A father writes, and then we talk. His son left Edmonton on Wednesday, bound for Kandahar. He’s a sapper with 1 Combat Engineer Regiment. Members of his regiment have been going to Kandahar since 2006. Six have not made it home alive.
“My heart is in my throat,” the father says. He worries for his son, who is heading into danger, and he worries that others might forget: Canada’s war in Afghanistan is not yet over. The final “shooting” tour ended this week but there’s more work to be done, in Kandahar and elsewhere in Afghanistan. His son is going outside the wire, into volatile places such as Panjwaii district, where 1 CER will remove equipment from forward operating bases and other outposts. It will also patrol the villages, clear routes of improvised explosive devices and destroy unwanted ordnance, all things its predecessors did.
At Kandahar Airfield (KAF) meanwhile, weapons, communications devices and vehicles will be sorted, cleaned and packed. Aircraft will be prepared for their hopscotch journeys home. A memorial to Canada’s fallen soldiers will be carefully dismantled and sent in pieces to Ottawa.
One mission winds down. Another begins. Almost 1,000 Canadian soldiers are joining Operation Attention, officially — and vaguely — described as an effort to train and advise senior Afghan police officers and soldiers.
Most of the Canadians are already deploying to Kabul. Others will travel in the autumn to more unfamiliar places: Herat, a province that borders Iran, and Mazar-e-Sharif, a province in the north. They’ll face more challenges, more uncertainties and more threats. That operation is to last three years, and will require several rotations of soldiers.
Work has just begun, too, for young Canadian war veterans, thousands of them, some damaged, some struggling to cope. How many lives were changed forever, at home and in Afghanistan? What were the prices paid? Who benefitted, and who did not? An accounting has started. It will continue for a long, long time. Remember, says the sapper’s father, nothing is really over yet.
Fresh new faces appeared at KAF in late April. Men and women, young soldiers and older, bureaucratic types, most of them looking thrilled to be in theatre and part of the ground effort at last. Every tear-down team drilled as if it was heading outside to lay a beating on the Taliban. Soon enough, they all experienced their first rocket attack.
Meanwhile, an Operation Attention advance party landed briefly at the airfield before pressing on to Kabul. “Our mission is not totally defined yet,” confessed a public affairs officer assigned to the group. “We’ll be offering mentorship and guidance to the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces]. We’ll be advising Afghan police and army leaders. Other than that…” His voice trailed off.
A few more details emerged later, but there remains a startling lack of clarity around the looming operation. Canadians, meanwhile, seem either unaware or indifferent to it; there’s been no real debate and few questions put to the government that introduced the mission. The same can be said of the bombing campaign over Libya that Canadian Forces have joined. This is surprising, given how divisive the Kandahar combat mission was at home.
Whatever its scope and its purpose, Operation Attention won’t be a walk in the park. Kabul remains one of the most dangerous cities in the world, where the Taliban continue to launch spectacular assaults. Canadian soldiers have died there, as recently as May 2010, when a suicide bomber attacked a military convoy in Kabul, killing 18 people including Colonel Geoff Parker, the highest-ranking Canadian officer to die in Afghanistan.
Most Operation Attention soldiers will be housed and will work at Camp Phoenix, a large, U.S.-led military base adjacent to Kabul’s civilian airport. Camp Phoenix and the airport are common insurgent targets; the most recent attack occurred April 27 when an Afghan air force pilot allegedly recruited by the Taliban went on a shooting rampage at an airport facility. Eight U.S. military trainers and an American contractor were killed in that incident. Three weeks earlier, two suicide bombers blew themselves up at the camp gate.
There have been at least six deadly attacks on NATO-member trainers in Afghanistan this year, and several attacks launched against relief workers. In late March, seven foreigners were killed inside their United Nations office in Mazar-e-Sharif city, where approximately 90 Canadians attached to Operation Attention will be stationed. The Taliban denied responsibility for the Mazar-e-Sharif massacre, claiming it was “a pure act of responsible Muslims.”
