdirected. Rather, “the campaign against terrorism [should] be guided by due process and actions that honour the laws, values and freedoms that terrorism threatens” (CCC 2007).

In a 2009 brief released on Human Rights Day The Canadian Council of Churches (CCC 2009) recommended that Canada help to end the war by committing itself to a diplomatic surge that had political energy and financial resources comparable to those devoted to the military surge (pp. 13-14). The goal was to create an inclusive political order that included the Taliban and other insurgents, and that also addressed legitimate fears that a new political order might compromise the hard-won expansion of civil and other human rights, particularly in Kabul and other urban centres in Afghanistan.

We addressed the contention that peace between Afghanistan and Pakistan was key to ending the civil war in Afghanistan. We said that strategies designed to separate the Taliban leadership residing in Pakistan from their foot soldiers in Afghanistan made sense only insofar as this challenge was understood to be fundamentally political rather than military. Amnesty programs for low-level Taliban fighters would be ineffective without a peace deal. Afghanistan had to recognize Pakistan’s legitimate security concerns, accept the Durand line as the boundary between the two countries, and adopt a posture of explicit neutrality in the Pakistan-India conflict. Further, the international community had to support processes that address the deep democratic deficit that is at the root of Pakistan’s insecurity (Regehr 2007).

Of course, Canada’s role in Afghanistan after 2001 was not only a military response. Canada invested in development programs and supported emerging Afghan government institutions. But, under the banner of a whole-of-government approach, defence always took precedence. This approach overrode the checks and balances inherently and necessarily at play among various Canadian government agencies and departments (Siebert 2010); an example can be seen in the scandal that developed over the way in which Canada dealt with Afghan detainees.

In November 2010 we appeared before the House of Commons Special Committee on Afghanistan on behalf of The Canadian Council of Churches. The Prime Minister had just announced the extension of the Canadian Forces mission in Afghanistan for three more years, 2011-2014, with the focus on training Afghan National Security forces to fight the Taliban and other insurgents. We argued that the training focus was potentially helpful, but only to the extent that better trained Afghan military and police personnel could extend the services and legitimacy of the national government to areas where insurgent fighting was light or non-existent. In other areas, however, the substitution of Afghan for international troops to carry on the counterinsurgency war provided no political gains (Siebert and Hogeterp 2010).

In the face of this renewed and expensive military commitment in Afghanistan, we sought assurance that Canada would also increase its diplomatic activity to support a negotiation surge, as well as increases in development and other forms of assistance to address local governance and development needs. If Canada did not make these additional commitments, we believed that it would continue to play a role in sustaining the current military stalemate while missing the opportunity to bring the war to an end.

Included in our recommendations was the appointment of a special reconciliation envoy by Canada (Regehr 2010). In addition to monitoring and supporting regional diplomacy, the envoy would encourage national reconciliation efforts and encourage the role of Afghan civil society in sustaining peace efforts. We wanted Canadian financial aid to support Afghan and international organizations that increased the ability of local and state-level governance mechanisms to support peacebuilding.

Looking ahead

Canada has announced that it will continue to provide financial support through 2017: $110-million to support Afghan security forces and $227-million for development programs related to women’s needs and empowerment, including human rights institutions that focus on women’s and girls’ rights (CIPS 2014, pp. 5-6). This support is welcome, as far as it goes, but direct support to civil society for local and regional peace processes is difficult to discern.

Maintaining the current number of Afghan security personnel is completely dependent on foreign assistance to pay their salaries and supply all but the most elementary military materiel. This support is not sustainable over time. Movement to a comprehensive peace agreement must begin at some point.

Fortunately, it is not too late for Canada to shift gears and take a leadership role in helping Afghanistan and its neighbours to establish a sustainable peace. Canada can choose to be at the forefront of this urgent diplomatic and civil society process, or it can simply stay the course and hope that propping up Afghan security forces for another few years will bring the peace that has failed to materialize to this


Alexander, Chris. 2011. The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace. Toronto: HarperCollins.

Canadian Council of Churches. 2009. Ecumenical Brief on Canada’s Role in Afghanistan. December 10.

—–, 2007. Letter from Canadian church leaders to the Prime Minister on Afghanistan. CCC Communiqué, August 16.

Centre for International Policy Studies. 2014. Future Prospects for Afghanistan Meeting Report.

International Crisis Group. 2014. Afghanistan`s Insurgency after the Transition. Asia Report #256, May 12.

Regehr, Ernie. 2010. Since we can’t beat the Taliban, focus on reconciliation. The Globe and Mail, November 18.

—–. 2007. What’s missing in Senate report: To win ‘hearts and minds,’ the corrupt and incompetent Karzai regime must be reined in. Toronto Star. Available on Ploughshares website.

—–. 2006a. Afghanistan: Toward counter-insurgency by other means. Ploughshares Briefing 06/1, January.

—–. 2006b. Why is Canada in Afghanistan? The Ploughshares Monitor, Spring.

Siebert, John. 2010. Testing “Whole of Government” in Afghanistan. The Ploughshares Monitor, Summer.

Siebert, John and Mike Hogeterp. 2010. Diplomacy and reconciliation in Afghanistan. Ploughshares website.

Smith, Graeme. 2013. The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan. Toronto: Knopf Canada.

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