This profile is part of a series called ‘Living in the shadow of 9/11,’ which looks at how the worlds of five extraordinary people changed, twenty years later.
The most frightening rabbit hole any soldier can tumble down is to look back on their years of service and try to analyze, from a distance, whether it was worth it. It’s a question most vets hate being asked: look too deep and there is the worst kind of doubt and self-hatred; not deep enough and there is avoidance and denial.
After 34 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, Maj. Chris Nobrega has a great deal to reflect on, but the question of whether or not it was worth it rarely comes up. The most important lesson he has learned, he says, is that his job is to complete the mission he is assigned. Everything else is better left to the historians.
Still, the problem with the post-9/11 war on terror, Nobrega, 52, admits, is that its logic is so serpentine that it can be used to justify almost any mission. “It’s not just a problem with the way the war has been executed,” he says. “We’re also talking about an adversary that has the ability to move quickly and endlessly refocus its attention.”
Nobrega has experienced the rapid evolution of post-9/11 wars up close. In 2001, he was one of the first soldiers deployed to Afghanistan as part of the NATO mission after the fall of the Taliban regime and was deployed again to Kandahar in 2007. In 2014, he was deployed to the Sinai as part of Canada’s contribution to the international force overseeing the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, at a time when Islamic State militants were stepping up attacks on the volatile peninsula.
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Over the past two decades, Nobrega has had a unique, occasionally jarring, view of a world in flux. Afghanistan was merely the first stage. As that war dragged on, and new theatres in the war on terror opened up, he witnessed the evolution of a new kind of warfare, against an agile and adaptive enemy that paid little heed to the rules of war and was constantly developing novel ways of killing. The “war on terror” was being lost, though he is loath to use that term, in part because the very notion of winning and losing are meaningless in this new era of counterinsurgency warfare.
“From my perspective, defeating the Taliban was never the primary mission in Afghanistan,” Nobrega says. “We were there to help the people of Afghanistan come out of some dark times.”
That mission remains incomplete, and that incompleteness bothers him. From an “end-state” perspective, he says, the Afghanistan mission should have been considered generational. But as the post-9/11 world spiralled into uncertainty, the political will to stay the course waned. Canada left Afghanistan in 2014; the U.S. and remaining NATO forces will be out by the 20th anniversary of the attacks that triggered the invasion. But life in Afghanistan will continue and, Nobrega fears, revert to what it was before Canadians arrived, fought and died. Was it worth it? That awful question may be best left unanswered.