The world has watched images of thousands of Afghans rushing onto the tarmac of Kabul’s international airport, some desperately clinging to airplanes, to escape the capture of their country by the Taliban. Western-backed security forces have collapsed as the Taliban has swept the country, as the last US troops begin their final withdrawal from the country after a 20 year military occupation.

Discussion in the Canadian media has been filled with hand-wringing by pundits who have bemoaned the “failure” of Canada’s efforts to transform the country. But the attempts by the media and political elite to sell the war in Afghanistan as a mission of peace and human rights, now and over the last two decades, has always been a lie.

The war lasted from 2001 to 2014, making it Canada’s longest foreign war. Canadian casualties were relatively few: 159 soldiers were killed and around 2000 injured. By contrast, over 100,000 Afghans were killed as a direct result of the conflict, a substantial portion of them civilians. If one considers the consequences of the war—destruction of crops and infrastructure, disruptions to hospitals and health care, poverty and malnutrition—that number could be as high as 500,000. 

A decade into the war, 70 percent of Afghans were living in extreme poverty. Violence and instability were far worse than they had been before the invasion. The Canadian media regularly reassured Canadians that they were in Afghanistan to promote peace, to stabilize a “failed” state and to promote human rights, especially for women. That Afghan women’s associations rejected this rationale was an uncomfortable disruption to the story. They were typically ignored. 

In Canada, any meaningful dialogue about whether the war itself was good or bad was postponed indefinitely; Canadians’ job was to simply line up behind the men and women who were putting themselves in harm’s way on behalf of the rest of us. But what if the war in Afghanistan was never about protecting Canadians at all? The most important question about the war was precisely the one Canadians were being told to ignore.

The “Afghan mission,” as the Canadian elite typically called it, was launched in response to the attacks against symbolic centres of US power on September 11, 2001, the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. The architect of the attacks was Osama Bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi militant who had once been on the CIA payroll but had turned on his one-time sponsors, resenting the overwhelming US presence in the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia. When US President George W. Bush declared the War on Terror, which would come to shape early 21st-century politics, Canada was quick to get on board, joining the invasion of Afghanistan almost immediately. 

No Afghans had participated in the 9/11 attacks, but US officials claimed that Bin Laden’s organization, Al-Qaeda, had used a network of caves in that country as its base of operations. Accordingly, Afghanistan was to be subject to invasion and occupation with the ostensible aim of capturing Bin Laden, routing his organization and discouraging other countries from “harbouring terrorists.”

Canadian forces conduct an offensive with U.S.-led coalition in Patrol Base Wilson in Afghanistan in 2007. Photo: Cplc Robert Bottrill

Aiding US Empire

The occupation was a catastrophe for average Afghans. The establishment of the puppet government headed up by Hamid Karzai was a boon to capital from the Anglosphere, as US, British and Canadian companies secured lucrative contracts for construction, reconstruction, mining, telecommunications, energy and other industries. Among the Canadian companies that made major profits in Afghanistan after 2001 were Lockheed Martin Canada, Canaccord Financial and SRK Consulting, to say nothing of the massive engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, which seemed to be linked to nearly every Canadian adventure abroad and was briefly embarrassed in the late 2010s by a fraud and bribery scandal. Afghanistan’s resource wealth was estimated at some $3 trillion, and the most notable Canadian investor in the country was Kilo Goldmines, awarded a contract for a massive iron mining deposit at Hajigak.

And while the war brought windfall profits to a range of Canadian companies, its aims were broader than simply to bulge the pockets of Canadian millionaires. The war in Afghanistan – like that in Iraq – was about establishing the architecture of the American Empire in the 21st century. US capital needed a world in which resistance was defeated and demoralized, where local client states could be counted upon to maintain the legal and political conditions ideal for exploitation of labour and resources and where there was a multi-level security apparatus to protect the flow of profits from any possible threats. 

