The forgotten members of the mission in Afghanistan

Canada is neglecting the civil servants who played a key role in the mission
Renee Filiatrault, note how none of the Afhgan men are looking at her. AP
Photo courtesy of Renée Filiatrault

The big story in Canadian foreign affairs for the past month has been the end of our “combat mission” in Afghanistan. Lost amid the narratives of firefights past and memories of dead soldiers has been much recognition that what has come to a close is not just combat, but our complete whole-of-government approach to aid, economic development, and governance in Kandahar. The civilians have all pulled out as well, and their return to life in Canada, professionally and personally, is in some ways going to be far more difficult than it will be for their comrades in the military. Their great fear is that they will be just as ignored by their managers back in Ottawa as they have been by the Canadian media.

Two things everyone always noticed about the Canadian civilian contingent in Afghanistan is how young they all were, and how many of them were women. They were drawn from all branches of the bureaucracy, early- to mid-career public servants attracted by adventure and the promise that the skills and experience they acquired abroad would be a golden ticket to promotions and choice assignments back home. It hasn’t always worked out that way, and a great number of returning civilians are suffering, both personally and professionally. Anger and disillusionment is growing within the Afghanistan cohort, with many people—some still serving in theatre—saying that they feel they were sold a bill of goods.

From CIDA staffers working on development projects to communications officers for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), a lot of them spent more time travelling outside the wire than the vast majority of soldiers who booked their entire tours billeted at Kandahar Airfield; suicide bombings, IEDs, and other threats were part of their daily work life. As a result, at the end of their deployments they faced many of the same stress-related disorders as the soldiers. But the military learned the hard way that everything from burnout to full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has to be taken very seriously, and there are now cultural and institutional mechanisms in place to help returning veterans cope. If anything, there is far less stigma associated with PTSD within the military today than there is within the broader public service.

Renée Filiatrault, who was the senior public diplomacy officer in Kandahar between 2009 and 2010, points out that in contrast with the military, care for the returning public servants is ad hoc and left up to the existing (and decentralized) human resources structures within the machinery of government. “There is no veterans affairs minister, no military ombudsman, or ‘support the troops’ and family initiatives. I think there is a major case for extending the mandate of these offices to civilians to make use of the expertise learned by the military over the past decade.”

Canada’s mission in Afghanistan is the biggest and most complicated whole-of-government effort in our history, so Ottawa might be excused for not having the most robust safety net in place for dealing with the mental health of returning civilians. But that does not explain the professional neglect, bordering on the malicious, that many have faced upon return. As everyone in the public service knows, a year away from Ottawa is a year away from Ottawa, where promotion is always political and the trick to getting ahead is to be constantly in the face of anyone who might help your career. So instead of coming home to find their hard-won experience put to work on the most difficult assignments facing the country, many have actually returned to find themselves demoted or, incredibly, their pre-deployment position “surplussed” (i.e., eliminated).

Again, there is a helpful contrast with the military, which makes a point of letting all soldiers know, six months before the end of their deployment, their next assignment going forward. Meanwhile, many on the civilian side had the stress of 18-hour workdays compounded by the uncertainty of knowing what they would be doing when they got back to Canada. As one DFAIT employee said in Kandahar, “How can I go back to writing posters on the dangers of salt for Health Canada?” The upshot is that for ambitious young public servants, going to Afghanistan has been personally rewarding but has had a detrimental effect on their career, which is why lots of them are leaving the public service for more suitable work.

Over the past few weeks, Stephen Harper has issued what appears to be something close to a foreign policy manifesto for the Conservative government. Twice recently he has said, “Our party’s great purpose is nothing less than to prepare our nation to shoulder a bigger load, in a world that will require it of us.” If this means anything, it means that the coordinated civilian and military approach that was brought to bear in Afghanistan will be used again—whether it will be in Haiti, the Middle East, or the Horn of Africa.

The good news, as Filiatrault notes, is that “our expertise in this regard is now battle-tested at the coal face of this war.” The bad news is that many of those sent overseas have lost faith in Ottawa’s ability to retain that expertise and put it to good use. “There is always a lessons-learned exercise—or several,” she continues. “Whatever comes out over the next several months, or even years, has to be taken seriously so as to not lose the hard-earned and at times bitter lessons of Afghanistan.”