A memorial at the corner of Quadra and Courtenay streets in Victoria is etched with the names of Canadians who died during the war in Afghanistan.
The monument commemorates Canadian Armed Forces members, non-government organization workers and journalists who died there and makes careful mention of those who returned with physical or mental wounds from Canada’s longest war. It also features the silhouette of a soldier interacting with a small child to highlight the compassionate work Canadians did.
More than 40,000 Canadian Armed Forces members served in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014. During the conflict 165 Canadians died – 158 soldiers and seven civilians – and 2,000 were injured.
“The military is so small, everybody knows somebody on there,” said veteran Jamie Hammond, gesturing to the stone slab.
While veterans take to social media to voice anger or frustration over the recent swift return of Taliban rule, Hammond said Canadians should be proud of the legacy left a decade ago; all was not for naught, and only time will tell how the latest changes in that country will play out.
As a colonel in Canada’s infantry, counter-terrorism and special forces, Hammond served in Afghanistan, as well as Bosnia, Germany, Brunei, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, the United States and across Canada.
Canada has to do its part on the world stage; after Sept. 11 there was no question, Hammond said.
That day, four airliners were hijacked in the U.S. Two were deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center towers and one into the Pentagon, resulting in the death of nearly 3,000 people. Canada made its entrance to Afghanistan by the end of the year.
Hammond himself arrived in Afghanistan the first time in 2002. He said Canadians faced some condescension from the Brits and U.S. when they arrived. But by the time Canada withdrew the bulk of its troops in 2011, both countries were turning to Canada for advice.
Hammond figures that’s in part because diverse religions and cultures are in our nature, similar to Afghanistan.
Hammond is confident the Taliban won’t have an easy time moving backwards with women who know they have rights, educated youth and literate police and military personnel.
“Canadians should hold their heads high,” he said. “We put the lid on violence for a generation.”
UN statistics bear that out, showing 50,000 girls in school in 2001 and 3 million by 2014. In the same time period, access to medical assistance increased from eight per cent to 60 per cent of the population.
Hammond remains cautiously optimistic Afghanistan could wind up in a better position.
“I think the Taliban knows there’s a politically aware generation including women who know that they have rights which was not the case in the ’90s,” he said.
Canada is one of a dozen allied countries evacuating people facing Taliban reprisals. On Aug. 13 the federal government announced Canada would resettle 20,000 vulnerable Afghans threatened by the Taliban.
It’s critical, Hammond said, not to abandon Afghanistan, to maintain development funding promises and keep journalists there – to stay connected.
That was the flaw in 2001, he lamented, a lack of connection and understanding.
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