In writing a tribute seven days ago to those who have fought for this country and were honoured on Remembrance Day earlier this week, I referred only in passing to the forces who have served in conflicts and peacekeeping missions following the Korean War. In fact, I think most Canadians often consider only the two World Wars and the Korean conflict in their remembrances. But, the truth is, tens of thousands of troops have been involved in skirmishes around the globe during the past half-century and often go unrecognized.
One of the most notable instances has been in Afghanistan, where nearly 40,000 Canadian Forces personnel have served since first arriving in 2001. This September, withdrawal of the remaining 900 special personnel began and, by March of next year, only a few will remain. Support for the troops was strong in the middle of last decade, but gradually waned until Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated Canadians had lost their appetite for the war and declared in May 2011, “Afghanistan is no longer a threat to the world.”
Some people beg to differ. Or, at the very least, they would say that Afghanistan is still a definite threat to itself and its people, if not the world. In a fascinating article in the October 2013 edition of The Walrus magazine, CBC journalist Mellissa Fung recounts the story of her first return to Afghanistan since she was kidnapped five years ago, held prisoner in a hole for 28 days, and tortured repeatedly.
Fung disputes two popular notions most Canadians hold: that there are few tangible results from our soldiers’ efforts in Afghanistan and that the country is ready to govern itself, hold off the Taliban insurgents and continue the reforms that have begun.
The journalist recounts some truly inspiring statistics in making her case that Canada’s efforts have made a huge difference in the country. One example is in education. “In 2001, 700,000 students were enrolled in school, almost none of them girls. Today more than 10 million children go to school, and 40 percent in the primary grades are girls. Since 2002, more than 4,500 new school buildings have been constructed, and the number of teachers has increased eightfold, to nearly 200,000. In addition, more than a quarter of a million women have attended literacy classes,” writes Fung.
She also has high praise for the Canadian forces who have served in the country – along with deep sadness for the sacrifices they’ve made: “The mission transformed the military into a modern fighting force, but also left us with a long roll call of dead, wounded and battle scarred. One hundred and fifty-eight soldiers were killed, more than 2,000 were injured and another 3,000 are estimated to have developed some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Despite those grim numbers, Fung talks about the positives for the Canadian forces, saying, “The more than decade-long engagement in Afghanistan, the longest in Canada’s history, has given our military a much-needed morale boost, rehabilitating its image after the Somalia scandal in the 1990s. The forces entered Afghanistan with a sense of both purpose and trepidation, a volunteer army from a small country, no longer peacekeepers but warriors, with new equipment, new recruits and a renewed sense of pride.”
But, as far as the job being done, Fung has her doubts. She reports that nearly three million Afghans live as refugees in neighbouring countries with almost half a million displaced internally. Countrymen fear the worst as foreign powers abandon the country. One young mother told Fung, “Leaving a war at this stage means you will give al Qaeda the chance to grow again. When the world talks about humanitarian assistance, or the humanitarian part of the fight, this is not done yet.”
The woman does not believe her government is capable of running the country with its poor record so far of corruption and lack of transparency. She is not alone. Fung feels the current balancing act, which includes a “peace” where upwards of 100 Afghan soldiers are killed every week, is extremely fragile – and she doesn’t believe they can go it alone. “Yes, Afghans must learn to stand on their own, take care of their country, and protect their rights. They understand that, and they want it more than anything; but to protect the gains that have been made, sustained investment from the rest of the world is needed, and will be for a long time. There is fear here, but also optimism,” she says.
As the remaining Canadian Forces personnel prepare to exit the country, some are, undoubtedly, ready to come home, having done their job to the best of their ability. However, for other personnel – along with the many civilians who remain in Afghanistan – there’s a sense the job is incomplete, that the projects and missions they began as far back as 2001 still need to be finished.
In either case, those who served in Afghanistan deserve our deepest respect and gratitude for what they have accomplished in a country nearly 11,000 km away. They have performed bravely and professionally and with distinction. And they deserve our remembrance wholeheartedly.