To avoid another Afghanistan, Canada must leave NATO

Wherever they go on the campaign trail, federal political leaders are asked about the Afghanistan crisis and Canada’s failure to evacuate all those who risked their lives to support our soldiers, diplomats, and aid workers.

But reporters seem unwilling to press the party bosses on the broader implications of Canada’s military and moral defeat in Afghanistan.

I am one of the 40,000 Canadians who served in Afghanistan under the auspices of NATO’s 2001-2014 International Security Assistance Force.

Most of Canada’s Afghanistan veterans believed they were fighting for human rights and the protection of women and girls from oppression and violence. That was certainly my belief. But it now seems we were on a fool’s errand for geopolitical reasons we may never understand.

Working at the multinational Regional Command (South) headquarters at Kandahar Airfield, I came to see NATO as a dysfunctional Cold War relic divorced from Canadian interests and values.

Indeed, from the 1999 bombing raids on Serbia and Kosovo, to the 2011 air campaign in Libya, to the ongoing fiasco in Afghanistan, NATO has become synonymous with death, misery, and chaos.

The Taliban’s remarkable victory is directly tied to the alliance’s failure to properly train and motivate Afghan forces for the inevitable withdrawal of international troops.

When that failure was laid bare in recent weeks, NATO left individual member countries to save who they could from the desperate mass of humanity around the Kabul airport.

Canada, with an unnecessary and ill-timed election underway, did worse than most of its allies, despite urgent and repeated warnings from veterans’ groups about what would happen when the Americans withdrew.

According to Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, an attack on one alliance member is an attack on “each and every other member.”

Members agreed to the first-ever invocation of Article 5 less than 24 hours after the 9-11 attacks on the United States. This set Canada and other countries on a path to the horrifically costly and ultimately pointless war in Afghanistan.

The terms of Article 5 were quietly expanded to include cyberattacks two years ago.

“We have designated cyberspace a domain in which (NATO) will operate and defend itself as effectively as it does in the air, on land, and at sea,” NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg wrote in the British current affairs magazine Prospect. “This means we will deter and defend against any aggression towards allies, whether it takes place in the physical world or the virtual one.”

This is a slippery slope that could see Canada drawn into a digital conflict, or possibly even a real-world one, based on another NATO member’s claims of cyber interference by the likes of Russia or China.

No major party leader has gone on record this election to suggest Canada should consider withdrawing from NATO. But it would be timely and appropriate for this issue to be raised at one of the upcoming leaders’ debates.

Rather than commit itself to more NATO misadventures, Canada should recommit itself to UN peacekeeping.

Last August, we fell to 76th in the world in terms of peacekeepers deployed abroad. At the time, only 34 Canadians were wearing the blue beret with which our military was once synonymous.

If Canada truly is “back” on the international stage, we should be doing much more than this. No wonder the Trudeau government lost its recent bid for a UN Security Council seat.

Canadians should be taking a closer look at NATO and whether it reflects our values and foreign policy goals. What better time to do that than during a federal election?

Correction — Sept. 1, 2021: This column was updated to correct that NATO’s UN-mandated mission in Afghanistan was called the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), not International Stabilization Assistance Force.

Scott Costen is a Nova Scotia-based freelance journalist and former member of the Canadian Armed Forces.

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