After more than a decade of war, Canadian soldiers — and the rest of the West — are about to pull out of Afghanistan for good. Are Afghans ready to go it alone?
KANDAHAR CITY, Afghanistan — A cigarette butt and a half-eaten plate of rice lie on the polished stone of what used to be known as the Camp Nathan Smith Memorial Square. The square, named after one of the first Canadians to die in this volatile country, was once a place of honour, where photos of some of the Canadian soldiers killed were displayed and Remembrance Day ceremonies were held. Today, weeds dominate the former base for Canada’s provincial reconstruction team.
At the height of the war, the camp was home to 300 Canadian soldiers and 80 civilians, including development workers, diplomats and police, and was the cornerstone of Canada’s reconstruction and aid efforts in Kandahar province.
The installation now houses a small number of Afghan security forces, but even they don’t want to stay. Afghans want to turn it into a women’s centre, though they don’t have the money to do that and international donors aren’t interested.
So the base sits and slowly falls apart.
Thirteen years after the West went into Afghanistan to take out al-Qaida and the Taliban and then build up the country so they could not return, there is a war-weary desire to cut and run that wasn’t here before.
Although it is expected that some training personnel and advisers from the United States and other nations will remain, the pullout is in full swing.
In the north of the country, the Norwegians have closed down their provincial reconstruction team. In the southeast, the Australians have yanked their combat troops.
And in mid-March, a small group of Canadian soldiers will haul down the Maple Leaf flag at their base in Kabul and walk onto a transport aircraft for the flight home, the last to serve in Canada’s largest military deployment since the Second World War.
In the haste to get out, much is being left behind. U.S. soldiers are chopping up armoured vehicles, which cost $1 million each, and selling them to Afghan scrap-dealers for a couple of hundred dollars. Sea containers full of equipment are stacked on the outskirts of Kandahar, the contents ready to be auctioned off to local bidders.
What can’t be moved or sold is simply abandoned. In Helmand province, a $34-million state-of-the-art military command centre built by the U.S. army sits empty. Around Kandahar, bases that once housed international troops are deserted.
But there’s a gulf between walking away from some buildings and walking away from a mission that didn’t turn out exactly as planned. So as the remaining soldiers snap up T-shirts that say “Whoever leaves last, please turn out the lights,” the question on many people’s minds is simple: Can the Afghans, alone, find their way in the dark?
The first Canadian troops — a few dozen commandos — arrived in late 2001 in support of the U.S. bid to eliminate al-Qaida. Early the next year, 750 regular forces joined them. After those initial efforts in the Kandahar region, the military settled into what was essentially a peace support operation focused on Kabul. Security was provided for the 2004 Afghan elections, soldiers patrolled parts of the city, while some development work, such as digging wells and making repairs to buildings, was also done.
The mission ramped up in 2005 when the Liberal government supported the recommendation by the Canadian military leadership to send combat troops to Kandahar province. The following year the Conservative government extended what was supposed to have been a limited mission, setting in motion a period of intense warfare the likes of which Canadians had not seen since the Korean conflict.
That same year, Canada signed on to the Afghanistan Compact, an agreement between the government of Afghanistan and the international community to support the process of reconstruction in Afghanistan. This included a pledge to take measures to increase security, strengthen human rights and the rule of law, and promote economic and social development. Those goals were amplified by the 2008 Manley report, which advised the government to extend the military mission past 2009, while refocusing the civilian side of the mission on aid that would directly benefit the Afghan people. It recommended the creation of “signature” projects that could be used to showcase Canada’s efforts on behalf of Afghans.
The government accepted many of the report’s recommendations, and adopted three signature projects: the rehabilitation of the Dahla Dam and its irrigation system, the construction of 50 schools in Kandahar, and the eradication of polio throughout the country.
For Canada’s senior diplomats and military leadership, the Kandahar mission unfolded in an atmosphere of optimism.
Col. Steve Bowes, who headed the first provincial reconstruction team in 2005, predicted the insurgents would be defeated within two years. Two years after that, retired Gen. Paul Manson, once Canada’s top military officer, wrote that the Taliban could lay no claim to any military successes and that they were in trouble. Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier went further, suggesting the insurgents were on the verge of defeat, teetering on their “back foot” as he liked to say.
With the insight that comes with hindsight, Canadian Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, who has commanded a number of times in Afghanistan, today acknowledges the gulf between the optimistic statements and how events unfolded.
“The list of how much we didn’t know was quite substantial, vis-a-vis the nature of the challenge that had been allowed to emerge,” said Beare, the commander of Canadian Joint Operations Command. “So our understanding of what we were getting into versus the reality had to be discovered by doing.”
