At the end of the First World War, Group of Seven founding member and official Canadian war artist Frederick Varley completed his painting For What? The evocative title of Varley’s work, which depicted gravediggers and a cart heaped with corpses amidst a war-ravaged wasteland, conveyed for many Canadians the pointlessness of that bloody imperialist war from a century ago.
The war in Afghanistan, which ended this month in humiliating defeat for U.S. imperialism and its allies including Canada, might have prompted a similar reaction from Varley. After 20 years of war, trillions of dollars spent and hundreds of thousands dead, wounded and traumatized, the Taliban are back in power. The much-vaunted Afghan national army, built up and equipped at enormous cost, practically melted away overnight as the Taliban overran the country.
The speed of the takeover prompted the Canadian embassy in Afghanistan to hastily announce it was “temporarily suspending its operations” as imperialists scrambled to evacuate personnel. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government had “no plans” to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, following a similar declaration by the Conservatives.
Cynical propaganda offensive
Canadian politicians could only stamp their feet and repeat the same tired propaganda long used to justify the war. With boundless hypocrisy, Trudeau said the Taliban had “taken over and replaced a duly elected government by force”, while the Conservatives said that “use of force by the Taliban is completely unacceptable.” As if the previous government had not been imposed by force in 2001 and maintained only through the military power of NATO forces!
Characteristically, Trudeau has shed many crocodile tears over the plight of Afghan women and girls in particular. One might be forgiven for doubting the sincerity of the “feminist” Trudeau’s concern for women and girls, human rights and democracy. After all, this is the same Liberal government that approved billions of dollars’ worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia—one of the world’s most autocratic and repressive regimes, where public executions are commonplace and women are second-class citizens dependent upon male guardians. Canadian weapons sales have helped fuel Saudi Arabia’s genocidal war in Yemen, where the plight of women and girls is evidently less important for Trudeau.
The Canada-backed Afghan government was itself hardly a bastion of equality for women. Consider the infamous “rape law” passed in 2014 under former president Hamid Karzai, which critics said “legalized rape” by removing the need for sexual consent between married couples. The law also restricted a woman’s right to leave the home and offered tacit approval for child marriage.
Any talk of “democracy” in Afghanistan before the return to power of the Taliban was belied by reality. Widespread fraud and accusations of rigging were the norm in Afghan elections. Corruption and nepotism was rife among government and military leaders, who enriched themselves at the public trough as endless amounts of taxpayer dollars from abroad were funneled into propping up the regime. The speed of the government and military collapse in the face of the Taliban onslaught makes clear that this was a government with no real public support and no one willing to fight in its defence.
Capitalist governments wage war for many reasons. Despite official claims, upholding democracy and human rights are not among them. What is the reality of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan?
Canada’s longest war
From 2001 to 2014, Canada deployed more than 40,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and spent $20 billion on military operations and development. A total of 165 Canadians died, including 158 soldiers and seven civilians, while more than 2,000 members of the Canadian Forces were wounded or injured. The war in Afghanistan marked the greatest deployment of Canadian soldiers since the Second World War and was the country’s longest war ever.
The primary reason that Canada went to war in Afghanistan was to support the government of the United States, Canada’s main ally and largest trading partner. The day after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, then-prime minister Jean Chrétien telephoned then-U.S. president George W. Bush to pledge “Canada’s complete support” for the United States. Dozens of Canadian special forces troops participated in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, followed by an infantry battle group assigned to Kandahar in February 2002 to hunt down insurgents.
The importance of Afghanistan to U.S. imperialism lay in its strategic location between Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan and its access to the Caspian oilfields. The majority of Caspian oil is located in Turkmenistan; the only route by which western powers could access this oil was a pipeline cutting through Pakistan and Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean. Afghanistan also sits on large mineral deposits with an estimated worth of $1 trillion, including iron, copper, gold and potentially one of the world’s largest sources of lithium.
