Was it worth it?
As Canada’s mission in Afghanistan comes to an end, that question is most often asked from the perspective of Canadian self-interest. We look at the number of dead and the cost in taxpayer dollars and conclude that this was an expensive mission in a place far removed from our everyday lives.
Afghanistan is far away from us – in fact, it is exactly on the other side of the world from Canada’s most westerly points – and much of what was accomplished there gets lost because of the distance between our two countries.
But the perspective of Afghanistan as far removed from our everyday lives, and as an inherently backward, irreconcilable backwater, is not shared by the thousands of Canadians soldiers who served in Afghanistan – or their families, or the aid workers who worked there or the journalists who covered the war – and became familiar with the country and its people.
It is also not shared by those Canadian companies, investors and employees of private businesses which staked their interests and not insubstantial capital in Afghanistan’s emerging economy.
But despite all that, Afghanistan is still poorly understood within Canada.
As the last Canadian soldiers leave this month, I regret that we failed to move beyond polarized views of both our mission in Afghanistan, and of Afghan society.
Canadian coverage of Afghanistan often fell into a vortex of misinformation, myths and memes that stripped the mission of a more nuanced public understanding, focusing instead on the extremes, perhaps a more interesting and easily digestible narrative.
Afghanistan is a land of extremes: the most hospitable people to ever walk the earth juxtaposed with the brutality of the Taliban and of tribal customs that are often antithetical to human dignity; millions of children back in school – the highest enrolment rates in Afghan history – with millions more not in school, many of whom are engaged in child labour; seven-year-old girls married against their will and 14-year-olds dying during childbirth with university-educated married couples who fell in love as adults and have happy, healthy relationships.
You will also find the greatest misogynists to ever walk the earth: for instance, Taliban founder Mullah Omar, who comes from the same region in southern Afghanistan as Ehsan Ehsanullah, founder of the Kandahar Institute of Modern Studies and one of the most enlightened human beings I’ve ever encountered. And while conservative forces in the Afghan parliament sabotage legal progress for the protection of women’s rights, heroic individuals are working to advance gender equality, the rule of law, education, freedom of expression, human rights, and democracy.
But in all of the soul-searching and analyses expected in the aftermath of Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan, I hope that at least some attention will fall on the more important question: was it worth it for Afghanistan? When that question is asked, the answer is a resounding yes.
Because, at the end of the day – or the end of the mission – life in Afghanistan is infinitely better today than it was under Taliban rule. According to the Washington Times, “900,000 Afghan children were enrolled in school in 2001, virtually none of them girls. Today, the number is approaching eight million, and about one-third are girls. During the same period, life expectancy has risen from 42 years to 62. The child mortality rate has fallen from 172 to 97 per 1,000 live births. Electricity now reaches 18% of Afghans.
“Land line and cell towers provide phone service to 90% of the population. The telecom industry provides about 100,000 local jobs.”
These changes are tangible, real, and I believe they will last come what may in the days, months and years to follow the departure of the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. And that was worth it.
Lauryn Oates manages 12 education projects in Afghanistan, including a teacher training program which recently graduated its 1,500th teacher. She has worked to promote the rights of Afghan women since 1996, and is a PhD candidate in literacy education at the University of British Columbia. Her columns are distributed in Troy Media.