By Stephanie LevitzOttawa Bureau
Tue., July 13, 2021timer3 min. read
updateArticle was updated 15 hrs ago
OTTAWA — Canadian soldiers are questioning whether the war in Afghanistan was worth it after the district where so many died fell back into the hands of the Taliban, the acting head of the Canadian Armed Forces acknowledged Tuesday.
In an emotional internal memo obtained by the Star, Lt-Gen. Wayne Eyre said news of the fall of Panjwai last week hit many people particularly hard, considering how firmly it is etched in Canada’s military memory.
“The heat, the dust, the grape rows, and the poppy fields all provide a backdrop to what truly troubles us — our investment of effort, of sweat, and most of all of blood,” wrote Eyre, the acting chief of the defence staff.
“Our Afghan experience has left none untouched, and many, including families, are scarred physically, mentally, and morally from it. Many of us have been asking, some for years, ‘Was it worth it?’ Answers will be deeply personal, and not all have reached a final conclusion other than ‘time will tell.’”
This month marked the 10th anniversary of the end of Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan, although the last Canadian soldiers didn’t leave until 2014.
Between 2001 and 2014, 158 soldiers were killed, along with seven civilians. Thousands more returned with physical and mental wounds.
The vast majority of Canada’s fighting took place in the province of Kandahar, with some of the fiercest battles fought over the district known as Panjwai, considered the “birthplace” of the Taliban.
For a time, the district was stable — taking reporters and visiting politicians on a walk through one of its famous bazaars was often a way for the military and others to showcase the peace brought to the region by NATO troops.
Much was also made of the work Canada did training Afghan security officers to help uphold that peace — among the those who helmed that effort for a time was Eyre himself.
But last week, ahead of the U.S. ending its own involvement in Afghanistan after 20 years, the Taliban finally overwhelmed the beleaguered national security forces of Panjwai and regained control.
Eyre said he knows many watched that news in dismay.
“So where does that leave us? Should we hang our heads in bitterness and remorse; or should we continue to venerate the sacrifices of so many in our ranks and their families, to honour the noble commitment to service and making the world a better place, and endeavour to learn from our experiences, grow, and become better every day?” he wrote.
“While none of us can speak for them, I have to believe that our fallen would want us to pursue the latter.”
Some former senior Canadian soldiers also engaged in the war in Afghanistan are agitating for the Canadian government to act in support of Afghans who worked as interpreters or advisers for the CAF, and who now want to leave the country given the rapidly destabilizing situation.
Pressure is building for some kind of special immigration program to be set up for them, similar to one that was launched as Canada wound down its combat mission.
Retired major-general Denis Thompson said Canada and other countries have a responsibility to assist.
The West promised Afghans they would help them build a fair and just society, where human rights were respected, Thompson said in an interview with the Star.
Even as Canadian troops pulled out, Afghans — some of whom could have come to Canada at the time — chose to stay to keep trying to build that society, he said.
“So, I believe that the fact that they decided to stay on and not take advantage of the program at that time doesn’t erase our obligation to them today, to help them resettle to Canada, given that the project now is currently collapsing, and is a failure.”