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As Kandahar finds peace, Canada finds its own kind of vindication

Adnan R. Khan returns to Afghanistan’s formerly fraught southern region, where lessons from Canada’s failed mission more than a decade ago are inspiring America’s next steps
People celebrate ceasefire in Rodat district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan June 16, 2018. (Parwiz Parwiz/Reuters)
Local boys swim in a canal fed by the Dahla Dam, Afghanistan’s second largest, northeast of Kandahar City. During the Canadian forces deployment to Kandahar, scenes such as these were unheard of at a time when Taliban influence in the region was at its height. (Photograph by Adnan Khan)

In December 2006, Canada’s mission in Kandahar wasn’t going to plan. 

The risky, high-profile deployment to take on security responsibility in Afghanistan’s enigmatic southern province, which began just 10 months earlier, was proving deadlier than anyone had anticipated. Thirty-six Canadian soldiers had already been killed at that point—four times the number lost during the previous four years of Canada’s presence in Afghanistan. Much of Canada’s promised funding for humanitarian aid and development—$100 million per year—was going toward building schools and clinics, but with questionable results, as many would wind up underused or abandoned. NATO allies, including the U.K., were complaining that Canada only took on the mission for political reasons and that it lacked the capacity to handle such a massive undertaking; Canada fielded just 2,300 troops at the mission’s height.

Still, Canadian forces had already led two offensives on the pastoral villages in Kandahar’s Panjwai district against fierce Taliban resistance. And in the end, Canada had prevailed—but at a devastating cost for locals. When Maclean’s toured Panjwai in the summer of that year, the idyllic orchards and farm fields along the Arghandab River—which should have been teeming with labourers—instead provided cover for Taliban snipers. Shops along Highway 1, Afghanistan’s transnational roadway, should have been stocked with watermelons and grapes, but were instead charred, abandoned husks, pockmarked from the heavy fighting.

So it was perhaps remarkable, under these circumstances, that on Dec. 20, 2006, Brig. Gen. Tim Grant—a tall, bespectacled man with a professorial demeanour who had been named the commander of Canadian forces in Afghanistan just two months before—met face-to-face with Panjwai village elders, Afghan National Army commanders, government officials and NATO officers.

The elders asked for the meeting to extend an offer to the Canadians: the Taliban, they said, were willing to put down their weapons over the coming winter lull in fighting to give locals a chance to return to their villages and rebuild.

The ceasefire request felt fishy to Grant’s military sensibilities. Taliban fighters in Panjwai, after all, were overwhelmingly recruited from the local population; if they wanted to bring peace to their village, they could simply stop fighting and transfer their energy to reconstruction. 

Grant did, however, have a counter-offer for the elders. “The message we gave them was that if they want to go back to their villages, they have to be prepared to provide their own security,” he told Maclean’s at the time. That would mean setting up auxiliary police forces recruited from the local population to look after village security while Canadian forces focused on dismantling the Taliban’s command structure. It wasn’t a new idea; for months, U.S. and NATO forces had been trying to implement a policy of recruiting and training local police forces, known as the Afghan National Auxiliary Police (ANAP), to take over village-level security duties in areas where NATO, Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police presence was weak. The elders agreed.

But as logical as the program sounded, it was slung together sloppily. ANAP recruits, according to reports from Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group, were poorly vetted, poorly trained and poorly paid, a troika of deficiencies that led to a force accused of massive corruption and abuse. The plan would fail.

MACLEAN’S ARCHIVES: Read Adnan R. Khan’s 2006 reporting from Kandahar in our free archives

It was the kind of earnestly held but ultimately wasteful, hasty work that wound up being a hallmark of the Canadian mission to Kandahar in those early days. After the initial military successes in Panjwai and later in the Zhari district, Canadian forces dug in for the gruelling task of keeping enough of a peace for the government’s promised quarter of a billion dollars in development work to take root. But over the next four years, Canadian forces struggled to keep Kandahar under control. Canadian soldiers continued to die in ambushes and suicide attacks. Convoys and foot patrols regularly struck roadside bombs that were planted overnight by local Taliban fighters. The death toll continued to climb, and by the time the Canadians left in 2011, it had reached 158. 

