The Canadian military’s last Christmas in Afghanistan

Canadian troops head out of Forward Operating Base Ghundi Gar on a dismounted patrol. Photo: Sgt Craig Fiander, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Canadian troops head out of Forward Operating Base Ghundi Gar on a dismounted patrol in 2007. Photo: Sgt Craig Fiander, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Yesterday’s photo of the day showcased four U.S. servicemen from the 333rd Horizontal Engineer Company (HEC) at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, courtesy of NCPR listener SGT Matthew Coletta.

The saying “out of sight, out of mind” might describe the war in Afghanistan. Way back in June of 2010 it attained the dubious distinction of becoming America’s longest-running war. (Note: Some dispute that claim, depending on one’s definition of when the U.S. was drawn into  Vietnam. But since U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan, that conflict could still beat all others, by most reckonings.)

Anyway, this is all by way of leading up to the observation that the end is in sight for Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan. While Canada’s combat mission there ended back in 2011, Canadian military personnel are still in Afghanistan participating in NATO training of Afghan army and police security forces under Operation-ATTENTION. (Scheduled to wrap up by the end of March 2014.)

That time line means this was the last Christmas in that part of the world for Canadian forces. As reported by Bruce Campion-Smith in the Toronto Star, Canadians in uniform there are counting down the days:

Much of the equipment has been returned to Canada and just 260 soldiers remain in Afghanistan. Many will fly home in January, leaving about 100 who will remain until the mission ends in mid-March.

At that point, the departure of the Canadians will end a military commitment that began in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Canadian forces initially deployed to Kandahar, moved to Kabul and then returned to Kandahar for a prolonged combat mission in southern Afghanistan.

The commitment has been a costly one. According to the defence department, 138 soldiers were killed in action, another 20 died from other causes; 635 were wounded and a further 1,436 soldiers suffered non-battle injuries. These include soldiers injured in traffic accidents, other accidental injuries and those returned home for medical reasons.

Here’s a chart of lives lost in that conflict among participating nations – not counting Afghan soldiers and civilians, which may be unknown but is surely quite high. The latest death on the U.S. forces’ casualty list came on December 23rd. Contentious negotiations continue regarding an eventual end to U.S. military and security engagement in Afghanistan.

And what do readers think? Was the mission there ever clear, and attainable? Did hostile locals simply take advantage of the west’s limited attention span and wait it out?

Or is this some endless loop of unlearned history – “never get involved in a land war in Asia” – including Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires?

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4 Comments on “The Canadian military’s last Christmas in Afghanistan”

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  1. Mervel says:

    I don’t know why stayed after the Taliban fell. We should have left after the Northern Alliance toppled them back in 2001/2002. What happened to the Northern Alliance?

    Inertia is such a bad reason for a war.

  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Was the mission clear? No. The problem was in the politics of the war, not on the military side. Militarily a clear and attainable mission could have been sketched out, but from the start the war became a political symbol for some that America was back, that we were past the hand wringing over Viet Nam. Beyond that the war in Afghanistan became an internal squabble within US leadership over dueling overt and covert missions, and political considerations based on a NeoCon worldview rather than on the actual facts on the ground.

    Hostile locals certainly did take advantage of the west’s limited attention span. After we beat the Taliban – and remember that this was the war many Americans wanted, the one where the locals were throwing flowers at US soldiers’ feet – the Bush administration failed to secure the country and withdrew military assets, planning and attention in order to start a second war in Asia; Iraq. The real problem wasn’t hostile locals waiting us out, it was a small number of hostile locals along with local mercenaries fighting because after 30 years of war they had no better prospect than steady pay from the real problem: Pakistan, India, and many others who wanted to carry out a proxy war, and outside fighters backed by some state and non-state actors with varying agendas.

    The lesson of history is not about never getting in a land war in Asia and the idea that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires is nonsense. Afghanistan was the crossroad of Asia for empires due to geography and many kingdoms and empires took Afghanistan and held until the empire fell for other reasons.

    After about 3 decades of covert and overt military involvement in Afghanistan on the part of the US the real lesson is that Americans can’t learn from history because understanding history would mean trying to understand a complex and nuanced situation. It is easier for most people to throw up their hands and say “those people just don’t value life like we do.”

    Canada, for the most part, has shown itself to be more pragmatic in its foreign entanglements, though you guys get dragged into some stuff by the Brits and by US on occasion.

  3. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    The idea that Afghanistan is America’s longest war is a good example of how Americans don’t remember history. Richard Holbrook is correct that Viet Nam was longer. But the question becomes harder to answer the longer you think about it. In theory the Korean War ended long ago but we still keep troops there with the expectation that North Korean troops could flood across the border at any moment. We still get involved in minor incidents there every so often. The Cold War? Okay, it was undeclared but it has to be one of our most expensive and longest. We still have troops stationed all over Europe and the rest of the world even though WWII is long over with. What about the Spanish American War? Aren’t we still sort of squabbling with Cuba over that in some small way?
    Here is my vote for our longest running war: the American Civil War. Some people are still fighting that one.

  4. Mervel says:

    I would certainly be in favor of the US following Canada’s lead on these issues and entanglements. Just don’t do it, ever.

    You can make a case that Afghanistan has not been a war for the past ten years, it is an occupation. Securing the county is just another name for occupying the country.

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