A wrecked Canadian helicopter near Kandahar in 2011 as a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter hovers in the background (Photo: United States Marine Corps).

Yesterday morning, the New York Times reported the Taliban is on the cusp of total victory in Afghanistan. 

The Times being the Times, of course, it didn’t put it quite that way. 

Former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien (Photo: Jason Paris, Creative Commons).

“The Taliban Close In on Afghan Cities, Pushing the Country to the Brink,” said the American national newspaper of record in its eccentrically anachronistic headline style. 

The Times explained that members of the Islamic political and military movement the United States drove out of power in 2002 and has been at war with ever since “have been encroaching on key cities around Afghanistan for months, threatening to drive the country to its breaking point and push the Biden administration into a no-win situation just as the United States’ longest war is supposed to be coming to an end.”

With the characteristic purblindness of those close to the imperial centre, the Times called Taliban encirclement of Kandahar and other Afghan centres a “brazen offensive.” 

There is nothing brazen about it, of course. It is merely the final act, or next to it, in a 20-year resistance to the American invasion in the fall of 2001, which was supposedly mounted in response to the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001. 

Kandahar fell to American special forces and their Afghan allies that year on Dec. 7, already a significant date in U.S. military history. 

The first Canadian soldiers got involved that same month. The Liberals were in power in Ottawa and would be for another two years. Jean Chrétien was prime minister. We need to remember that when we condemn Stephen Harper, quite rightly, for his Conservative government’s enthusiasm for Canada’s long, costly and doomed participation in that war. 

Canadians would fight and die there until March 2014.

Former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper (Photo: Centre for International Policy Studies).

And for what? We owe it to the 40,000 Canadian soldiers who served in Afghanistan, 158 of whom were killed along with a half dozen Canadian civilians, and the thousands who were maimed physically, mentally and spiritually, to ask ourselves this question.

We were told our soldiers were risking their lives to achieve rights for Afghan women, education for girls, creation of a real Western-style democracy, and other “nation-building initiatives.” 

Mr. Harper told Canadians our soldiers were “helping rescue Afghanistan and its long-suffering people from violence and oppression.” Did he really believe that? 

Who can forget how in 2008 Mr. Harper’s Conservatives mocked NDP leader Jack Layton as “Taliban Jack” for daring to suggest we should talk to the Taliban? Conservative Peter MacKay, then the minister of finance, sniped, “is it next going to be tea with Osama bin Laden? This cannot happen.”

Mr. Layton, who died in 2011 after leading his party to within sight of government in Ottawa, was remarkably graceful about the serial defamation he endured. When another of Mr. Harper’s forgettable foreign affairs ministers, Lawrence Cannon, admitted in 2010 the Taliban had a role to play, Mr. Layton resisted the temptation to gloat. “As long as the right thing gets done,” he said, “I don’t really care.”

Alexander the Great of Macedonia, founder of Kandahar, pictured in mosaic tile in the House of the Faun, Pompeii (Image: Public Domain).

Were any of our soldiers’ tactical gains ever sustainable? History – as if anyone pays attention to history – suggests they were not.

Are the people of Afghanistan better off? This seems highly doubtful. But if they are, will they be next month, or next year? 

Will we welcome refugees driven out by Taliban rule to Canada? 

Importantly, should we be in a hurry ever again to join American military adventures abroad? Because, for all the blood and treasure we spent, the “new Afghanistan” sure looks a hell of a lot like the old Afghanistan.

And very soon, it will look even more like it. 

Yes, even yesterday the Times was pushing U.S. President Joseph Biden to reverse the Trump Administration’s policy of swiftly leaving Afghanistan at last.  

“If the Biden administration honours the withdrawal date, officials and analysts fear the Taliban could overwhelm what’s left of the Afghan security forces and take control of major cities like Kandahar in a push for a complete military victory or a broad surrender by the Afghan government in the ongoing peace negotiations,” its story warned. 

But if they stay, that will only put off the day. 

