Last week’s ceremonial lowering of the Canadian flag in Kabul for the last time proved to be the catalyst for most major media outlets to reflect on the 12-year deployment.
The first and most obvious question asked of the various analysts and stakeholders was invariably, “Was it worth it?”
The costs we can easily identify at 158 soldiers, two civilians, one diplomat and one journalist killed; some 2,000 soldiers wounded and injured; and an estimated $22-billion expenditure when you also factor in longtime medical care for ill and disabled veterans.
Against those staggering sums, the usual apologists for the mission thump their tubs in unison in declaring that our losses were indeed “well worth it.” However, no sane person could possibly claim that our troops left Afghanistan a safer place than when we first sent soldiers there in February 2002.
On Wednesday, the very day Canadian soldiers turned out the lights and locked the door behind them, Swedish reporter Nils Horner, an old friend and colleague of mine, was executed in broad daylight on the streets of Kabul. Horner was shot at the bomb site outside a restaurant where two Canadians and 14 others were killed Jan. 17.
While most media outlets were aware the final pullout for the Canadian Forces was taking place that day, Defence Department public affairs officers pleaded with reporters to keep the date secret until after the fact, as they feared the Taliban might use the information to attack the convoy on its way to the Kabul airport.
So Afghanistan is definitely not any safer, despite our best attempts. That left tub-thumpers to point out the improvements that have been made in terms of advancing education and women’s rights, and incredible numbers were thrown into the debate to make the case that we have indeed made substantial progress.
Chris Alexander, the former ambassador to Afghanistan and current minister of citizenship and immigration, is one of the most vocal advocates on this topic. In interviewing him Feb. 21 for CPAC’s just-released documentary Afghanistan: Outside the Wire — End Game, Alexander claimed there are “nine million kids in school.”
In an interview with CTV’s Don Martin on Wednesday, Alexander had reduced that figure to claim “there are nearly eight million kids in school.” In an editorial penned for the Globe and Mail on Friday, CBC journalist Melissa Fung and retired captain Trevor Greene wrote that “crucially, there are now 10 million children in school.”
While I have the utmost respect for Fung and Greene — she bravely endured captivity at the hands of Afghan kidnappers, and he suffered a debilitating head wound at the hands of an axe-wielding attacker — and I fully support their expressed sentiment that Canada should not turn its back on Afghanistan now that our troops have left, I have to call them and Alexander on their numbers.
The population of Afghanistan is about 30 million, so simple math makes their claims impossible. There are just not that many children.
More realistically, the highest claim from the United Nations estimates the number of children in school to be around six million. While there may in fact be close to 200,000 teachers employed across Afghanistan, Tooryalai Wesa, the governor of Kandahar province, admitted to us in an interview that the problem is not the quantity but rather the quality of those in the education system.
“Some of them can barely read or write themselves,” Wesa told us.
The wildly exaggerated claims of success on the schooling front were topped by completely false claims of success in terms of our effort to rebuild infrastructure.
Peter MacKay, former defence minister and current minister of justice, was certainly familiar with our troops’ efforts in Kandahar. In explaining why the mission was worth it, MacKay spoke at length about the success of Canada’s signature project, the Dahla Dam. According to MacKay, it is because of the dam that Afghan farmers are “growing Canadian wheat, they are growing beets and barley and pomegranates, and wine from the grapes that are being produced there.”
When my team filmed at the dam last December, there was very little water in the reservoir, the irrigation canals were clogged with silt and the surrounding farmland was parched brown soil. Furthermore, anyone familiar with Afghanistan’s strict laws prohibiting alcohol would also know immediately that we never built wineries in Kandahar.
So if one wants to believe that there are more Afghan children in school than there are Afghan children, and that the wine is flowing like water in southern Afghanistan, then I guess our soldiers’ sacrifice was worth it.
Unfortunately, the “successes” claimed by MacKay and Alexander are pure fantasy.