Two former senior bureaucrats involved in Canada's Afghan aid program say the underlying message of the evaluation is very pertinent today: Canada compromised its efforts at lasting change because it got involved in a conflict without really understanding what was going on, and then just walked away.
To this day, it's not clear why Canada handled the Afghan mission precisely the way it did but at the very least the experience needs to be thoughtfully considered, said David Mulroney, who was deputy minister responsible for the Afghanistan Task Force, overseeing the mission.
"Failing to look squarely at the last campaign can undermine your chances of success in the next one," he said.
As the government prepares to ask Parliament for a mandate to extend Canada's participation in ongoing air strikes against Islamic rebels in Iraq, Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson wants those efforts to be undertaken in concert with humanitarian aid, saying the process ought to be like what was followed in Afghanistan.
"The military component is one important component of what is being done and has to be done but the long term assistance, humanitarian, economic aid — these are what are very important to ensure that these challenges continue to be met," Nicholson said in a weekend interview with The West Block.
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, countries poured billions in aid into Afghanistan alongside military efforts in the hopes of stabilizing a country beset by conflict for over 30 years.
The evaluation of Canada's work looked specifically at the aid piece, with an independent team working alongside government staff seeking to answer the question of whether Canada actually contributed to a more secure country able to deliver services to its own people via the $2.2 billion that was spent over a decade.
There was no clear answer.
"Canada is recognized as a consistent and reliable donor with a clear results orientation, but there is insufficient evidence to provide a definitive answer to the overall evaluation question related to Canada’s contribution to long-term stability and sustainable development in Afghanistan," said the evaluation report, published late Friday by the government.
There were short-term victories, like the training of thousands of health workers, the construction of schools and the enhanced capacity of some civil society organizations, including those which supported women.
But efforts to make a difference in the long-term were compromised right from the start, acknowledged Nipa Banerjee, who ran the government's aid programs in Kabul between 2003 and 2006.
"We went into a complex country without a proper strategy and this was a major problem," she said in an interview.
"...And there was over-optimism so we were not looking at the status of the insurgency."
The assumption underlying the link between development and security was that if people saw the benefits of aid, they wouldn't support the insurgency. When security deteriorated, aid officials often got the blame, but they in turn would argue they couldn't provide the services if the country wasn't safe.
Neither side was looking at the drivers of the conflict itself, the evaluation found — and the repercussions of that can be seen on the streets of Kandahar today.
Canada ended its targeted focus on Kandahar in 2011, with no consideration given to an extended development presence there. The extent of the exit strategy was to hope the U.S. would just carry on with Canada's goals.
They didn't, the evaluation found.
"...a few years after the Canadian exit from Kandahar, there is limited evidence of positive outcomes in terms of more jobs, enhanced income opportunities or better quality of services outside of the health and education sectors," the report said.
The result, according to the evaluation: many highly-educated young men now unable to find work and falling prey to drugs or joining the insurgency.
Close to $100 million has already been allocated in assistance in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIL, with most earmarked for humanitarian assistance.
What's unclear, Mulroney said, is to what extent that aid is linked to any broader Canadian plan.
"Be careful before you take on international assignments that involve some form of military engagement in a place we don't understand very well," he cautioned.
"By all means use all the tools in the toolbox including development assistance and diplomacy because you can't do it through military means alone; but if you're going to do that, think really carefully about . . . how you actually bring those pieces together so they're working to Canadian ends."
Follow @StephanieLevitz on Twitter.
Also on HuffPost