The Afghans – skilled fighters, patient and tenacious, motivated by religious faith, and inheritors of a long martial tradition – drove out Alexander the Great (who is said to have founded Kandahar), the Mongols under Genghis Khan, the Mughals, the Persians, the Sikhs, the British, and the Soviets, among others. 

What other than second-hand imperial hubris made us think that we could be any different? 

Join the Conversation


  1. I suppose Afghanistan falls into one of those “its complicated” situations. I understand how the west came to be involved, after all blowing up the World Trade Centre did lead to consequences. I also understand that once the west came in and took over – the easy part, the next thought was to plan to fix the problem and then leave. Of course plans don’t always turn out as hoped.

    I suppose different people came to the conclusion at different times that nation building, or whatever was intended, was not working out and it was becoming a quagmire. Of course then the problem becomes how to extricate ones self as gracefully as possible, without making things worse. Again, I am sure different people had different ideas, so perhaps in the absence of any meaningful consensus it turned into doing nothing. Of course, that only postpones resolving things and improves nothing.

    Maybe if we went into Afghanistan with clearer ideas, firmer plans and time liness for withdrawal, things might have went better. Probably the same outcome, but we might have saved 10 years or so of grief. Yes, the hubris of the west is a big part of the problem here. We really can not fix or save other countries from their own problems. They have to do it for themselves.

  2. Passchendaele and Dieppe came to mind as I read David’s article. Maybe a better question would be what conflicts have been worth it? WWII was, but it was only necessary because of the travesty of WWI.

  3. The “Afghans” (there were no Afghans in 330 B.C.) did not drive out Alexander. In fact, they didn’t even drive out his Successors; there was a Greek kingdom in what was then called Bactria for three centuries after Alexander’s death. The end of the Greek kingdom was brought about by Kushan invaders, not the “indigenous” Bactrians. This is not new knowledge, yet for some reason the myth of Alexander’s defeat by the Afghans has persisted in the Left, perhaps because of a deep-seated desire for the power of the people to be greater than the Man’s technology. However, as Che Guevara once observed, the truth is always revolutionary. In this case, the truth is that the Greek language and Greek influence in much of what is now Afghanistan survived until the Muslim invasion of the seventh century A.D.

    1. Afghans did exist 330 B.C., and in fact, their existence predates that date. Term Afghan originates from the name of the “Aśvakan” or “Assakan”, who were the ancient inhabitants of the Hindu Kush region where the Afghans/Pashtuns largely still live today.

      Put differently, the name Aśvaka/Aśvakan or Assaka is derived from the Sanskrit Aśva or Prakrit Assa and it denotes someone connected with the horses, hence a horseman, or a cavalryman[2][3][4] or horse breeder.[5] The Aśvakas were especially engaged in the occupation of breeding, raising and training war horses, as also in providing expert cavalry services. The name of the Aśvakan or Assakan has been preserved in that of the modern Afghān. With regards to how old it is, the word “Afghan” is a variance of the term “Arian” and is as old as the latter (authors of Avesta, and Sanksrits themselves underline regions of Kabul, and other parts of Afghanistan as their homeland). Moreover, a recently discovered Bactrian (Afghan) document in the Greek script from the 4th century also mentions the word Afghan (αβγανανο): “To Ormuzd Bunukan ,the chief of the Afghans.”

      According to philologist J.W. McCrindle, the name Aśvaka, “The name of the Aśvaka indicates that their country was renowned in primitive times, as it is at the present day, for its superior breed of horses. The fact that the Greeks translated their name into “Hippasioi” (from ἵππος, a horse) shows that they must have been aware of its etymological signification.” This now takes me to your other point regarding the myth about Alexander’s defeat, which is far from being a myth.