The Taliban never made a full comeback, but their influence was everywhere. When Canadians were in control, the Taliban presence in places like Pashmul, Zhari district, Nakhonay in Panjwai and Dahla Dam in Shah Wali Kot was so pervasive that a single wrong turn could prove deadly, causing more problems for Canada’s development plan. “Even we were going to these areas in armoured vehicles to deliver aid,” recalls Nair Muhammad, one of the representatives of Nakhonay village on the Panjwai district council. “And this was our territory. The Taliban were our own people.”

Canadian soldiers of First Battalion, Royal 22nd Regiment, stand in formation during a ceremony marking the Canadian handover of Forward Fire Base Masum Ghar to U.S. forces in Panjwai district in Kandahar province on July 5, 2011. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

Canada’s mission in Kandahar appears to have been a failure. But more than a decade later, peace has finally come to Panjwai, as well as to other districts in Kandahar in which Canadian soldiers fought and died. It’s a surreal experience to return to these places. The roads, built by Canada and once lined with improvised explosive devices, are open and crowded again; narrow village alleyways, once prime targets for ambushes, are filled with laughing children; the gardens of Zhari and the Arghandab Valley, famous throughout Afghanistan, are in bloom, in the face of a year-long drought across the country. How that peace finally arrived is both a lesson in the complexities of a fragile state like Afghanistan, and a warning sign about the hubris that led Canada to take on a mission that was doomed to flounder, at least in terms of the goals it set out to fulfill. Canadians were not able to convince the local population to abandon the Taliban; they failed to crack the code of the Taliban’s grip on the local consciousness.

READ MORE: How badly has Canada failed Afghanistan?

It is painful to have to say that there is no direct line between Canadian sacrifice and the security that has now arrived in Kandahar, just as the hundreds of millions of dollars that Canada poured into the region in aid likely didn’t make much of an impact, either. Security came to Kandahar because of manifestly local reasons—and it came, ultimately, because foreign forces left. 

There is, however, some vindication to be found. Despite the crushing reality of the bloody insurgency Canadians faced in Kandahar, they retained some of their early idealism. Canadian soldiers never completely abandoned the idea that engagement with locals would be necessary to turn Kandahar from the Taliban’s heartland to the kind of place it has become today—where people are starting to embrace the idea that fighting serves no one’s interests. Now, the rest of the world is coming to see it that way, too.

Two Canadian soldiers of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) stand guard at the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) premises in the southern city of Kandahar, on Jan. 8, 2007. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

When Canadian forces were preparing to leave the relative comforts of Camp Julien in Kabul at the end of 2005, the mood was hopeful, if not naive. For the first four years of the Afghan war, the Kandaharis’ exposure to foreign forces had been primarily with the Americans, whose reputation for noisy bravado and heavy-handedness had not gone down well with the locals. Canada would be different, vowed Col. Walter Semianiw, the commander at Camp Julien during the transition to Kandahar. “That’s part of the job of the first wave of Canadians in Kandahar,” Semianiw told Maclean’s at the time. “They will be responsible for setting up the provincial reconstruction team [PRT]. The PRT will bring a national identity with them. They will be the face of Canada on the ground.”

It all sounded so very Canadian. The PRT, unlike the American version, would be open to the public. During their time in Kandahar, Canada would implement a defensive strategy that prioritized engaging the local population over directly taking on the Taliban. But by December, that halcyon fantasy had been replaced by the cold, hard fact of Kandahar: Canada was at war.

It was a war that Canadian commanders—well aware of Canada’s limitations—had no illusions about “winning” militarily, a sentiment the Americans clung to with Spartan zeal. And Canada’s strategy of on-the-ground engagement clashed with America’s plan, particularly when, in 2009, then-president Barack Obama announced the United States would inject 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan for a final push to turn the tide of the war before pulling out the majority of its combat forces. 

The surge ignited tensions between the U.S. and Canada on the ground in Kandahar, which reached their peak when American forces began taking over responsibility for districts like Panjwai from the Canadians in 2010. The plan brought with it all of the force that defines the American military—where the Canadians had operated with a soft touch, the Americans came in with a sledgehammer.

“The U.S. forces destroyed my village,” one local from Syachoi, in Zhari district, told Maclean’s in 2011. “They told us our village was a Taliban stronghold, so they ordered all the villagers to leave and levelled the homes; they stripped the land of its gardens and orchards, built roads for their tanks and turned it into a military base. This is what has become of Syachoi since the Americans took over control from the Canadians.”