Moreover, the Canadian capitalist class was anxious to defend its own imperialist interests on the world stage. As Fightback wrote in 2006:
Corporate Canada is attempting to extend its reach on a world scale to solidify its profits and investments. Military spending has gone up from $15-billion to $20-billion, with a planned increase to $25-billion per year. They do not spend such sums unless they can get a healthy return on the investment. Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has even been a representative of Canadian oil firms wishing to invest in central Asia. Taking on such missions also frees up US troops for other interventions. The largest area of Canadian foreign investment is in US banks and insurance houses. When US imperialism profits from its foreign investments, Canadian capitalists gain a cut of the loot.
Canada’s role in Afghanistan expanded after Ottawa declined to join the United States in its invasion of Iraq. The need to placate U.S. imperialism was front and centre for the Canadian ruling class and its servants in Parliament. In their book The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar, Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang quote Chrétien’s foreign affair minister Bill Graham as saying that “there was no question, every time we talked about the Afghan mission, it gave us cover for not going to Iraq.”
From 2003 to 2005, Canadian battle groups were deployed in Kabul for patrols, policing and to support the Karzai government. From 2006 to 2011, Canadian soldiers were transferred to Kandahar and found themselves once more engaged in open combat against Taliban insurgents.
By 2010, a majority of Canadians opposed the war according to an Angus Reid Public Opinion poll, which noted that 53 per cent of respondents were against the war while only 39 per cent supported it. In addition, 43 per cent of Canadians thought the government had made a mistake in sending troops to fight the Taliban, 44 per cent said they did not have a clear idea of what the war was about, and a mere six per cent thought the war would end in a clear victory by U.S. and NATO forces over the Taliban.
Militarism and war crimes
For a country that had grown accustomed to viewing itself as a nation of “peacekeepers”, the war in Afghanistan represented a shift for the Canadian public. Fighting a full-blown counterinsurgency war meant Canadians began to experience the unfamiliar sight of flag-draped coffins being flown home as the situation deteriorated and casualties mounted. The war led to growing military budgets and a general increase in demonstrations of patriotic militarism and “support the troops” rhetoric, from the Highway of Heroes to special license plates for military veterans.
Yet the reality of the Canadian occupation was laid bare in a war crimes scandal that erupted in 2009 following testimony from Richard Colvin, Canada’s senior diplomat in Afghanistan. During his 17 months stationed in Afghanistan, Colvin had reported directly to the leaders of Canada’s military mission. Testifying to a parliamentary committee, Colvin said that until 2007, all prisoners captured by Canadian soldiers were likely tortured after being handed over to Afghan authorities—and that most of those detained were probably innocent. Colvin described how the actions of the Canadian military mission in effect served as a recruiting tool for the Taliban.
Indeed, the very nature of counterinsurgency warfare—led by foreign troops defending a military occupation and often unable to differentiate insurgents from the broader population—makes such effects inevitable. Canadian soldiers often killed Afghan civilians while on patrol. These patrols involved heavily armed soldiers going door-to-door, searching houses and interrogating those who lived there. For all the talk of “nation-building” and developing infrastructure, Canadian forces often called in U.S. airstrikes that predictably led to mass destruction and wide-scale civilian deaths and suffering. The Canada-led Operation Medusa, a 2006 offensive near Kandahar, forced an estimated 80,000 civilians to flee from their homes. Dozens of civilians were killed in the bombing, which took place weeks after a Canadian soldier killed an elderly Afghan man at a checkpoint. Brigadier Richard Nugee, chief spokesperson for NATO’S International Security Assistance Force at the time, was forced to acknowledge the military’s role in “killing innocent civilians.”
Such revelations further dampened public support for the war despite the support of both the Conservative and Liberal parties and the capitalist media. Against this dwindling support for Canada’s military commitment, which was originally scheduled to end in February 2009, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper extended the mission to 2011, after which the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) would primarily focus on training Afghan troops. The vote to extend the mission passed easily in Parliament thanks to Liberal support. The continuation of this unpopular war by successive Canadian governments—who have no qualms about anti-democratic measures such as proroguing Parliament and taking away workers’ right to strike—reveals much about their supposed commitment to democracy.