      With regards to Kushans, they replaced the Ionian (Greek) style of writing to Bactrian (King Kanishka famously coined this in his first mint of currencies), and sought to unite the different religions that existed. Kushan’s modern direct descendants are Afghans. There is a widespread myth promulgated that Kushans were not native or that they were invaders, in fact, Kushans famously claimed to be of Arian descent, and Bactria (Balkh, in northern Afghanistan) was the capital of the first kingdom of ancient Arian tribes, hence why, Afghanistan was known as Ariana in antiquity. With regards to Alexander’s defeat specifically, I could continue writing, but I think there is a video about “ancient greek state in Afghanistan” on youtube which highlights Alexander’s defeat there.

      Other than that, I suggest you look into the Cophen campaign conducted by Alexander the Great in the Kabul (Sanskrit: “Kubha”) Valley between May 327 BC[1] and March 326 BC.[2] It was conducted against the Aspasioi, the Guraeans, and the Assakenoi of Arrian tribe., evidently referring to Afghans.


  4. FM3-24. The US field manual on counter-insurgency warfare. Written by a team of military and civilian experts headed by a then unknown David Petraeus. It digested the wisdom of asymmetric warfare gleaned as far back as Caesar’s conquest of the Gauls. FM3-24 laid out what worked and what was doomed to failure for a conventional army engaged in guerrilla warfare.

    I bought a copy of FM3-24 and, sure enough, it was all there. All the wisdom of two millennia. What went wrong in Viet Nam, how the French made a mess in Algeria, the lot. What I found most impressive was the candour, especially when the authors explored how easily a conventional army with massive superiority in personnel, communications and weaponry could be defeated in this David versus Goliath warfare.

    And then, having gathered the wisdom of the ages, the manual was shelved. We reverted to tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, artillery, helicopters, strike fighters and drones the tactics that have repeatedly been shown to fail. Staging out of garrisons and the odd fire base, we dominated territory only when we sallied out on patrols and then scurried back inside the wire, leaving the civilians unprotected, handing the night to the insurgents. We did what the French did first in Algeria, then in Indo-China, and what the Americans did in Viet Nam and, surprise, we got the same results.

    FM3-24 described counter-insurgency as the most difficult, costly and protracted type of warfare. It required massive numbers of troops in the field, enough to secure the civilian population round the clock. You couldn’t just dabble in their lives. Using their formulae, it appeared the Kandahar gig required a combat force, boots on the ground, in the order of 15,000 to 20,000 gun totin’ soldiers in addition to their materiel and support personnel. We went in with a combined force, combat and support, of a paltry 2,500 and we achieved the entirely predictable outcome.

    Our troops fought bravely. The fault is not theirs. They were let down by the generals and the colonels who, as far as I can tell, wanted to play soldier with the big boys, their American idols. And so a gaggle of illiterate farmboys armed with Korean-era small arms handed us our asses. They’ve been doing this for centuries.

    Did we achieve the objectives so boastfully stated by Harper? No. Were we defeated? We certainly failed to achieve Harper’s grandiose objectives on which he justified this ill conceived adventure, and so, yes, we were defeated? It was a combined failure of those at the top of the political and military pyramids. That’s why we’ve never held a post mortem and probably never shall.

  5. Quote: “The September 11 attack provided the Cheney-Bush team with the opportunity to use the US military to pave the way for Big Oil’s long-sought Afghan oil route.”
    “Afghanistan: It’s About Oil”
    And more here:
    “A Pipeline Through A Troubled Land: Afghanistan, Canada, And The New Great Energy Game”
    Was it worth it for Canada? Did we win? No.
    And, yes, the federal NDP’s ‘Taliban Jack’ (Layton) was exactly correct.

  6. Let’s go back to basics. The Taliban are basically the Pashtun ethnic group comprising of 42% of the population and are located mainly in the south. When the US chased out the Taliban after 9/11 (btw the Taliban had nothing to do with that attack) they installed a government filled with Tajiks and other ethnic groups from the north. The Taliban were never going to take orders from them, simple as that.

    What the afghan gov’t succeeded in doing was turning the country into an opium powerhouse, supplying the majority of the world’s heroin needs. This is in sharp contrast to early 2001 when the Bush Administration was lavishing praise on the Taliban for almost eradicating the opium trade.