The Canadian Forces, he added, learned and adapted quickly.
Though not all targets were met, Canadian government and military officials look back on the 12-year Afghan mission with pride. Officers point out that coalition military efforts pushed al-Qaida out of Afghanistan, denying the terrorist organization a training base.
The final government report on the Kandahar mission, released in March 2012, found that Canada had achieved 33 of its 44 development targets, including one of its signature projects of building 52 schools and the training of more than 3,000 teachers.
There is no doubt development efforts have had some success…
…When the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, there were an estimated 900,000 children in school around the country, all of them boys. Now there are more than six million, boys and girls.
Access to basic health care for Afghans has increased from 10 per cent of the population to 85 per cent. Child mortality has dropped. Canada also spearheaded a program to eradicate polio in Kandahar Province, another of our signature projects.
But the situation in Afghanistan is fluid.
Polio has made a resurgence in Kandahar.
In 2012 the Taliban destroyed more than a hundred schools, the UN reported. Others closed down because there was no money to pay the teachers.
And while al-Qaida no longer uses Afghanistan as a training base, it and affiliated groups have moved to other locations around the world including Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Mali.
Most worrisome is the resiliency of the insurgents. The Taliban have footholds in nine of the country’s 34 provinces and fighters are battling government forces in the south, north and east. How those government forces do, more than anything, will determine Afghanistan’s fate.
There is less hope than in 2006, when Afghan President Hamid Karzai came to Ottawa and was heralded by Canadian politicians and generals on Parliament Hill as a great leader.
Today, he is one of the strongest critics of the international mission.
“The entire NATO exercise was one that caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life, and no gains because the country is not secure,” he said in the fall.
The fragile nature of security and development gains, and how quickly they might be erased once western troops and aid dollars disappear, can be glimpsed in Kandahar, the province most closely associated with Canadian success and sacrifice and where security is in the hands of the Afghans themselves.
Two and a half years after we declared an end to the combat mission in Afghanistan and redeployed troops as trainers to Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif, any Canadian soldier returning to Kandahar would find a familiar scene. Fighting continues on the same battlefields their comrades bled and died on.
In November, Afghan troops fought a battle in Shah Wali Kot, along the Arghandab River valley, with insurgents determined not to give ground. Later that month, a bomb exploded outside a private restaurant in Kandahar City, killing three and wounding 22. Nine days later a suicide bomber attacked a U.S. patrol in Kandahar province, killing a child in the process. Later in December, insurgents fought a two-hour battle with police at a checkpoint. Last month insurgents attacked one of the last remaining U.S. forward operating bases in the province, killing one soldier. One week later a suicide bomber targeted Afghan police, killing one officer.
And this, says Kandahar’s governor, Tooryalai Wesa, is an improvement. Kandahar City is secure, except for sporadic bombings and assassinations, he says.
He should know. Wesa, who operates from a heavily guarded compound in the middle of the city, has survived nine assassination attempts so far.
For the Kandahar-born Canadian governor, development is the bigger worry. Projects are proceeding in the province, but it’s unclear what will happen if aid money is pulled with the troops. The question now is whether roads and schools built by various countries can be maintained by the cash-starved Afghan government.
“The schools are nice but the teachers are not qualified,” Wesa said. “The salaries (are) very minimum.”
Across the city at the Kandahar Institute of Modern Studies, a nondescript yet functional building inside a walled compound, the organization’s founder, Ehsanullah Ehsan, is looking for funding to teach girls.
The institute used to be called the Afghan-Canadian Community Centre and had been partially financed by a $10,000-a-month grant from the Canadian government. For that amount, Ehsan had several hundred girls enrolled, teaching them everything from business skills to how to use the Internet. The female students put their lives at risk at times attending classes, but the training prepared them for jobs. More than 400 students were employed after they graduated.
Ehsan’s efforts didn’t earn him many friends in this conservative Islamic community and at times he faced threats from insurgents. That didn’t deter him, but Canada’s decision to cut off funding to the school is proving to be a much tougher hurdle.
The Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada (DFATD) says that Canada has now moved from focusing on Kandahar to a broader emphasis on country-level programs and national institutions. It is working on community-based education classrooms in Afghanistan and is supporting the establishment of 8,800 such classes across Afghanistan, according to an email sent by spokesman Jean-Bruno Villeneuve.
That will provide basic education to more than 265,000 students, including 205,000 girls, the email stated.
