This August marks the one year anniversary of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul. The unforgettable acts of desperation and chaos that followed so many Afghans continue to this day.
If Canada’s “mission to Afghanistan” directly contributed to these results, then why do officials constantly prevent disclosure of hundreds of interviews with Canadian military and government insiders who participated in the analysis of their role in the war?
Ahead of NATO’s planned withdrawal, I submitted an Access to Information Act request to the Privy Council Office (PCO) for documentation of over 500 confidential interviews with Canadian military, foreign service, aid workers and other government civilians. servants about their experience of the war in Afghanistan.
These interviews and roundtables were part of an internal “lessons learned” analysis initiated by the Harper government sometime between 2011 and 2012 following the withdrawal of the military from Kandahar. For more than ten years, the PCO kept information about these interviews “secret” and not available to the public.
For example, in the United States, a three-year FOIA legal battle by the Washington Post allowed access to more than 600 confidential internal interviews with government and military insiders who were directly involved in the war. As a result, Afghanistan Papers were published in December 2019. These documents show how US officials made rosy claims they knew were false and covered up evidence showing no progress and no end game throughout NATO’s 20-year campaign.
During the publication of the Afghanistan Papers, then Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan dismissed the Post’s findings and defended the “progress” made by Canada’s presence in Afghanistan, while Canadian academics and journalists called for a review of the Canadian mission. What Sajjan didn’t mention – and what the Canadian public didn’t know about – was a secret check already done by the Harper government.
The internal valuation was first made public in 2017 by writer and scholar Steven Seideman, who learned of the government’s attempt at a check from rumors circulating “in various bars” of Ottawa’s ByWard Market.
After a years-long appeals process with the General Staff and the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC), Seideman was eventually granted access to a 10-page summary report detailing “lessons learned about best practices developed in implementing Canada’s whole-of-government engagement in Afghanistan.” from 2008 to 2011″ from TsUP.
The undated and anonymous summary cites interviews and roundtables with “more than 500 participants” from Canadian government agencies as the primary method of data collection. Ironically, the report did not cite data from these interviews and roundtables, and never used the word “war.”
In a blog post, Seideman described the final document as a “perfunctory” attempt at “cheering” and “a pat on the back”. The summary also mentions how the deaths of Canadian soldiers and the torture of Afghan prisoners created “failures” in the government’s strategy to inform the public about the war from 2008 to 2011.
The summary is missing information on how more than a million civilian deaths have been attributed to post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Pakistan, while state-sponsored Islamophobia in the West continues to belittle the lives of Afghans and Muslims.
More than a decade after Canada left Kandahar, the OIC is still failing in its negotiations to issue timely internal audit reports with PCO management.
If field interviews with US officials demonstrate how the US war machine in Afghanistan has been breeding government lies, is there any reason to believe that Canadian officials, the media, and the war machine did otherwise? And if the FOIA system in the US can expedite lawsuits needed for journalism about wartime government abuses, why isn’t it possible in Canada?
The continued absence of these interviews in the public domain demonstrates how 40 years of access to the information system in Canada, in his own words, cannot “increase the accountability and transparency of federal institutions to advance an open and democratic society.” “. Until we repeal the Access to Information Act and create a system of civil liability for access, the current system of discretionary good faith will continue to be used as a de facto system of state censorship and a covert extension of the Official Secrets Act.