    On a related topic I wonder how much lucrative heroin is flying out of Afghanistan on US military planes each day. This is what they mean when they say any talk of withdrawing from Afghanistan is “complicated.”

    1. This is an important part of the story, Ronmac, that I intentionally left out of today’s post because I do try my best to keep them short. The Pashtun ethnic group is the largest in the country – the figure I recently saw was 48 per cent of the population, or about 15.4 million people in Afghanistan, plus close to 43 million next door in Pakistan. Obviously, you’ll never have a successful government, imposed or otherwise, if you leave out the largest ethnic group in a country, which is exactly what our American friends immediately did. You’ll obviously have trouble controlling a border when the cousins of the people you are fighting are right across the line. I hesitate to use the term, because it is so loaded, but the Taliban effectively became the Pashtun resistance. Another point I left out is that the more agrarian and technologically undeveloped a country is, the harder it is to subdue over the long term. Urban populations can be swiftly conquered and made to stay that way. People with less to lose, not so much. DJC

  7. Recall that the US pressured Canada to join with them into the Iraq quagmire and Jean Chretien had to send our military to Afghanistan instead to placate Uncle Sam. Then when asked in 2011, Stephen Harper happily had Canada join in with France and the USA to bomb Libya – and we can all see how well that turned out. These days the US is scrambling for partners in her aggressive pursuits and is even more assertive in the “Either you’re with us or against us” type of diplomacy. What is Canada going to do when the US wants us to join another “coalition of the willing” in a war against say Iran?

    Of course this hopefully wouldn’t involve boots on the ground but we need to recognize what tying our ship to a waning empire like the US is costing us, some in blood but always in treasure. Canada’s positions on the international scene are flat-out war mongering. Is that what Canadians want?

  8. It was a war that was not fought to be won, and IMO that was obvious in real time. And, to be fair, if you are going to fight a way that is not being fought for victory, Afghanistan is one of the best places in the world to do so.

  9. Was Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan worth it? Short answer, for the short term, is, ‘no.’ Longer answer, for the longer term, is, ‘it has to be.’

    Like it or not, realpolitik means the two biggest Anglo-Saxmaniacal nations are welded together, mouse-to-elephant, in an historically unique relationship that’s longer, broader and deeper, if not older, than any other on earth, making Canada different than any of its ostensible NATO allies, all of which took part in the Afghan Occupation. Startled from bed when the radio alarm reported a plane hit the Twin Towers, I rushed to the living room TV just in time to review the second impact, minutes after it happened. My wife and I sat in our PJs, glued to the tube for the rest of the day wondering what it all meant for Canada. The impression was that it would mean something, for sure. And it has.

    Initially the consensus was: if fundamentalist Islamic insurgents could hoof the world hegemon in its vitals, then all of its allies, if not all countries, were under threat. That rationale for counterattack endured weeks of muddled of Middle East diplomacy particularly bewildering to conspiracy theorists who wouldn’t know an Arab from a Persian from a Pashtun. But most allies acquiesced to US meta-tactical strikes to soften the Afghan theatre for invasion, presumably because they recognized some benefit —or at least some cost-savings—to their joint defence strategy. All agreed the US would contribute the lion’s share, not only as hegemonic duty, but as a ‘right of revenge.’ Most nations were okay with that at the time— Canada too. It is the basest of human sentiment. It’s what al Q’aeda believed it was justified in doing.

    Prime Minister Chretien is said to have been a wily politician. Was he prescient that military deployment in Afghanistan would soon include Iraq? Not that he had any doubts or reluctance about defending with utmost resolve a NATO ally which had been attacked, as most North Atlantic nations are treaty-bound to do for each other, but would it have been more difficult to decline President George W Bush’s call to arms in Iraq (which hadn’t attacked the US, much the opposite) had Chretien been any less than enthusiastic in the Afghan theatre? Canada didn’t get near the vitriolic resentment France got for declining too—although I thought I heard Canada Dry sales tanked in the US.

