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When a War Conveniently Becomes a "Mission"

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This is the last of five excerpts from Noah Richler's new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About War. Noah has personally chosen the excerpts and written a short introduction to each, exclusively for Huffpost readers. You can read the first excerpt here, and the second excerpt here, the third excerpt here, and the fourth excerpt here.

Recently I had dinner with a couple of Canadian dignitaries who had visited Afghanistan in that role. It was 2005 and they had dined with the President, Hamid Karzai. The pair described, unintentionally I would say, a man with the air of someone besieged: hating his American contractor bodyguards, his cabinet ministers, and the descendants of Mohammed Zahir Shah's royal family, returned from exile -- all of whom he appeared to deeply resent. The scene, as it was described, had the hallmarks of a Shakespearian tragedy -- Richard II, what with the its portrait of a head of state ill-suited to lead, most probably.

In retrospect, the scene as it was described, of servants and pomegranate juice and the quarrels between the fractious parties about its quality, sounded awful, to the point of wondering how it is that the diplomats manage to maintain any sense of integrity -- though lying and putting up with contradiction for the sake of the masses and having a good palatial feed, in the meantime, is of course what diplomats do. At the time, of course, Karzai had not yet become an irritant to the countries of NATO's International Security Assistance Force and there was no denigrating of Karzai's reputation yet -- no arguments at home about the possibility of negotiations with the Taliban in a war that the West was either losing, or losing interest in, but certainly not winning. That would come later, when NATO was needing a way out and the language deployed to support the war would take yet another of its subtle turns.

* * *

"WE ARE NOT going to ever defeat the insurgency," said Stephen Harper in a March 2009 interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria. History -- not of Vimy but of someone else's trenches -- was suddenly handy to the Canadian prime minister. "Afghanistan has probably had -- my reading of Afghanistan history -- it's probably had an insurgency forever, of some kind."

Insult, escalation, exhaustion: Afghanistan was never a "war of existence" and was "just" only for as long as Canada, with little to lose, did not lose interest. In November 2009, the government started to. The revelation before Parliament of high-ranking Kabul-based diplomat Richard Colvin that Canadian officials and the PMO knew of the military's anxiety concerning the transfer of "detainees" to the brutal Afghan National Police exhausted the Harper administration's will to fight a little further.

Colvin was meanly excoriated by Minister of National Defence Peter McKay as "a suspect source" and, in December, Parliament was prorogued, inhibiting any further public discussion of a mission that could only contentiously be claimed was going well. It was evident that the direction of the war was changing before, in January 2010, the London Conference on Afghanistan took place, at the end of the same month that saw Lieutenant Nuttall and four other soldiers and a journalist buried, another Canadian killed by an IED, Canada send a portion of her Armed Forces to Haiti and the country's Governor General, who had been born there, Michaëlle Jean, reduced to helpless tears.

Canada, said Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon, had "always supported a national reconciliation process that is based on the acceptance by all groups within Afghan society" -- which was news to many. And yet, the idea of peace negotiations that included seats for members of the Taliban at the table was mooted and passed by a majority of coalition members weary of the expense and of the task of the war and looking for a way out. That any losses might have occurred "in vain," or that Canada was not a nation to "end the job before it was done," was being offered as an argument to extend the war less and less.

By this time, the conflict in Afghanistan was hardly ever referred to as a "war" anymore. It had become a "mission," a change in the lexicon that enhanced the possibility of a dignified withdrawal of Canadian Forces from a conflict that was far from won. Said Brig.-Gen. Dean Milner, as the last combat troops arrived home in July 2011 following the transfer of the Kandahar base to the U.S. Army: Canada's victory lay in the achievement of "our goal to set up the Americans for success," or, according to the country's top general, Chief of Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk, in "the transformation of an al-Qaeda training site in Kandahar, the Tarnak Farms, into an experimental farm, [and] the re-opening of 41 schools in the province's Dand district."

Referring to the fight as a "mission," as politicians and the press had been doing almost categorically since 2009, presented a clever way around the shortcoming of having fought a match without result. War demands victory, or it concedes a loss, but a "mission" is something else -- determined, as it was in this instance, mostly by its duration. Nine years of the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan did not need to provide "victory," as that was neither the objective nor the "yardstick of success" anymore. "We did what we could."

In its third phase, the fight became about various duties fulfilled. The transformation of the war into a mission allowed the political leaders of the country and their supporters, even in the face of a war that the vocal military historian Jack Granatstein so vehemently insisted was ongoing, to appear consistent and irreproachable in their claim that Canada does not "cut and run."