The Canadian government did consider the $588,000 it sunk into the former Afghan-Canadian Community Centre over five years an excellent investment. But DFATD says it encouraged the centre to seek additional funding so it could one day stand on its own. “The ACCC was successful in advancing its sustainability, with many of its programs now self-funded through participant fees,” noted Villeneuve. “DFATD’s support was instrumental in advancing this result.”
That’s news to Ehsan. He changed the name of the school in an effort to attract a major funder from another country, but wasn’t successful. The toll is beginning to show. At one point the school had 1,700 students, half of them women, but that is dwindling.
The institute still provides training for boys since Afghan families don’t mind paying for them. Girls, however, are another matter.
More than 250 female students have already left because they can’t afford the school fees formerly covered by the Canadian government. A private Canadian donor is still financing the education of another 150 girls, Ehsan said.
Still, the school is facing an uphill battle. “Without funding, we are collapsing,” Ehsan said. “Some programs have shut down. The Internet was cut down.”
His teachers are leaving because he can no longer pay them. Broken computers litter the school’s courtyard.
Ehsan, recalling many of the pronouncements by international politicians about the importance of teaching girls, is puzzled by Canada’s lack of interest in providing what, to a wealthy nation, is a small amount of money. “It is really frustrating,” he said. “When I look at these women, I say, ‘Where are those world human rights and women’s rights champions?’”
He says some people in Kandahar have soured on the international effort as funding for various projects is shut down and diplomats and officers — once seen as friends and supporters — disappear back to their home countries.
Unlike Kandahar, a centre of Islamic conservatism with a population of a little more than 300,000, Kabul has more of a cosmopolitan feel. Some women don’t wear burkas. In the mornings, large numbers of schoolchildren fill the streets, many of them young girls. Cars and trucks clog the main streets.
The capital’s population has climbed to around five million as Afghans try to flee the violence in the outlying provinces. But as the Afghans pour in, the westerners head out.
The lively get-togethers held by the expatriate community at upscale restaurants and night clubs are pretty much a thing of the past. A number of those establishments are already closed.
Kidnappings over the past year have forced employees from some aid agencies to keep a lower profile.
Many NATO troops in the city, including most of the 100 Canadian soldiers left in the country, are hunkered down in the Green Zone, a downtown enclave protected by tons of concrete and blast barriers. It’s a world separate from Afghanistan, with a Green Beans coffee shop and outdoor patios.
Unlike in previous years where they could go into the downtown core, Canadian diplomats are now in a lockdown mode, not allowed to leave their fortress/embassy except for occasional official functions.
The Green Zone consists of an inner maze of buildings and bunkers surrounded by concrete barriers and guard posts, all located within an outer ring of concrete barriers, sand-filled blast barriers and guard posts. To take a 500-metre walk from the Canadian location inside the Green Zone to the Afghan Defence Ministry building, also in the enclave, people need to suit up in full protective gear, including bulletproof vests, and must be accompanied by a security detail of what are known as “Guardian Angels.” During a recent Citizen visit, that team of bodyguards consisted of six U.S. soldiers.
The protection, soldiers say, is needed because on a number of occasions insurgents have been able to infiltrate the Green Zone, despite the heavy security.
There is more security around the city as well. Afghan security forces have set up what they call the Ring of Steel, a series of checkpoints across Kabul. The ring provides police with the ability not only to keep a lookout for suicide bombers but also to accost Afghan drivers for bribes. (The driver hired by the Citizen was stopped several times for such payoffs.)
But the Ring of Steel is not always effective; three coalition soldiers were killed on Dec. 27 after a suicide bomber attacked their convoy and on Jan. 4 a bomb detonated outside the gates to Camp Eggers in the Green Zone, although there were no casualties. On Jan. 17, a suicide bomber and gunmen attacked the La Taverna du Liban restaurant, close to the embassy district. Martin Glazer, 43, of Gatineau and Peter McSheffrey, 49, of Ottawa were among 21 people killed in the attack, making it the deadliest against foreign civilians in the country since the start of the war. A week later, a lone suicide bomber attacked an Afghan military bus, killing four and injuring 22.
Outside the Green Zone, life continues to be a grind for the majority of Afghans, despite the billions of dollars of foreign aid money that has flowed into the country. Women in burkas beg in the streets. Some children sit in the middle of the roads, hoping that drivers will hand them a small donation.
In one of Kabul’s poorer districts, men, women and children line up to receive rice and cooking oil courtesy of the U.S. government and the United Nations. The distribution is being handled by the French charity group ACTED, which uses mainly Afghans to administer its programs.
The people receiving the food are not starving, just destitute.
But several months ago the United Nations warned that the number of cases of severe malnutrition was climbing. Kandahar, Farah, Kunar, Paktika and Helmand provinces, all locations where warfare is ongoing, were cited as areas of concern, according to reports. Physicians in Kabul have also said they are starting to see more such cases.
