Certain times call for plain language. The assessment of the chaotic end of Western engagement in Afghanistan is one such moment.
The Canadian and British parliaments recently tabled committee reports on the war in Afghanistan and the tumultuous withdrawal of Western forces. Only one of them offers a startling example of the kind of brutal self-reflection that is supposed to be at the heart of our democratic system.
“The international withdrawal from Afghanistan has been a disaster in terms of its planning, execution and consequences for the UK’s wider interests,” the UK Foreign Affairs Committee wrote in its final report, published on May 22. 2022.
“It was a betrayal of our partners in the country and, worst of all, it undermined the security of the UK by encouraging our enemies to act against us.”
And those were just the first two sentences of a blistering 60-page report that unflinchingly dissected Britain’s evacuation efforts and how Afghanistan’s allies left it to its fate. .
Western military involvement in Afghanistan ended in August 2021 when allied nations, led by the United States, completed their withdrawal.
The two-week airlift that pulled Western troops out of the country brought with it scenes of despair and horror. At first, people desperate to flee the Taliban regime flooded the Kabul airport tarmac and some died after clinging to a departing plane.
“The former head of the armed forces told us the decision to step down was ‘strategically illiterate and morally bankrupt’, while the former national security adviser called it ‘poor policy, poorly implemented. ‘” says the UK Foreign Affairs Committee report. “This is an act of strategic self-harm.”
The UK committee’s report, endorsed by members of the ruling and opposition parties, added that the decision to leave Afghanistan “damaged the reputation of the UK and its allies, and will affect the [U.K.] ability of the government to achieve its foreign policy objectives for the years to come”.
Imagine hearing that kind of candid assessment from Canadian parliamentarians or senior defense and security officials.
In fairness, two former Canadian generals, other former members of the military and representatives of humanitarian organizations gave frank and lucid testimony on the situation in Canada Special Committee on Afghanistan over the past few months.
But when it came time for a committee of Canadian parliamentarians to speak truth to power, the outcome was decidedly more restrained.
“While the exact moment at which Taliban ascendancy became inevitable could not have been predicted with certainty, the Special Committee believes that greater caution – and, therefore, a more proactive approach – was warranted in response. to Afghanistan’s clearly worsened trajectory,” it read. the assessment of the Special Committee on Afghanistan — buried on page 38 of its 86-page report, which was tabled without much fanfare last week.
While the phrase “greater caution” may sound like fight words for Ottawa’s bureaucracy, it’s probably cold comfort to the thousands of Afghans who believed in what countries like Canada were doing. in Afghanistan and who had to flee for their lives. Some of them are still at large.
“The testimonies highlighted the danger faced by those associated with the international coalition. Given the history of the Taliban and their long campaign against coalition forces and the Afghan republic, the risks were known,” says the Canadian parliamentary report.
The call for “greater caution” may also be a bitter pill to swallow for tens of thousands of military and non-military Canadians whose lives have been forever changed by more than a dozen years of war.
“The Special Committee recognizes the complexities and dangers of operating the airlift from Kabul, and commends those who made it possible,” the Canadian parliamentary report said.
“At the same time, he believes that long before August 15, 2021, the risks associated with the Taliban should have compelled greater urgency and a more systematic policy and planning effort across the Canadian government to help people to get to safety before it becomes much more difficult to do so.”
It’s a typical Canadian approach — polite and low-key — to a humanitarian disaster.
The report of the committee of the House of Commons of Canada dwells on the “mechanism [of] government” and its systemic failures while ostensibly avoiding judgment or pointing fingers – a stark contrast to the tone of the UK report
“There were systemic failures in intelligence, diplomacy, planning and preparedness which raise questions about the machinery of government, principally the National Security Council,” the UK Parliament report said. “The British government has failed to shape or respond to Washington’s decision to step aside, despite giving 18 months’ notice.”
The British report adds that while other allies found it difficult to predict the speed of the Taliban takeover, “the fact that it surprised many, including the militants themselves, does not excuse failures. of the UK, but rather makes it more urgent to identify where its intelligence gathering, analysis and planning has failed.”
You don’t find such a stark record in the Canadian report.
In fact, the Canadian special committee suggested that Global Affairs, the Department of National Defense and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada appeared to have taken steps to shield themselves from criticism.
“Some departments conducted an internal lessons learned exercise or after action review,” the Canadian parliamentary report said.
“However, the results of these exercises were not reported to the Special Committee, and it was not clear that a formal, comprehensive, whole-of-government review had been conducted.”
When the British committee found itself at a standstill – particularly on issues relating to the evacuation from Afghanistan of a British charity for homeless animals – it did not hesitate to challenge the British Foreign Office in its final report for lack of transparency.
“The FCDO has repeatedly given us answers which we believe are at best intentionally evasive and often deliberately misleading,” the UK report said.
Federal law interfering with aid delivery, MPs say
In addition to examining the evacuation and resettlement of Afghan refugees, the Canadian parliamentary committee heard from humanitarian groups that federal anti-terrorism legislation is impeding the delivery of aid to Afghanistan, where the economy is shrinking. has collapsed and where more than three quarters of the population will soon fall below the poverty line.
The Taliban is on Canada’s list of terrorist entities and the prevailing view is that indirect payments to Afghanistan in any form would risk violating the Criminal Code.
Canada is alone among its allies in not creating an exemption for charitable work.
This is where the House of Commons committee came closest to a warning.
“The Special Committee wishes to communicate that it does not believe that Canada taking its own policy, regulatory and legislative measures to facilitate legitimate humanitarian action would amount to legitimizing the Taliban,” the Canadian report said.
“The Special Committee, as stated, appreciates the complexity of this situation. However, it is concerned that many months have passed since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, when the needs of the population are known to be shouting.”
That’s an understatement. As many as 23 million people in Afghanistan are now at risk of starvation.
International Development Minister Hajit Sajjan told the committee earlier this spring that he could not provide a timeline for addressing the issue, but assured MPs that Global Affairs Canada “is working with Justice and Public Safety to determine the best step forward”.
As Canada debates its next steps, the British parliamentary committee — in a flash of goodwill in an otherwise searing report — praised Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government for sending officials to Kabul twice and having seized “every opportunity that presents itself to sit down with” the Taliban at the ministerial level outside of Afghanistan.
Johnson, according to the report, decided there was “no point” in the UK “staying away”.