Kandahar’s elders say the harsh tactics did little to reduce Taliban influence in and around Kandahar. Instead, it had the opposite effect: it alienated even more young men, who then joined the insurgency. 

Afghan Army General Abdul Raziq, left, and 1st. Lt. Musif Khan, right, survey an area where recent kidnappings and Taliban activities have occurred in the Village of Mango Khel, Logar Province in Afghanistan, on March 30, 2013. (Michel du Cille/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

To make matters worse, the Americans engineered a new power broker in Kandahar shortly after the Canadians left to lead the Afghan police forces as the Taliban was beginning to push into the city itself: Abdul Raziq, a former shopkeeper from Kandahar’s eastern border with Pakistan. Within a few weeks of arriving, Raziq—who had built up a reputation as a brutal commander in Afghanistan’s border police—managed to lead his forces to victory.

But his success, local officials in Kandahar city say, had as much to do with tribal rivalries as it did with Raziq’s military acumen. By empowering Raziq, they add, the U.S. also empowered his tribe, which turned away from supporting the insurgency. Raziq then did what warlords are wont to do: he installed members of his own tribe in positions of power.

Indeed, local elders west of Kandahar city are too afraid of Raziq to criticize him on the record, but on the condition of anonymity, they say he was only partly responsible for bringing peace to their districts. What the U.S. failed to see, they say, were the transformations already playing out inside Kandahar’s communities by the time the U.S. arrived.

“People were getting tired of the fighting,” says Haji Lal Muhammad, Nakhonay’s chief representative on the Panjwai district council. “I told the Americans, ‘You are undoing everything the Canadians did here. They were winning over the people. By taking such a brutal approach, you are not respecting their sacrifices.’ ”

READ MORE: Afghanistan is not a lost cause—and its young intellectuals prove it

The prospect of a broad peace in Kandahar only began to emerge, Muhammad adds, after the American withdrawal began. Once their forces had left, elders were able to convince young men in their villages to put down their weapons. “Raziq benefited from the withdrawal because it looked like under his command the Taliban were defeated,” Muhammad says. “But that’s not the case.”

Whatever the cause, the peace Raziq claims to have achieved still rests on a powder keg of tribal rivalries and festering vendettas. Human rights organizations warn that by empowering another warlord in Afghanistan, the U.S. is making the same mistakes it made when it first entered the country. 

Moreover, Raziq has openly declared his opposition to negotiating with the Taliban, but that appears to be exactly the direction in which his American backers now appear to be headed: they’re putting down their aggressive mien and showing a Canadian-like willingness to meet with the Taliban.

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks on America’s military involvement in Afghanistan at the Fort Myer military base on August 21, 2017 in Arlington, Virginia. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In front of TV cameras and a crowd of soldiers at Fort Myer military base in Arlington, Va., President Donald Trump made a rare admission: that Afghanistan was a big, intricate problem.

It was Aug. 21, 2017, and Afghanistan was in the midst of its worst year of violence since the U.S.-led intervention at the end of 2001. According to data from the Institute for the Study of War, the Taliban controlled or influenced nearly half of the country. ISIS, meanwhile, had gained a foothold in pockets of territory to the east. Taliban violence, compounded by ISIS brutality, had killed more than 1,600 civilians by mid-2017 and injured more than 3,500, the United Nations reported, a new record in the 17-year-old conflict. And now Trump, who had campaigned for the presidency on a promise to pull American troops out of foreign conflicts like the one in Afghanistan, had to announce a new strategy for the country. “When I became president, I was given a bad and very complex hand,” Trump said in his address. “But one way or another, these problems will be solved. I’m a problem solver. And in the end, we will win.” 

READ MORE: The unspoken truth of Trump’s speech: U.S. troops may never leave

Trump’s strategy—deploying more American troops to continue to train Afghan forces while putting new pressure on Pakistan to crack down on terrorist bastions near its Afghan border—was less about saving lives than it was about “winning” the war. This was not the Donald Trump from the campaign trail; his new strategy was to pump more troops into the conflict to support Afghan forces and help them turn the tide of the war.