Across the city and a world away from the food distribution point is an enclave of multimillion-dollar homes, each looking like a cross between a Las Vegas casino and a bunker. They are owned by Afghanistan’s elite; the businessmen, power brokers, warlords and government officials who have done well from the military mission.
A number are owned by Afghan cabinet ministers, whose government salary is about $1,000 a month.
Ramazan Bashardost, an anti-corruption crusader and member of Afghanistan’s parliament, points to the mega-homes as the most blatant example of the massive graft that goes on in Afghanistan today.
Hundreds of millions of dollars of aid money meant for the people found their way into the pockets of well-connected Afghan leaders, including Karzai family members, as well as various strongmen, he says.
Like school director Ehsan, he points out that large amounts of that aid money also went to pay for high-priced foreign advisers and consultants, who earn about $250,000 a year.
Bashardost, who came third in the last Afghan presidential election, notes the stark contrast between the mansions and a high school near his modest office in Kabul. Students go to the school but there are not enough books, not enough chairs or tables and no toilets. Teachers are paid about $100 a month but they must take jobs on the side, if they can find them, to make ends meet, he said.
“If the international community stops (funding) Afghanistan it will not be a big change for poor people because poor people never used this money,” Bashardost says matter-of-factly. “But it will be a disaster for a minority in power, the ministers, the warlords.”
This isn’t the first time large amounts of foreign aid have been pumped into Afghanistan. During the Cold War, the Americans and Soviets were in a race to outdo each other in providing help to the country, each hoping to bring Afghanistan into its sphere. The U.S. built dams and irrigation systems and sent teachers, engineers and doctors.
The Soviets poured almost $2 billion into Afghanistan in both development and military aid and eventually invaded the country. They trained and equipped the army and air force with the most modern weapons of war. They built power stations, irrigation systems, factories, apartment buildings, bridges and tunnels.
The Soviets also put particular emphasis on education. More than 70,000 Afghans were provided with advanced training in areas such as engineering. A technical institute was opened in Kabul, providing students from poorer families with free tuition.
Like Canada, the Russians sent advisers to teach Afghans how to run a government — specialists in banking, transportation, foreign affairs and agriculture were embedded in Afghanistan’s bureaucracy.
They also tried to promote the rights of women, who were brought into the civil service and military in large numbers. In his book Afgantsy, Rodric Braithwaite, Britain’s former ambassador to Moscow, recounts how excited Soviet adviser Nikolai Komissarov was in 1982 when he persuaded students at a girls’ school in northern Afghanistan not to wear veils.
He also details how the Russians constructed the largest economic project in the country, a massive complex of state-run farms outside the city of Jalalabad that employed 6,000 people on a full-time basis.
The Jalalabad farms were destroyed by the Pakistani and U.S.-backed Afghan rebels. Much of the infrastructure built by the Russians was destroyed by the Afghans in their own brutal civil war in the early 1990s. The rest fell apart under the Taliban regime.
Today, older Afghans remember the Russians with mixed feelings. The war conducted by the Soviets in the 1980s was brutal and claimed many lives. But their development aid helped train a generation of Afghan engineers and doctors and built much of the modern infrastructure; some of the roads, bridges and tunnels the U.S. and international community have spent millions of dollars fixing were originally constructed by the Russians.
The most recent influx of development dollars, mainly from the U.S. but to a lesser extent from nations such as Canada, has helped boost Afghanistan’s economic indicators. Wages, particularly for government employees, have increased. A middle-class of educated Afghans has developed.
But there is concern that the spike is artificial, and when building and infrastructure projects financed by western governments are finished, the economy will suffer. The actual revenue generated by the Afghan government on its own amounts to around $1.8 billion a year.
And even with the large financial support from western nations, unemployment is still rampant. More than 35 per cent of the workforce do not have jobs, although some estimates put that figure as high as 50 per cent.
“In the cities, there is a huge disparity,” said Ziggy Garewal, who has worked in Afghanistan for nine years for the French charity group ACTED. “You see a lot of very, very poor people and a lot of extremely rich people riding around in cars or living in properties that cost millions to build.”
The country’s economy is largely based on agriculture. Canada and other NATO nations promoted agricultural ventures, such as the growing of pomegranates, and while that was done, local farmers could still earn 10 times more planting opium-producing poppies for the illegal drug trade.
At one point there was hope that significant revenue could be earned from mining and natural gas production. The country has an estimated $1 trillion to $3 trillion worth of mineral resources. Two years ago, a Toronto firm, Kilo Goldmines, was awarded rights to iron-ore deposits in the country’s Bamiyan province. Other deals included a 2007 venture for a Chinese company to mine copper.
