WASHINGTON — Jim Davis and his wife Sharon visited Kandahar in 2008, part of a contingent of grieving military families who wanted to see for themselves the desolate place where their loved ones had died in service to Canada's mission in Afghanistan.
One night at Kandahar Airfield, the sprawling base of operations where Canadian, U.S. and NATO troops were housed, Davis wandered away from the group to watch an American convoy as it headed out on patrol.
"I made eye contact with the lead truck, and we looked at each other, and I just sort of nodded my head and waved to him," he recalled in an interview.
"Within five minutes, I heard that there was an explosion. They drove over a mine and they were killed. I can never forget that."
Davis, whose son Paul was a corporal in the Canadian Forces when he was killed in a light armoured vehicle rollover in 2006, found himself of two minds Thursday after President Joe Biden promised to finally end America's "forever war."
He recounted an emotional encounter with Hamid Karzai in September 2006, just six months removed from the death of his son, when the then-president of Afghanistan was invited to speak to a joint session of Parliament.
During Paul's funeral, three Afghan ladies offered their condolences to the family through an interpreter, Davis said he told Karzai.
"When I looked into their eyes, I could see pain, and I could see broken souls. And I said, 'Mr. President, that's when I knew why my boy died in your country.' And I said, 'Mr. President, there is going to be peace in your country someday,' " Davis said.
"Well, I'm thinking now, if there is no peace in Afghanistan, what was the point of me saying that? Did my son die in vain?"
No, Biden all but explicitly said Wednesday as he announced a plan to begin pulling all U.S. soldiers out of Afghanistan beginning May 1, with a deadline of Sept. 11 — the 20th anniversary of the deadliest terror attacks ever on U.S. soil.
The mission accomplished what it set out to do, Biden insisted, decimating al-Qaida's network and eventually taking out leader Osama bin Laden in 2011. To remain any longer would be an exercise in futility that ignores the evolving, "metastasizing" threat of terrorism in other parts of the world, he said.
Canada was an ally and partner to the United States almost from the outset, with its 12-year presence — including 10 on the front lines of combat — costing the lives of some 159 Canadian troops.
Four civilians also died in Afghanistan, including Calgary Herald journalist Michelle Lang, as well as one diplomat: Glyn Berry, who was among the three people killed by a roadside bomb in January 2006.
"Our allies and partners have stood beside us, shoulder to shoulder, in Afghanistan for almost 20 years," Biden said. "We're deeply grateful for the contributions they have made to our shared mission and for the sacrifices they have borne."
That, said Davis, helped to cushion the blow, even though his instincts tell him that the U.S. and NATO will be leaving behind a great deal of unfinished business.
"What I like about what President Biden is doing — he says he's co-ordinating all this with the allies, and I think that's so important," he said.
"Twenty years is a long time. And Afghanistan's got to be able to stand on their own ... the last thing I want to do is see another Canadian soldier die in Afghanistan. But we have to complete the mission."
Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid an unannounced visit Thursday to the Afghan capital of Kabul, part of an outreach mission to insist that despite the pullout, the United States will continue to be an active partner in Afghanistan's post-war efforts.
"The partnership is changing, but the partnership itself is enduring," Blinken told the current president, Ashraf Ghani.
"We will remain side by side going forward."
The Taliban has long made a complete U.S. withdrawal a central condition of its willingness to talk peace, said Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia with the Washington-based Wilson Center's Asia Program.
"If the administration is serious about supporting the peace process in Afghanistan, it must ensure that there are no more boots on the ground," Kugelman said.
"Of course, the flip side here is that the Taliban could decide that after all U.S. troops have gone, it'll simply ramp up its battlefield fight. So this is a really tough situation to think through."
Davis, who has spent the last 15 years working with the Canadian military to help counsel families in their own grief, said he wants Blinken to understand that the men and women who died in Afghanistan did so in the name of positive change.
"My boy went to Afghanistan to make a better life for the people of Afghanistan, and I hope that the Taliban will never be able to implement their control again," he said.
"My boy died, he sacrificed his life, so the Afghan people can live a good life. That's what I would like him to tell the Afghan people."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 15, 2021.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press