    Britain, of course, signed up for Iraq; it does have some history there, naturally, but it was rather a case that the UK needs the US more than the reverse, whereas the US needs Canada, not for its military muscle, but for the gigantic amount of trade between the two countries—largest in history: Bush didn’t make too much of his disappointment. Chretien’s popularity, however, was propelled upward by shining on Iraq, but neither was it dragged down by deploying in Afghanistan. Canadians are proud of their armed forces’ contribution to the Afghanistan, but also of Chretien for telling Bush where to go. It’s the thing Chretien will be most remembered for. Iraq.

    Harper got to wear opprobrium over Afghanistan, not because citizens had lost respect for their military men and women killed or wounded there, but because he treated veterans, many grievously wounded for life, with disrespect. While cheeping out on pensions and rehab, he spent tens of millions on War of 1812 celebrations–-like, from two generations before Canada was even a country (I was raised smack in the middle of that theatre and, believe me, never once saw that War celebrated —or even much commemorated). Veterans—formerly reliable Conservative voters—organized ‘Anybody-But-Conservative’ campaigns right across the country in retaliation (but not before pleading their complaints at length to a deaf government), and they doubtlessly contributed to Harper’s defeat. Plainly they weren’t thanking him for withdrawing Canadian troops from the war.

    Canada learned a lot from the Afghan experience, much of tragedy and much of strategy, both memorably strong and honourable. Canada is bound to our closest neighbour and greatest ally in more ways than treaty. There was no shilly-shallying, cost/benefit analysis, no “say, what about the Brits in Khyber Pass or, my gawd, the Soviets!” We had to pile in with our American cousins. If all that wasn’t achieved in Afghanistan weighs heavily against our country’s contribution, neither Canada nor the US is strategically diminished. It’s not much. The Afghan people, however, have suffered so much more for not much: the Taliban are poised to come back. Benefit? Doubtful they’ll invite into their country fundamentalist mujahideen to train and plan terrorist attacks against powerful military alliances with remote-controlled destructive power. Perhaps there will finally be peace, if of the most oppressive kind. And, surely, there will be revenge when the last foreign troops depart.

    I think we witnessed—hopefully learned from—a revenge operation most nations initially considered justifiable, but which knocked on to a separate revenge attack which wasn’t. There was no sincere democratizing rationale in either place and soon after supposedly “justifiable” revenge for the Twin Towers was meted out, the opportunity for “honourable” withdrawal slowly, slowly tanked. The ultimate presidunce, tRump, despicably perused his own celebrity and abandoned Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians who trusted the US to help them hold off extremist guerrillas who’ve lain in ambush their entire lives. Departing US troops cried tears at the fates of their native allies this betrayal will surely bring. Many of these vets contributed to tRump’s electoral defeat.

    Finally, I think the Afghan people who helped the Taliban fighters are owed something, just like the Kurds whom US soldiers abandoned to their fates at the hands of ISIS. Plainly they’ll be punished when their enemies emerge from their hiding places. Plainly they have to be evacuated. There’s only one honourable way out of this. There has to be.

    1. How about we send our subs over to patrol the South China Sea? Or maybe some “advisors” to help Ukraine pound Donbass? Chrystia Freeland would like that. Maybe we’re not up to wrestling with a bear or a dragon? How about we join with the US to invade evil Venezuela, look at what wrecking that country would do to protect our oil industry from competition? Wait, we’re already accomplishing this without the foot soldiers.

      Was Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan worth it? No it was not, and we need to remember that.

  10. The track record of Western governments in “nation-building” after defeating & occupying an enemy isn’t very good. The last successful examples are Italy, Japan & [West] Germany after the Second World War, all three of which became functioning democracies of one sort or another in the years after being occupied by the victorious Allies.

    Since then, though, no country defeated by the US & the Western alliance, & subsequently occupied by US &/or Allied troops, has made the same transition. I don’t have the political science or geopolitical knowledge to know why that is so, or why the approach was successful in those three former Axis countries but nowhere else, but the fact remains that this is true.