Mining has yet to produce significant royalties for the Afghan government, and there is already concern that monies earned could be siphoned off by corrupt officials.
The lack of revenue has started to have an impact on the advancements made over the past decade. The Urgent and Primary Care Clinic in Kabul was opened in 2007 with funding from the U.S. and quickly became a focal point for health care in the city as its doctors treated more than 4,000 patients a month. But the American funding is finished and the Afghan government is unable to keep the hospital fully functioning, according to reports. Doctors have left because they weren’t getting paid and the number of patients has sharply decreased.
What Afghanistan needs is more tax dollars but it will be a struggle to generate that income. Revenue is collected from customs fees but Afghanistan does not have a strong history of a central government exerting control. Local power brokers still remain firmly in command in a large number of areas. They extract monies from their populations to finance their private militias and operations. The insurgents also forcefully collect their taxes from opium farmers and others.
At this point the war appears to be at a stalemate. The Taliban were unable to launch a significant offensive in the summer, NATO officers say.
Maj.-Gen. Dean Milner, the top Canadian soldier in Afghanistan, points to that as success and says during the past summer government soldiers defeated the insurgency handily.
“Sure there were soldiers killed, there were civilians (killed), but the bottom line is that this country continues to build,” he said. “It continues to be able to improve their capabilities to fight the Taliban.”
Insurgents continue to rely on hit-and-run attacks, suicide bombings and assassinations. Few senior Afghan government officials can feel safe and they are surrounded by a phalanx of security. That, however, isn’t always effective.
In October, assassins killed former Canadian resident Arsallah Jamal, who returned to his homeland to become governor of Logar province. Someone planted a bomb in a microphone stand; Jamal died as he began to deliver a speech.
Canada, the U.S., and the other nations of the NATO alliance are resting their hopes on what Zahir Tanin, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, refers to as “Afghanization.”
The word hearkens back to Vietnamization, the training and support policy U.S. president Richard Nixon put in place to allow American soldiers to leave Vietnam. Like in Vietnam, U.S. soldiers have turned over responsibility for security to indigenous troops and police.
Canada was among the key countries to help in equipping and training that Afghan force, which now numbers more than 340,000.
Whether Afghanization works remains to be seen. But NATO officers in Kabul contend that if billions of dollars of international funding continue to be pumped into Afghanistan, to keep its government, economy and military afloat, then the security stalemate will be able to continue. With time and more money they expect the Afghans to get the upper hand on the insurgents.
Back in Canada, Red Friday rallies in support of the troops disappeared long ago and the Canadian public appears to have moved on, relegating the Afghan war to a once-a-year acknowledgment during Remembrance Day ceremonies.
The war no longer attracts much attention from the news media unless there is a high profile attack involving Canadians, such as the one in January that killed consultants Glazer and McSheffrey. In the spotlight today is the battle that mentally and physically injured soldiers face as they try to wrest promised benefits from the government.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his ministers rarely mention Afghanistan these days. There are no more passionate speeches like the address Harper gave in Kandahar in 2006, when he vowed that Canada would never cut and run from Afghanistan.
Canada’s foreign aid is now headed elsewhere; government figures released last year show Ethiopia has surpassed Afghanistan as a top recipient of aid.
In other nations, previous claims of victory over the insurgents, common in 2005 and 2006, have been replaced by a more measured response. In December, British Prime Minister David Cameron flew to visit his country’s troops in Helmand province. He said a “basic level of security” had been achieved in Afghanistan and that British soldiers could “come home with their heads held high.”
Canada’s military is now preparing to shape its Afghan legacy. Work began last year and the campaign is expected to ramp up in the coming months as the memorial to the Canadian dead, once located at Kandahar Airfield, tours the country.
Soldiers will be providing their take on the Afghan mission in interviews with journalists and community groups. Department of National Defence “stakeholders” — those sympathetic historians, academics and opinion writers — will also be used to get the legacy message across to the public.
That message, however, has changed. The narrative once was that Canada had all but defeated the insurgency in Kandahar and helped bring democracy, human rights and prosperity to Afghanistan.
This time around the messages are more basic: The Afghan mission denied al-Qaida a safe haven in that country; from 2006 to 2009, Canadian troops prevented the fall of Kandahar; and the country’s soldiers, diplomats and aid workers did the best job they could, giving Afghans the breathing room they need to develop their nation.
It is now up to the Afghans to decide on what future they have, the messages underline. They succeed or fail based on their own actions.