Herat, the western Afghan province where another 15 Canadian soldiers will operate under Operation Attention, is considered a relatively peaceful place; even so, the Taliban launched an attack on its capital in late May. Four civilians were killed and 38 wounded when an insurgent bomber blew himself up outside an Italian-led provincial reconstruction team headquarters.
If most Canadians seem unaware of the threats their Operation Attention soldiers face, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has at least given notice. “Obviously in every part of Afghanistan, dangers exist,” Mr. Harper told reporters during his last trip to Kandahar, in May. “We’re not kidding Canadians about this…. It is a violent and dangerous country. There can be attacks that come to the base and from within the base. Obviously we expect these things to be of significantly lower risk than that we’ve experienced in the past.”
Operation Attention is scheduled to end in March 2014, when American and other foreign troops are to begin a complete drawback from Afghanistan. By then, it is hoped, the ANSF will have the manpower, training and equipment to protect Afghanistan from insurgent threats, and its other national institutions will be able to hold together the country and avoid a civil war. Right now, that seems a long shot.
By then, Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan will have cost far more than the $11.3-billion that Ottawa estimates it spent from 2001 to the present. The figure includes all Department of National Defence spending in Afghanistan ($8.8-billion), plus $1.64-billion for the Canadian International Development Agency, $466-million for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and $250-million for Veterans Affairs Canada.
Others have said the real costs are much higher. In a report released three years ago, Canada’s parliamentary budget office suggested the government was understating expenditures in Afghanistan. The report, titled Fiscal Impact of the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan, indicated the final tally, were troop strength to remain at 2,500 through 2011, would approach $18-billion.
The report’s authors also described a number of “challenges” that complicated the job of estimating mission costs. “There are no Afghanistan mission-specific appropriations by the Parliament for the various departments,” they noted. “This makes it impossible to isolate the total amounts of money appropriated by the Parliament, specifically for the Afghanistan mission…. There is a significant lack of fiscal transparency due to the current system of financial reporting…. Although costs are reported by the departments in a few cases, they are not justified with sufficient methodology or explanation, making their utility very subjective and of limited value.”
Veterans Affairs was used as an example. The authors had trouble finding relevant data to assist them in formulating a reliable estimate of the cost of caring for soldiers returning from Afghanistan. The costs accrue from the time the soldiers require care and into the future. “VAC does not report basic financial data specific to the Afghanistan mission, although Canada’s involvement in the Afghanistan mission is a major project and the resulting death, disability, medical and stress-related payments are fiscally material,” the authors noted.
The care afforded to our returning soldiers — our new, young veterans — is everyone’s concern. Anecdotal and documented evidence is not encouraging. There are confirmed reports of Afghan veterans wandering homeless in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside. VAC has launched ad hoc programs to assist them, offering the soldiers a drop-in space where they can pick up food vouchers, for example.
Last year, the department acknowledged that approximately 6,300 Canadian Forces members who have served in Afghanistan were receiving physical or psychiatric disability benefits. However, 4,100 of those veterans received benefits “not necessarily related to the Afghanistan mission,” the department told the Hill Times newspaper in Ottawa.
According to current estimates, almost 2,800 Canadian soldiers have been wounded in Afghanistan or have suffered non-battle injuries there since 2002; the figure includes those veterans diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. Most veterans of the Afghan mission who have qualified for disability payments receive a lump sum, rather than the sort of monthly pension payments allocated previously. Veterans and their advocates have complained that the new lump-sum payments are insufficient.
If there is some solace to be found, some encouragement, it’s how the public treats returning soldiers; witness the crowds gathered at ceremonies honouring their work in Afghanistan and at recent Remembrance Day events, and the outpouring of sympathy for fallen soldiers and their families. And on many minds, a question, the same question: Was it worth it?
It is constantly being asked. Yes, and no, and yes. What are lives worth, and freedom? What has been the real cost? There aren’t any answers, and the mission isn’t over, yet. More Canadians arrived in Afghanistan today. Was it worth it? There’s a better question, etched on a local cenotaph, and it’s meant for every one of us.