These threats could be anti-capitalist movements, but they could also take the form of general instability – which can upset the logistics of capital accumulation – or interference from rival blocs of capital. Afghanistan, located in a position of strategic importance for the transportation of fossil fuels, could have easily fallen under the sway of America’s capitalist competitors – like Iran, Russia and China – and the war was one way of ensuring America’s continued dominance in the region.

Canada is deeply invested in the maintenance of the American capitalist empire. Canada’s foreign policy across a century and a half had been aimed at protecting and promoting the British and US empires, with a keen understanding that Canada could carve out space for its own ruling classes’ prosperity under that umbrella. Canada’s significant contribution to the war in Afghanistan was to signal to Washington that Canada would “play ball,” sacrificing resources, reputation and working-class lives to maintain the integrity and functionality of the US empire. The payoff for Canada was that it would continue to receive preferential treatment within the empire; this included access to contracts, the sharing of information and a seat at the table where the big decisions would be made. Its participation in wars like Afghanistan was designed to be leveraged for those advantages. 

Indeed, the war also served to transform the military itself, to shed the orientation towards peacekeeping and generate the enthusiasm, funding and firepower to be a full-fledged imperial army again. By 2017, Canada was contributing just 62 of the over 90,000 UN peacekeepers around the world, ranked 72nd in the world by the numbers. This dramatic reduction in Canada’s peacekeeping presence took place alongside an annual military budget that had ballooned from around $12 billion in the 1990s to well over $20 billion per year by the late 2010s. The resources were there, but they were not being put into blue helmets. Canada was being transformed into a “warrior nation.”

Afghan National Army soldiers being trained by Canadian forces in Pol-e-Charkhi, Afghanistan in 2012. Photo: Cplc Marc-Andre Gaudreault

“What the Afghans Need is Colonizing”

In all of these imperial calculations, Afghans’ needs were largely irrelevant in Canada’s plans, which included using its military position in the country to exert considerable control over the Afghan government. Already beholden to the Western occupation to maintain his hold on power, the puppet president, Hamid Karzai, was actually structured into taking orders from Canadian military officials. 

Strategic Advisory Team-Afghanistan (SAT-A) was the deceptively dull title given to a cluster of Canadian military officers who were embedded within the apparatus of the Karzai government. SAT-A was in a position to craft Afghan legislation, and indeed it helped to establish the legal architecture of neoliberalism through which foreign capital was able to reap profits from the country. Part of the reason SAT-A was in a position to exert such influence was that the occupation, when it redesigned the structures of Afghan governance, intentionally created a system wherein real power would rest in the hands of the president. 

Having consciously built a weak democratic system in which the puppet president held most of the power, Canada and its allies then ensured that their puppet did their bidding. The Karzai government welcomed foreign capital, sold off public assets, imposed austerity measures, maintained the power of the local elite and marshalled the limited resources of the Afghan state almost entirely to the violent counterinsurgency and the projection of military force to secure the conditions for foreign exploitation. Needless to say, this was an agenda that served foreign capital, not Afghan people. When Canada offered aid for reconstruction, it often did so only for Afghan communities that agreed to support the Karzai government, playing Afghans against one another and seeking to buy compliance with desperately needed reconstruction aid. 

Even when aid was given, much of it never even got to Afghanistan, being siphoned up by the Canadian NGOs and businesses that had been contracted to provide it. Many of the projects – the construction of schools, for instance – that Canadians were told they were offering to Afghanistan were, in fact, unfinished, dysfunctional or non-existent. In the meantime, in order to manage the growing popularity of the Taliban – popular because it was leading the counterinsurgency – Canada encouraged the Karzai government to make concessions to the religious right; with Canada’s approval, Karzai re-established some of the most repressive and patriarchal laws that had originally been established by the Taliban, from legalizing child marriage and violent reprisals against wives who refused sex, to the marrying of rapists to their victims.