Many remarked how the strategy resembled Obama’s 2010 troop surge. The scale was different—Obama’s 30,000 troops versus Trump’s 3,000—but the thinking was similar: the Afghan army had failed to prove it could take on a resurgent Taliban, and more troops were needed to give it time to improve its capabilities. Trump would reject this comparison, but behind the scenes, his administration’s thinking was more in line with Obama’s than he was willing to admit publicly. The open-ended nature of the new U.S. strategy, according to a senior Afghan government official who spoke to Maclean’s on condition of anonymity, was not absolute. “Trump told his generals he wanted to see progress within six months of the surge,” the official told Maclean’s in late July. “When that didn’t happen, the generals became concerned that Trump would do something rash, so they began to put pressure on the Afghan government and the Pakistanis to produce some kind of result.”

The pressure worked. On June 7, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced a unilateral ceasefire during the Eid festival, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Two days later, the Taliban reciprocated, and for three days, Afghanistan experienced an unprecedented period of peace. Civilians in Kabul embraced Taliban fighters and took selfies with them. According to Afghan officials, hundreds of Taliban fighters came in from the cold, abandoning the insurgency.

Then, on July 16, the U.S. took another major step toward a negotiated peace. Breaking from years of policy, the Trump administration agreed to meet with the Taliban for bilateral talks, a demand the Taliban had been making for years. The first meeting, held at the Taliban’s political office in Qatar at the end of July, reportedly went well. A second meeting is now expected in December.

People celebrate ceasefire in Rodat district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan June 16, 2018. (Parwiz Parwiz/Reuters)

For the villagers in Kandahar, America’s reversal is a kind of redemption for Canada. Most admit that Canada’s military and development projects failed to produce the kinds of tangible results they had hoped for, but they say the intangibles of the Canadian presence helped to convince many of those who support the Taliban that not all foreigners are out to destroy their country. The Canadians, they add, were aware of the fact that at some point there would need to be negotiations with the Taliban, and they operated with that in mind.

Many also believe, rightly or wrongly, that the U.S. tried to actively undermine that strategy with the 2009 surge. And any mention of Canada today among local elders in Kandahar elicits a mixture of respect and empathy, and an equal measure of hatred for the United States.

“It was a tough fight for [the Canadians],” says Haji Gul Muhammad, a member of Panjwai’s district council. “We could see they were trying to help the local people. They weren’t like the Americans, who would punish entire villages for any Taliban attack. The Canadians were more selective in their responses to attacks. They were more interested in making sure they had a good relationship with the locals. But the Taliban were strong at that time. People were afraid to co-operate with the Canadians.”

On the development front, too, local aid workers say that Canada has learned its lessons. One of the key mistakes troops made when they first arrived was trying to do too much too quickly by building schools and clinics in communities that had never had anything like them. “You need to build an understanding of what education and health care means before you can build the structures to support them,” says Mohammad Ehsan, the head of programs for the Human Resources Development Agency, a non-governmental organization that runs development projects in Kandahar funded by the Canadian government. “Canada understands this now.”

A market built by Canadians sits abandoned in Pashmul village in Kandahar’s Zhari district, west of Kandahar city. Many of Canada’s building projects in Kandahar’s districts, including schools and clinics, have been abandoned, in part because instability prevented people from making use of them. (Photograph by Adnan Khan)

What the world appears to be realizing is what Brig. Gen. Grant knew when he first met with Panjwai’s tribal elders in 2006: that long-term peace will only come from negotiation. Indeed, the latest version of the local police force he was trying to set up, now branded the ALP, is succeeding, largely because there is now a unity of purpose, according to locals—a desire for peace.

Canada may well have originally taken on Kandahar for the wrong reasons—to prove something to the world, or to satisfy the U.S.—and the mission itself may well have been problematic. But the sacrifices Canadian soldiers made have not been wasted. Indeed, the approach the Canadians took in Kandahar, and the tactics and strategies they were forced to use when they found themselves out of their depth, were in some ways prescient. The peace Kandahar enjoys today has a remnant of Canada embedded in it. 

“I’ll tell you why the Canadians lost so many people here,” says Haji Lal Muhammad, Nakhonay’s elder. “They were the only foreigners who really wanted to build Afghanistan—not the Americans, not the British. They came here and took risks no one else would take. They respected us and tried to help us. They really cared about Afghanistan.”

Kandaharis remember. And that, at least, is something.