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Peter MacKay needs to remind us what Canada was fighting for in Afghanistan

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Canadian soldiers look out over Afghan landscape. Image: Robert Hyatt/U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons

Peter MacKay, former Harper government defence minister, turns out to have been a prophet after all!

Who would have guessed?

Back in 2008, when Canada's role in the long war in Afghanistan had grown considerably in its cost and toll, MacKay told Canadians that our military leaders were not talking with the Taliban, and never would.

"We are not involved in any direct discussions with Taliban terrorists," he said. "We don't do that. We will not do that."

This was back in the days when NDP leader Jack Layton was vilified by Conservatives as "Taliban Jack" for daring to suggest the best way to end the bloody civil war and Western occupation in Afghanistan might be to open lines of communication to the Taliban, which had been the government of that unhappy country before the U.S. invasion in 2001 and continued to have significant support among its largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns.

Primed by Conservative talking points, the still nascent online Tory rage machine assailed Layton as naive at best and treasonous at worst, accusing him of betraying Canada's soldiers abroad.

Never mind that Canadian soldiers actually fighting in the country saw the wisdom of talking with their Taliban foes -- reports of which were the proximate cause of MacKay's comments. The Conservative response was that no good Canadian would ever advocate sitting down to speak with men who were shooting at Canadian soldiers, even though that's the way wars usually end.

And yet MacKay seems to have been right in at least this one regard. The Americans certainly talked with the Taliban -- there have been formal talks under way in Qatar since February, and there was contact long before that. But Canada, which ended its participation in the Afghan war in 2014, seems to have done, or rather not done, exactly as MacKay foretold and never talked to the Taliban.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that ceasefire talks between U.S. and Taliban officials may be days away from a breakthrough that will allow the Americans to pull out of Afghanistan in time for President Donald Trump to declare a victory other presidents could not manage in time for the 2020 presidential election.

After all the sacrifices made by Canadians -- 159 of our soldiers killed and thousands injured physically, mentally and spiritually, 40,000 who served in the war, another half dozen Canadian civilians killed, and at least $18 billion spent on the effort -- we will be in a position in one important way not so different from that of the current Afghan government.

The deal will be the one the Trump works out with the Taliban and neither Canadians nor Afghans will have anything to say about it. Well, at least we Canadians won't have to live with it.

And those things Canadians at home were told our soldiers were risking their lives to achieve -- women's rights, education for girls, creation of a real Western-style democracy, what the Canadian Forces call "nation-building initiatives"? Will any of them survive?

We will see, but it seems safe to assume there will be precious little of them in Trump's hurried agreement with the Taliban.

What were Canadians fighting and dying for in Afghanistan? Did the government in which MacKay served really believe the things it told Canadians? Were any of our soldiers' tactical gains ever sustainable? Were we, as then prime minister Stephen Harper claimed, "helping rescue Afghanistan and its long-suffering people from violence and oppression"? Is the world a safer place as a result of our collective efforts? Are the people of Afghanistan better off -- and will they be next month? Will we welcome refugees driven out by Taliban rule? Should we be in a hurry to join future American military adventures abroad?

Now that we know his words are worth listening to, perhaps Peter MacKay can emerge for a few moments from the comfortable obscurity of Toronto's chichi Beaches neighbourhood to cast some illumination on the answers to these questions.

While he's at it, maybe he could apologize to the memory of Layton, too, who turns out to have called it right all those years ago.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Image: Robert Hyatt/U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons

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