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Why the Afghanistan Mission Was Worth It

03/18/2014 08:37 EDT | Updated 05/18/2014 05:59 EDT

Afghanistan lies on exactly the other side of the world from my home city of Vancouver. I can fly there over the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean and the distance is roughly the same either way. That distance is both literal and figurative.

The people and land of Afghanistan lie far, far away from Canada. Even when our troops were in Kandahar, Canadians caught glimpses of Afghanistan through prisms. We saw the country through the imagery of war: the immense deserts of Southern Afghanistan, the carcasses of old Soviet tanks dotting the landscape, burqa-clad women, expansive poppy fields, and perhaps only the aura of the Taliban.

Hiding from their bases in Pakistan, the enemy showed up only in their crudely-worded statements claiming responsibility for various acts of violence, in the rockets, bullets and IEDs they laid, murdering and maiming, when those who planted them were long gone. With their 'shadow governments', secret courts and fractured leadership, the Taliban have often seemed invisible, and the war in that far away country abstract at best.

As the Canadian military training mission wrapped up in Kabul this month, so began the media's theme of assessing the results of Canadian soldiers' time on the ground, unleashing the meme, was it worth it?

One of the problems with the 'was it worth it' question is that we typically ask it from the standpoint of Canada's self-interest. From this perspective, yes, we expended blood and treasure in Afghanistan. It's true that the numbers of dead are incomparable to other conflicts that Canada participated in, like the Korean War or World War II, but I know many families who lost sons and daughters in that country on the other side of the world, and their pain is ineffable, understood only among those who have lost a child to war.

And our spending in this tumultuous place, where the risks are great and the rewards assailable, was indeed costly, an investment in one country in need, amidst many equally compelling cases -- Haiti, Congo, and now, Syria, among many others. But if the mission was to help Afghanistan, to get a country brought to its knees back on its feet again, then it's difficult to dispute the evidence that Afghanistan is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was in 2001.

I have seen firsthand the incredible transformations that have taken place in Afghanistan over the past decade, from the day I first arrived in 2003, to when I last departed, last month, with several visits each year in between. Wherever your views stand on Canada's participation in NATO's mission in Afghanistan, the available evidence shows that without a doubt, life for most Afghans is dramatically better today than it was under Taliban rule -- a period that lasted for eight years in Kandahar (1994-2001), seven years in Herat (1995-2001), six years in Kabul (1996-2001), and four years in Mazar-i-sharif (1998-2001).

Those periods mark one of the darkest, most shameful times in modern history: a period in which millions of people were ruled by a group of murderous, illiterate thugs who terrorized civilians, banned music, burned books, stoned people to death, rendered women the equivalent of cattle, and stole the childhoods of millions of children by shutting down a healthcare system that had depended on women, who were banned from working, causing infant and child mortality to plummet to where it had sat decades earlier.

This was a time when codified laws forbade toys, kite flying, nail polish, and the wearing of white socks, among innumerable other laws that made life bleak and unbearable. Afghanistan became the most isolated place on the planet. It had no national media, and few journalists managed to penetrate what became a guarded experiment in shoving a society backwards by several centuries. With the world shut out, government services almost non-existent, Afghans struggled to survive with few employment opportunities, little infrastructure, and unspeakable poverty. Taliban Afghanistan borrowed elements of Nazism (even having Shia professors in Mazar-i-sharif forced to wear stars on their clothing when they went to work), of Islamo-fascism, and of obscurantism. While the world looked the other way, there brewed a death-cult ideology in the heart of Central Asia, where terms like 'authoritarian' or 'despotic' simply didn't do justice. Ask most any Afghan who lived in Taliban Afghanistan, and you will hear a description akin to hell on earth.

These details are unpleasant to recall, but extremely necessary when asking questions like "was it worth it?" It's useful to remember the baseline when making armchair assessments of how well the country has fared in the past decade. Yet, as Terry Glavin pointed out in The Ottawa Citizen, "The positive data from the UN's human-development, health and education indices may be overwhelming, but "critics of Canada's involvement in Afghanistan want simplistic metrics that reinforce their existing views," so measurements of effectiveness, along with evidence for longer-term and bigger-picture progress, either get overlooked or end up being contorted and bent out of recognition."

In looking back on Canada's military contribution to Afghanistan, for me the most regretful part of it is that the great distance between Canada and Afghanistan remained that way. We remained largely self-interested, judging progress by the number of Canadians lost and the dollars spent. The Afghan detainees scandal was broadcast more often into Canadian living rooms than the globally unprecedented drop of maternal mortality from an estimated high of 2,200 mothers who died of pregnancy related causes per 100,000 live births in 1999, to 329 women by 2010. Overall, the voices of ordinary Afghans remained at bay for the Canadian public, for whom Afghanistan was the chaos and conservatism of Kandahar, and the Afghan culture and religion that espoused by the Taliban.

For me, Afghanistan is the epicenter of the battle for democracy and modernity. It is where you will find some of the world's most ardent defenders of the very values we like to associate with what it means to be Canadian. I've encountered hundreds of Afghans who risk life and limb fighting for women's rights, for democracy, for social development, for freedom of expression, for girls to have the chance to go to school, and for the forces of civilization to prevail over the darkness of the Taliban's ideas. The Canadian military's role gave some breathing space to those forces. For that, we should feel only pride.