By Toronto Star Staff Journalists and Contributors
Right or wrong, victorious or defeated? Twelve years after Canada went to war in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, it's time to reckon with the now-over mission. A new Star Dispatches ebook, Our Longest War: The Story of Canada’s 12 years in Afghanistan Told by Toronto Star Staff Journalists and Contributors, includes 12 probing essays examining the conflict year by year, theme by theme, tragedy by tragedy. Have the war’s staggering costs — 162 Canadian deaths, countless injuries, the $14 billion bill — helped Afghanistan and made the world more secure? Or was it all for naught? Our Longest War is an essential guide for grappling with those tough questions.
Single copies of Star Dispatches eReads can be purchased for $2.99 at starstore.ca or itunes.ca/stardispatches
Our Longest War
Kevin Donovan, the Star’s investigative editor and a senior reporter, filed dispatches from the front lines in Afghanistan in 2001. He is the author of the thriller, The Dead Times, and the Star Dispatches ebook ORNGE, and is co-author with Nicholas Pron of Crime Story.
Oct. 25, 2001: I am digging a trench. One metre wide, two metres deep, seven metres long. The dirt is soft, too sandy for my liking but easy to shovel. When the walls collapse, filling the trench chest height, I dig out. “Don’t go to the war, Daddy, you’ll get died,” echoes in my mind, a fear expressed at story time by my 3-year old daughter.
The wall of the trench collapses again and I shore it with lumber. On the dining table inside our house is an airplane ticket that tomorrow night will take me to London, and after some sweet-talking at a Russian embassy, on to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where I will begin a long journey overland into Afghanistan. The trench I am digging in Toronto keeps a promise to my family to waterproof the porous foundation of our house before winter. In New York, excavation continues at the World Trade Center; 9/11 and catching Osama Bin Laden are all anyone is talking about.
This will not be my first rodeo. I spent three months on the front lines in Kuwait and Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. But it’s different this time. I am a husband and father now.
A week later, I am standing in a trench in northern Afghanistan. I got to this military outpost on horseback, having crossed a swollen river so deep my horse had to swim at one point. This series of trenches atop low hills is the forward lookout of the Northern Alliance, Afghan soldiers who have put aside tribal differences to remove the Taliban. American planes are bombing, softening up the Taliban in advance of a ground push that is weeks off. The sky is blue, the landscape magical. There is shelling in the distance and, closer at hand, the occasional mortar round is lobbed up the hill from a Taliban post, a little nearer each time. The Taliban are testing their range.
The Northern Alliance officer who is my teacher writes in the sand. A name. A date. I am confused. With a stick I draw the Twin Towers and airplanes. I scrawl 9-11-2001. The officer shakes his head and points to his date, 9-09-2001, and the name.
“This is why we fight,” the officer says. “Massoud.” Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, was mortally wounded in a Taliban attack on Sept. 9, 2001, two days before the World Trade Center attacks. Perspective is everything, and it shifts like Afghan sand. Our world has discovered Afghanistan because of 9/11. But Afghans do not need that North American catastrophe to know what they are up against. A Taliban mortar round hisses in the air. “This one will be closer,” the officer tells me. And he is right.
Nobody cleaned up after the last war. As I make my way through Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, the violent history of the hills and cliffs is apparent. Russian tanks — rusted relics — dot the countryside. Unexploded mines are killing and maiming children and poppy farmers. Massoud fought that Russian war, too. He was known as the Lion of Panjshir, a brilliant military strategist from a valley village I will eventually travel through in a wild ride that will see the liberation of the city of Taloqan and the capital, Kabul. Massoud’s death in a suicide attack awakened a deep anger in his troops. Destroying the repressive Taliban and avenging the death of their murdered leader is why they are on the move south, not the deaths of people in buildings a world away. Soon, soldiers from around the world will arrive, including Canadians and Americans. Many will die, blown up by roadside bombs, over the coming years as they try to help rebuild this starkly beautiful country. The Afghan people, veterans of so many conflicts, have a very real fear of international assistance, borne of experience.
“You must not leave”, a Northern Alliance commander tells me. I am in a cookhouse in Taloqan, a city of 200,000 that was the Northern Alliance capital until earlier in the year, when the Taliban moved in. It is late November, and earlier that day I walked, ran and drove with 2,000 Northern Alliance soldiers as they recaptured their provisional capital on the way to Kabul. Had I not listened to a general I had befriended, I would likely be dead. The general told me that the ground war was coming, and suggested I drive through the night to the foothills surrounding a quiet city that would be the staging area for the final push. Thanks to “my” general, I was able to move with the late-afternoon attack.
Western journalists who took a different route were killed later the same night. Taloqan means “river of blood.”
The cookhouse is loud and jammed, filled with soldiers celebrating victory. I am trying to write my story for tomorrow’s paper. Dripping hunks of roasted lamb are passed around. My laptop will need a cleaning. Outside the door in pooling blood lies a Taliban official in white robes, shot dead while trying to escape in his Toyota SUV. Cheering Afghan men spit on the body and fire weapons into the sky.
“You people must not leave,” the Northern Alliance commander says again, leaning closer. His eyes are piercing and blue, serious. Lamb and spittle fleck his dark beard. With the help of Sultan Imovov, my friend and interpreter, the commander and I talk. He gives me a history lesson, tells me of all the times foreigners have come to Afghanistan, started something, then left. Like many soldiers and officers, this man does not believe I am a journalist. The day before, during the march on Taloqan, the Taliban returned fire and we, reporters and Northern Alliance, were trapped in a gully. A different officer walked over to me, pointed at my satellite phone and asked me to call in an air strike.
“If you leave, the Taliban will come back,” he said. “Or people who are worse. Everything we have gained will be lost.” Then he moved off.
My next few days are filled with fear and adventure. A treacherous drive through the mountains to Kabul. Walking roads and fields to interview children and adults. Meeting a group of female doctors who lift their veils for the first time in years. Sneaking into a Taliban safe house and finding maps and plans depicting future terrorism. A sombre hospital ward with young amputees, some even smiling, a testimony to the Afghan spirit.
Now, in 2014, Canada is leaving. I hope the officer with the piercing blue eyes from the cookhouse is wrong.