Not what you'd call a hero's welcome.
After plunging 42 million Afghans back into the same nightmare everyone awoke from on September 11, 2001, the greeting we begrudged these banished heroes was a disgrace.
Shuja means “brave,” and I know no one braver than Ahmad Shuja Momuzai. He arrived in Toronto with his wife Zohra and their three children on June 26 along with roughly 300 Afghans who’d boarded a Canadian-chartered Portuguese airliner about 36 hours earlier in Islamabad, Pakistan. Almost all were either refugees or “special-measures” visa holders - the friends Canada abandoned in Afghanistan two years ago. Interpreters, “fixers,” guides and bodyguards.
The plane taxied to the end of a runway, away from Pearson’s glittering main terminal. The passengers waited patiently on the plane for about two hours before they were put on shuttle buses to an Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada processing centre about a half-hour away.
There, they were given documents and contact numbers and divided into groups to be herded onto other buses. The bus the Momuzai family was instructed to board was bound for St. Catherine’s, and that’s where Shuja and his family live now, in an apartment with no furniture, where they sleep on a carpet infested with bed bugs.
It was the final indignity in a harrowing two-year journey that Shuja began with his escape from Kabul, which Joe Biden’s White House handed over to the theocratic-fascist Taliban on August 15, 2021. “It was the stupid Joe Biden. He sold us,” Shuja told me the other day. “He sold Afghanistan to the Taliban.”
The Taliban kill people like Shuja. For more than a decade, he’d served the Canadian Forces and documentary flimmakers, researchers and women’s rights organizations like Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. Shuja had been my shadow and protector during one of the research trips I’d made to Afghanistan, back when there was still hope. We’d stayed in touch. He was in his late 20s then. He’s 42 now.
In Afghanistan back then, Joe Biden was the stuff of nightmares. During his time as Barack Obama’s vice-president, Biden was loudly arguing that the world should just forget the whole thing, that we should get out of the “nation-building” business the creepy Bush-era defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld had so famously sneered about. In February 2020, in Doha, Donald Trump sharpened Biden’s knives in an ignominious devil’s bargain with the Taliban. After Biden was elected president, he happily shoved those same knives into the backs of 42 million Afghans.
The thing that gets to me most about this whole story is the wilfully ignorant excuse-making, the casual regurgitation of hackneyed talking points and the cavalier abdication of any moral responsibility that burdens the civilized world here.
People who fancy themselves as “progressive,” the same people who justify their empty anti-war boasts with imbecilities from the White Poppy days of the late 1930s, blame Trump. Biden’s hands were tied, they’ll say. It’s fashionable among certain conservatives to cite the debacle of August 2021 as further evidence of Biden’s senility and proof that “we” can do nothing to help the primitive wogs of the Afghan wastelands.
The “lesson” we’re supposed to take from Afghanistan is that we should never have tried. The lesson a great measure of the world’s poor and oppressed sensibly take from it: Never trust a Yank. Which is not quite fair, because all that NATO capitals went along with it without complaint.
All the concocted pretexts and the alibis are there for you, all of it a balm for guilty consciences, and most hideously the slanderous lie that Afghanistan’s soldiers just folded two years ago and ran away and let the Taliban take over. The truth of it is that long before August 15, 2021, the Americans had already denied the Afghan people the capacity to carry on in the cause for which nearly 70,000 Afghan defence and security personnel had given their lives: a sovereign and democratic Afghan republic.
By August, 2021, after years of American insistence that Afghans “reconcile” with their Taliban tormentors, there was nothing left to fight for. Washington and Islamabad wanted the Taliban back in Kabul, and that was that.
Among Biden’s many lies in the final innings: Americans could take comfort in the Islamic Emirate’s promise that they were a “moderate” version of the 1990s’ Taliban, that they could be reasoned with, that they wouldn’t stop girls from going to school and there would be no reprisals or revenge killings.
“We are assuring the safety of all those who have worked with the United States and allied forces,” said the Taliban’s Zabihullah Mujahid, two years ago this week. Within the first year of the restored Islamic Emirate, hundreds of Afghans who’d worked for their country or for the “nation-building” organizations from the NATO capitals had been hunted down and slaughtered.
Here’s what the Taliban said in August two years ago: "We are going to allow women to study and work within our framework. Women are going to be very active in our society.” Within a month, girls were barred from attending secondary school. By December, women travelling any distance greater than 45 miles had to be accompanied by a close male relative, and barred from attending university. In May last year supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada issued as decree that women in public must be covered head to toe, and to “cover their faces, except the eyes." And on and on.
Canada has few living heroes to boast about. My friend Shuja is a hero, and this being the week of the second anniversary of the betrayal of his people, I gave over my column to Shuja’s story, in the National Post and the Ottawa Citizen, in print today.
On the other side of the paywall below, among other things, I’ll tell you how you can return the friendship Shuja had offered so many Canadians over the years.
It’s amazing enough that Shuja survived at all. Hiding in Kabul, despairing when the Talibs came to his house looking for him, he’d confided to me in a Facebook message that he was contemplating surrender. In a remote corner of a valley in the Istalif Mountains, leaping from the window of an abandoned house to escape a Taliban patrol that ended up executing a fellow interpreter he’d been hiding with. Hobbling on a half-broken foot over snow-covered mountains into Parwan. Bribing Pakistani police at the Torkham border post so he and his family could cross into Pakistan. That sort of thing. And there’s so much more to his story, and to Afghanistan’s story.
That close call in the Istalif Mountains was not Shuja’s first.
When he was a boy, a Russian missile landed in the courtyard of Shuja's family home when everyone was eating breakfast. It didn't explode. During the “civil war” years when the proxy factions backed by Iran and Pakistan were waging war over the corpses of hundreds of thousands of Afghans, a missile landed only metres from Shuja's feet. The blast killed about 100 people. Somehow, Shuja walked away.
Years later, Shuja drove over a landmine. The car immediately behind him was incinerated, along with the driver. Shuja survived the explosion with two flat tires. In 2006, a Taliban suicide bomber drove his car past Shuja into the Massoud Square traffic circle in Kabul. Sixteen people were killed. “Even the trees were on fire," Shuja remembered.
Canadians owe a great debt to Shuja Momuzai. And the truth, or whatever reasonable approximation of the truth as we can ascertain, is the very least the living owe the dead. It’s what Canadians owe the 158 Canadian soldiers who gave their lives in Afghanistan. At the very least, we shouldn’t tell one another lies, no matter how comforting those lies might be.
And let me tell you, the lies people tell about Afghanistan are foul and many.