Despite Canada’s being among the authors of this failing apparatus, Canadians were often encouraged, during the course of the war, to think of Afghanistan as a “basketcase” that could not build a functional state. If Canada could not solve Afghanistan’s problems, the argument went, no one could. Certainly not Afghans themselves. The National Post declared in 2001 that “what the Afghans need is colonizing.” That there was surprise at Afghans’ lack of gratitude for Canada’s benevolence was partly a product of the ignorance in which most Canadians were kept about Canada’s vicious means and cynical ends in Afghanistan. In fact, there were plenty of Afghans who articulated what they actually needed, but Canada and its allies typically ignored them. 

A Canadian soldier and an interpreter from the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team speak with an Afghan woman from the village of Panjwayi in Afghanistan in 2007. Photo: Cpl Simon Duchesne

A new “white man’s burden”

What is clear is that Afghans did not welcome the foreign occupation. Opinion polls in Afghanistan throughout the war reflected a consistent opposition to the foreign presence, often as high as 80–90 percent. It was the elephant in the room; even while Canadian soldiers told tales of barefoot Afghan children thanking them for allowing them to go to school, the reality was that the occupation was always the subject of Afghan anger and resentment. 

Afghans were also entirely capable of proposing workable alternatives to solve the crisis that had been churning since the arrival of the US-funded Mujahideen in the late 1970s. Canadians largely believed that no such Afghans existed, and so the responsibility – the “burden” – for saving the country fell to Canadians. Thus, the assumption was always that Canada had good intentions, be they soldiers, generals, politicians, corporations, NGO workers, missionaries or folk singer Bruce Cockburn, who travelled to Afghanistan to entertain the troops. 

Indeed, it is a fitting testament to the way Canada viewed its mission in Afghanistan that soldiers again took to using the term “Indian Country” to describe where they were. They had done the same, less than a decade earlier, during the operation in Somalia, which devolved into violence, torture and murder of starving Somalis. Not surprisingly, the same pattern emerged in Afghanistan. In the late 2000s, when the story began to leak out of Afghanistan that prisoners were being tortured the claim was that it was Afghan police who were torturing other Afghans and that Canada’s only crime was in knowingly transferring prisoners to the Afghan National Police for torture. This version of events stayed comfortably within the narrative that Afghans were savage and violent, and – at worst – the Canadians were tainted and tempted by the dark, lawless “Indian Country” itself to look the other way at Afghans’ violence.

Nevertheless, it became clear as early as 2007 that Canadians had, in fact, participated directly in torture. By 2016, this was a matter of public record, reported even in the right-wing National Post, which picked up the story noting that Afghan prisoners – many of them poor farmers and workers with no ties to insurgent groups – were so terrified of the prison raids conducted by Canadian soldiers that they “defecated and urinated on the spot” when the Canadians arrived.

This was the precise rearticulation of the colonial imagination that Canada itself had been built upon. Canada represented the future, the colonized people were the past. Their only chance of survival was to adapt and assimilate – quickly, deferentially and with gratitude – to the colonizers’ world. Just as a Canadian soldier had described Afghans as “two thousand years behind,” a Canadian colonel explained that Canada had to “work with the Afghans and build their capacity, starting from zero.” 

Col. Laurie Hawn, by then a Conservative MP, went on to explain that Canada should try to bring Afghanistan “to something like the standards we would expect in the West.” The Afghans were, in Rudyard Kipling’s phrasing, Canada’s “new-caught, sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child.” Like newborn infants, they had no history and the best they could hope for was to learn from the benevolent Canadian occupiers who were trying to mould them into modernity. The nightmare that the occupation had created in Afghanistan was, in this colonial understanding, framed as a gift its recipients did not – or could not – properly appreciate.

In light of the colonial nature of the traumatic twenty year occupation of Afghanistan, it is entirely unsurprising that Afghans should have resisted through whatever channels were available to them. Of course, the tragedy will continue for Afghans, as the Taliban is taking power with signs that it will blend its repressive social policies with capitalist market measures that will make it a functional partner for the retreating colonizers. Canada’s colonial gift to Afghanistan, it seems, will keep on giving long after the Canadians have left. 

This is an adapted excerpt from Tyler Shipley’s ​​Canada in the World: Settler Capitalism and the Colonial Imagination, published last year with Fernwood.