Cui bono?—Who benefits?
Canadian combat operations in Afghanistan officially ended in 2011. A small contingent of soldiers remained to train Afghan security forces until 2014, when the Kabul mission closed and Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan officially came to an end.
What was the net gain of all the blood and treasure spilled in this war? For the toiling masses in all countries involved, the war primarily meant loss: loss of life; loss of physical, mental and emotional health; loss of homes; loss of vast quantities of public money funneled into this imperial boondoggle. Those who survived, both soldiers and civilians, were often left with lasting trauma.
The Canadian Forces Base Gagetown Cohort Study in 2011 found that 20 per cent of Canadian military and combat support personnel at the base were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) up to four years after returning from duty. As of March 2020, approximately 17 per cent of Canadian military personnel who took part in the Afghanistan war received a Veterans Affairs Canada pension or disability award for PTSD. For soldiers who died in Afghanistan or who came back with PTSD, and for their families and friends, the traumatic effects of the war continue.
With the fall of Kabul and the victory of the Taliban, the government that Canadian soldiers fought and died to defend is now gone. The painful experience of a lost war is a harvest of sorrow reaped by poor and working class people in Canada, not to mention the long-suffering people of Afghanistan.
But for much of the ruling class in Canada, the criminal war in Afghanistan has proved very lucrative indeed. A common question when identifying crime suspects is cui bono, meaning “who benefits?” Those who benefitted from the Afghan war are the profiteers and corrupt politicians who did very well for themselves through this decades-long crime.
The war led to a massive influx of funds to the Canadian military, to associated think tanks and academics. Military service contractors such as SNC Lavalin and ATCO greatly increased their involvement with the CAF. Private security firms such as Montreal’s Garda massively expanded their size and profits through their role in Afghanistan. Stock prices for U.S.-based “defense” contractors such as Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin—all of which have Canadian subsidiaries—soared over the course of the 20-year war. CAE, Canada’s largest weapons firm, also saw a similar rise as a result of military spending in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan itself, politicians and military leaders in the western-backed government grew wealthy through blatant corruption. Demoralized soldiers in the Afghan national army made do with shoddy equipment, as corrupt contractors used substandard materials, and often went without pay. As foreign funds poured into the country to corrupt warlords and politicians, public officials kept in power by imperialist armies became ever richer and used their exorbitant wealth to enjoy legal impunity.
For these war profiteers, the success or failure of the war in Afghanistan and the widespread suffering that results from such imperialist wars are almost beside the point. The war is chiefly a source to massively enrich themselves. As Leon Trotsky suggested of the First World War, it is the generals and bankers, the politicians and landowners, who need war: “They increase their power, their strength, their wealth by the war. They turn the people’s blood into their masters’ gold.”
Only the Afghan masses can liberate Afghanistan
With the collapse of their puppet government in Afghanistan, U.S. imperialists and their allies in Canada are hypocritically declaring that their focus is now on evacuating people from Afghanistan, “supporting women and girls” and so on. In essence, Canadian politicians are grasping at straws and trying to put a favourable spin on the predictably disastrous outcome of an unwinnable war.
The return to power of the barbarous Taliban reactionaries is the latest in a long line of tragedies for the people of Afghanistan. Yet we must remember that it was U.S. imperialism that armed and funded the Taliban in the 1980s to weaken the USSR during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The policy of supporting Islamists to fight official “enemies” continues to this day, with the Syrian Civil War offering a recent example. The horrors of fundamentalist rule cannot be defeated by imperialism when it is imperialism that supports and empowers these vicious right-wing forces to begin with.
The liberation of the Afghan masses will not come through any outside imperialist power, but only through mobilization of their own forces. Workers in the region in countries such as Pakistan and Iran can play a vital role in helping to liberate Afghanistan. The task of the working class in Canada, as in all imperialist countries, is to overthrow our own ruling class which is responsible for these endless wars based on lies that benefit no one but the rich. Only through the struggle of workers everywhere for socialism, a system based on human need rather than private profit, can we bring the horrors of imperialist war to an end once and for all.