by Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office.
With four suicides by Canadian veterans of the Afghanistan War in less than two weeks, it is imperative that Canadians ask some deeper questions about Canada’s involvement in war.
According to CBC’s The National, 129 Canadian soldiers committed suicide during Canada’s decade-long involvement in the war, with an additional 50 deaths suspected as suicides. These numbers do not include persons who took their own lives after they left the military. Nor do they reflect the fact that for every completed suicide, there are many more attempts.
A total of 158 Canadian soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in the course of their duties. The scores of suicides need to be added to these numbers to portray the true cost in Canadian lives.
The statistics on suicide, as well as the growing recognition of post-traumatic stress in soldiers, portray the tremendous suffering that war inflicts on military personnel, not to mention the civilian population.
And for what good?
Throughout the war, Canadians were told by successive governments that Canada needed to participate in war in order to build peace, security, democracy and development in Afghanistan.
Since Canada’s involvement in direct combat in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ended in 2011, media attention has turned away from Afghanistan. But in the meantime, some voices are now raising probing questions about the official rationale for the war and whether it was all worth it.
Graeme Smith was a Globe and Mail journalist who covered much of the war, and was even posted in the dangerous southern region of Kandahar. His new book, And the dogs are eating them now: Our war in Afghanistan, represents a major about-face from the perspective he expressed in the Globe.
Like the Canadian government and Canadian Forces, Smith was convinced that foreign intervention could bring good things to Afghanistan. He now writes that this intervention “played out… like a farce.” War became simply a “recipe for fighting and fighting, and more fighting.”
According to Smith, the greatest mistake by ISAF troops was their distorted notions about the Taliban insurgency. Foreign troops were convinced that the Taliban were “monsters” – often portraying them as leering devils with green skin and yellow eyes – rather than as local people with legitimate grievances against the Karzai government and its foreign backers. Foreign troops were unable to understand “the needs and desires of the local people.”
Another new book – an anthology edited by Jerome Klassen and Greg Albo, called Empire’s Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan – is much more critical of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. It presents the war as a colonialist intervention to create the conditions for capitalism to flourish, and to facilitate Western access to the rich mineral wealth of Afghanistan.
Many readers will dismiss Klassen and Albo’s anthology as Marxist rhetoric. However, these writers painstakingly and convincingly remind us how Afghanistan has, for centuries, served as the battleground for foreign empires (Britain, Russia and the USSR, and US/NATO) eager to extend their political and economic influence. Like Smith, they argue that Afghans resent the most recent military intervention because it represents not what Afghans want for their country, but what foreign powers can gain by controlling Afghanistan.
Indeed, in light of these assessments, it is no surprise to read what partners in Afghanistan tell MCC representatives. John and Lynn Williamson, MCC reps based in Nepal, write,
Everyone we meet in Afghanistan agree that ISAF’s military strategy has not brought peace to Afghanistan. The sacrifice of foreign troops and the tragic loss of numbers of civilians, and wasteful spending of billions of dollars is not winning the war. Our partners tell us that ISAF cannot win in Afghanistan. Children in schools that we visit often tell us, “We hope that all foreign countries (including Pakistan and Iran) will leave Afghanistan, and we hope that our country can develop and take care of our problems.”
Canadians should not allow the Afghanistan War to vanish from their minds. The war was, after all, the longest war Canadian Forces have ever fought. It also assuredly shattered any semblance of Canada as a benign peacekeeper. Besides, too many people – Canadians soldiers, as well as thousands of Afghans – paid a terrible price.
Hopefully, the absolutely tragic suicides of Canadian soldiers will lead to greater commitment to treatment options for soldiers with post-traumatic stress. Hopefully, it will also lead to greater recognition of the travesty of war itself, and to a much more profound search for nonviolent means of resolving international conflicts.