    So, was Afghanistan worth it? Had the US & its coalition partners’ war aims been more limited, to dethroning the Taliban & punishing their leaders for harbouring Al-Quaeda, perhaps it might have been. But trying to create a liberal democracy in that country, with its long history of tribalism & strife, was a Bridge Too Far, IMHO. In addition, the mission was tainted when the G W Bush Administration invaded Iraq on the thin & false pretence that it had “weapons of mass destruction”, or “WMD”. Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, & few mourn his demise, but that war was a bad idea poorly executed.

    1. Your sentence, “But trying to …… liberal democracy….a bridge too far”. Reminds me of a spousal unit back when Russia was in there fighting. their analysis was, the Russians will never win. The Afghans have always fought, if not outsiders, they fight between themselves, they’re tribal. They considered the Afghans very, very good fighters. never did ask how they knew what they knew, but give their travels,………..

  11. When the Americans and other countries went into Afghanistan they obviously didn’t look at the history books. I remember when the Americans “invaded” thinking, they won’t win. The Russians couldn’t do it, so the AMericans won’t be able to either. At least the Russians didn’t have to worry all that much about public back lash, but eventually it did come from the families of the dead. Afghanistan is Afghanistan and it isn’t a country which can be “conquered”. Its hard terrain to fight in, if you don’t know the place. The people who live there have been fighting for centuries. Things have not improved over all.

    When the Americans went in, much was made of the violation of women’s rights. Yes, there are huge problems for women under Taliban rule. Easy solution, if women want to leave, provide them safe passage to another country with enough money to establish themselves. Its cheap, easy, saves lives, etc. But that is not what other countries want. First the Americans wanted to flex a little muscle. Second, the war machine wanted to make money. third, when a country is at war, for the first couple of years every one is focused on that and not the internal problems of their own countries.

    I really have to laugh about western country’s concerns for women’s rights in Afghanistan, especially the U.S.A. Just have a look at the stats for deaths of women of colour, the lack of health care, the higher mortality rate for babies and pregnant women, lack of services for rape victims, lower salaries for women, sexual harassment by men and getting away with it, hello donald trump. In Canada, we just have to look at how Indigenous women are treated. Not much better than the women in Afghanistan.

    Afghanistan will never be conquered. Lets not waste any more lives. I’m sure Stevie boy felt like he was one of the boys when he sent Canadians to their deaths, but I did notice Stevie didn’t go to fight and neither did any of the cabinet. They just stay home where its safe and warm.

  12. The purpose of modern wars is purely to use up some of the weapons that the US buys from weapon and munitions suppliers so it can keep these industries going, nothing more.

  13. I agree with much of this post as it relates to recent history, but as for your ancient and medieval history: , In what particular alternative reality did the Afghans drive out Alexander the Great or the Mongols under Chinggis Khan? I leave aside the anachronism in tracing the present-day state of Afghanistan to the time of Alexander the Great or Chinggis Khan, despite the numerous peoples who have made their homes there in the intervening eras, and the constantly fluctuating boundaries of the different polities in the region. Sticking for the moment with Chinggis Khan, the vast majority of the present-day state of Afghanistan was fully brought into the Chinggisid empire under Chinggis – Herat, for instance, was almost completely destroyed, and its population moved to present-day Xinjiang. After the collapse of the Chinggisid empire into four khanates, the territory of present-day was divided between the Ilkhanate and the Chaghataid khanate – both successor states were governed by a Chinggisid ruling class. The people of what is now called Afghanistan did not drive out the Mongols – when the Ilkhanate and the Chaghataid khanates collapsed, leaving successor states that inherited some aspects of these earlier formations, and abandoned others – and of course Herat became a key centre of the Timurid empire. The same is true of Alexander the Great – Afghanistan was brought into his empire as Bactria, and after the death of Alexander, was initially brought under the control of the Seleucid empire. The Greeks were not driven out of Bactria. Rather, the Greek kingdom of Bactria that followed the Seleucid empire was gradually absorbed into new empires over the centuries, until the Greek element lost its distinctiveness.

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