Afghans on their own again

STEPHEN SADLER  –  Oct 1, 2021

On August 21, the promise of an idyllic weekend in northern Ontario was shattered when the message was received – a message drastically different than one I had ever previously received.

“I am receiving texts from the Taliban… saying I worked with the Internationals… please help me I am in danger…  I am hidden in Kabul”

I sat dead still and stared at the words that appeared. Like so many who had some kinship to Afghanistan, I had been absorbed for many weeks prior by the non-stop news of its latest fall. This message brought home all the emotions I had been experiencing over those weeks with a sickening sense of finality. A working affiliation and friendship from some 10 years past had come back with the receipt of this message, indicating that one of my interpreters (Feda) was in dire and immediate fear for his life.

Ten years previous, while a Sergeant with the Toronto Police Service, I had eagerly pursued the opportunity to participate in the RCMP Mission to Afghanistan, and had been selected to do so. In June of 2011, I arrived in Kabul and was quickly posted with the European Union Policing initiative and deployed to a little-known place called Feyazabad (the furthest north in the Country that anyone in Mission could work). I was fortunate to have been among some 300 Police Officers from all across Canada who had been selected over many years to work in Afghanistan. Though the Canadian Mission changed over those years, the dedication of those chosen to participate had not diminished. In addition to my humble FrontLine article in 2012, Training Police in Afghanistan, the Police presence during the Canadian Mission was brilliantly documented by William Malone, my Deputy Contingent Commander in 2011-2012, in a book entitled Cops in Kabul, published by Flanker Press.

Today, and ever since the August message, my thoughts are with Feda. The timeline had moved at a feverish pace over the last 6 months. April had brought final confirmation from President Joe Biden that the United States would start the final American military withdrawal in May and would be completed by September 11. From the moment of that fateful missive, the Taliban began a lightning-paced push across the country. Helmand was attacked on May 4, and by mid-June, 26 Afghan Provinces were in pitched conflict. By July 2, Bagram Air base had been virtually abandoned by the U.S. and, by the beginning of August, the first Provincial capital had fallen, followed by my own base of operations in Feyazabad later that same month. By mid-August, the President of Afghanistan had fled the country, the Afghan military forces had capitulated, and the Taliban was in control of all but one small area. The original speculation that the country could hold out for months, had rapidly turned into a mere 90 days – it was over.

The message, and the news that proceeded it, rapidly brought me back to the Mission some 10 years prior – to the country I had lived in, and the people I had worked with. Working with several European Police Officers and one other Police Officer from Toronto, Derrick Gaudet, I spent 12 months training senior Officers in the Afghan National Police. The intent of the training was to move them toward a more “western” form of Policing, and away from the Military model they had been using. While deployed, we created the various programs that we take for granted here in Canada, including the implementation of the first Community Policing model sanctioned in Afghanistan. We taught senior female members of the Afghan National Police in leadership classes where they learned alongside their male counterparts. We worked with the German Police Officers stationed at the base whenever they asked and provided students at local schools with much needed supplies and gifts donated by the overwhelming generosity of Canadian school kids back home.

All of these things seemed so far away now, almost like another life, as the news turned worse day by day. As the timeline for the American departure loomed, the struggle to get people out, grew more chaotic, with the last American military plane leaving Afghanistan on August 30. Many of those who helped Canada and the other Coalition countries who were unable to get out during this brief window of opportunity were now left to their own devices. Minimal support was available to them, and what was available seemed to be coming from concerned ex-soldiers and police who worked with many of these workers over the years, rather than the governments they have served.

I felt utterly helpless throughout this period, unable to assist Feda in any form of an escape plan, as I tried desperately to reach out to any resources I could to find to assist his efforts. All the documentation available from the Canadian government was sent to him, and Police Officers who had worked overseas at various times offered me assistance and support. The helplessness I felt was further exacerbated when emails from my other interpreter, Mahmood, foretold dire consequences if he too could not get out.

I anxiously waited further information and was elated when Feda reported that he had been able to escape to the Netherlands (with the help of some EUPOL contacts in that country) and was safe with his family. The situation with Mahmood, as of the writing of this article, was not so hopeful as he lay in hiding somewhere near Herat, with a possibility for escape coming from other EUPOL contacts he had worked with.

As we moved into October, the news from Afghanistan had not gotten any better. The “new” Taliban, as initially promised by their leadership, seemed to be no more magnanimous or benevolent than that which had controlled the country prior to the attacks of September 11. Access to the Internet in many Provinces has been removed, limiting the possibility of external information access to the population at large. The newly formed government has no female representation, no ethnically or religiously diverse membership, and has appointed as the Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was the lead of the HAQQANI terror network when I was deployed in 2011. In Helmand, even the most mundane of activities has been affected, as barbers have been barred from trimming beards with threats of swift reprisal, including amputations, if people fail to comply. Girls are again being barred from attending classes and women dissuaded from working in any government or high ranking position. The Taliban appear ready to continue the harsh punishments of the past which have included amputations for theft, public executions, and hangings in downtown capitols, justifying these actions by their strict interpretation of Islamic Law

I have struggled with how I should feel about the Mission, as many others who served there have also been doing. Had all of our accomplishments been in vain? Years of advancement and newly found freedoms wiped out in mere days? Why had so many soldiers died to defeat the same threat that now rules the country they fought to protect?

I continue to recall the many images that remain in my head to this day, of young girls attending school and young women taking positions within the Police Service and Government or attending higher education. I thought of those Afghans who had worked with us, with hopes and dreams of attaining a better future for themselves and their families. I thought of the vast sums of money that had been spent spent and the equipment that was delivered, some of which now lay abandoned after the withdrawal. All these thoughts, and more, enveloped me with a darkness that is hard to shake.

Still, I hope that what we all did had some value, and that all our efforts were not futile. I began to listen to friends and colleagues who had served, and many others whom I did not know, who made comments over various social networks since this all began. Most, though saddened by the final outcome we all expected, did believe that without the efforts of those who worked there, the situation would have been as tragic but would have been experienced over a much longer period of time.

Afghanistan has followed similar patterns throughout its history, which has made its people highly resilient and adaptable. Though they have always been able to reap the benefits of any world power who remained within their borders for whatever reason, they always wanted some autonomy to forge their own future, basically to be left alone. This latest Taliban show of strength, for the most part a brutal and non-cohesive presence, may in time be the latest to suffer defeat in a land that has been called the “Graveyard of Empires”. Those Afghans who consider the Taliban a foreign presence within Afghanistan, may in time fight back and regain some other form of control, as those who briefly held out against them did in Panjshir Province.

As the one Taliban Commander confidently told Canada’s former Chief of the Defence Staff Rick Hillier, “you have the watches, but we have the time.” They just had to outwait the limited patience of the Coalition Forces. In the blink of an eye, the country has swiftly fallen back into a state in which dissenting voices are silenced by fear or brutal violence, whichever works.  

Despite it all, perhaps there will be some residual affect from our efforts, which may remain hidden from us for all time. I hope in my heart that is the case, for the alternative is far too depressing to contemplate. I feel for those we left behind and pray for their safety and security, and hope that those who saw glimmers of a freedom they never knew, may still see some remnant of it… I can both hope, and weep, for the people of Afghanistan – for now, they are on their own.

Stephen Sadler is a former police sergeant