Published by Muftah.org on August 1st, 2014
It can be tough to wrap one’s head around the fact that the war in Afghanistan is the longest the United States has ever fought. Indeed, the conflict has lasted longer than World Wars I and II, longer than the Vietnam War, and longer even than the Iraq war. That thought itself begs the obvious question of “why,” or, to put it another way: “what were the invaders doing and what took them so long?”
Graeme Smith’s The Dogs are Eating Them Now is a Canadian war memoir that examines this question from multiple angles. Smith was the Globe and Mail’s correspondent in southern Afghanistan from 2006 to 2009. He is a person who has lived in the country, been shot at, and had “the charred flesh of suicide bombers” stuck to his shoes. His memoir is a series of dispatches that details his findings and view of the mission there.
Although he admits to lacking the same in-depth experience throughout the whole of Afghanistan, Smith notes that the south “serves as a useful case study.” Indeed, it was in the South “where the war became most intense” and where the international coalition’s “policy most obviously went wrong.”
Smith’s book is not—and does not aim to be—a geopolitical analysis of what happened or may happen in Afghanistan (Smith notes that one cannot expect to form an accurate picture of Afghanistan by thinking “on the level of theory”). It is his hope the reader will come away with a more informed view of the conflict by the time he reaches the last page.
At the end of the book, Smith concludes that the international community should not exit Afghanistan hastily and without a sense of responsibility. With parts of the country unattended, “anarchy” or “civil war” may end up filling the vacuum. Whether or not one agrees with these final assessments, Smith’s brave reporting on a number of important issues stands on its own merits. His willingness to acknowledge his initial naiveté, contributes to an honest picture of Afghanistan’s current state, from his point of view.
An Evolving Understanding of Western Failures
Smith’s voice is weary, but sharp and collected. He started his correspondence for theGlobe as a 26-year-old with high hopes the West was going to bring “the whole basket of civilization” to Afghanistan, a country that desperately needed it. But Smith also starts his book by acknowledging the international coalition’s objectives were not reached, and that assumptions policy makers made about Afghan society seriously hindered efforts to remake the country.
By the time the “world’s great armies” had gathered in Southern Afghanistan, in the beginning of 2002, the Al-Qaeda camps had long disappeared and the Taliban were no longer in power. The mission evolved from chasing global jihadists to a much grander plan: to remake the country in the West’s image and to establish a peaceful, democratic state. It is quite obvious by now that the international community failed at this. Smith notes that no international force has ever managed to control all of Afghanistan without controlling the South’s biggest city: Kandahar. Coalition troops routed the Taliban in that region again and again (with Canadians often leading the way), but the fighting never seemed to reach a rational end-point.
As time went on, Smith began to recognize the deep flaws in the methodology adopted by Western forces. Major military operations against the southern insurgency failed to win hearts and minds. Coalition forces wanted to use the presence and threat of the Taliban to justify their own invasion. They wanted to recast themselves as fighters against the “real invaders:” the Taliban. After witnessing the Battle of Panjwai in 2006, an offensive that saw the Taliban routed once again by coalition troops, Smith realized the residents of Southern Afghanistan were a tough crowd when it came to the “Taliban vs. good foreigners” narrative.
Afghans were not always cooperative with the International Security and Assistance Force’s (ISAF) efforts to root out the Taliban. In fact, Afghans with loose ties to the Taliban became the enemies of many Western troops on the ground. These Afghans joined the insurgency to repel what they thought was a foreign invasion led by international powers to control their country’s future.
An Out-of-Touch Approach
Smith notes how the Western mission in Afghanistan failed to predict how strong this anti-invasion sentiment would be. This “out-of-touch” attitude is itself one of the more revealing, if not startling, aspects of Smith’s observations, which call for a reassessment of NATO’s interventionist strategies. As Smith notes in the introduction, such self-reflection “is not likely to happen” because “NATO claims victory.”
The book includes a section detailing findings from discussions Smith and his Afghan researcher had with dozens of Afghan insurgents —an endeavor which was made into an Emmy Award-winning video series called “Talking to the Taliban.” Because his Afghan researcher was able to conduct interviews in areas off-limits to foreigners, Smith is able to offer rare, first-hand insight into the worldview of Taliban insurgents. The 42 interviews also provide a good sense of the complexities beneath the official, often jingoistic, assertions coming out of NATO and its member states.
To begin with, it is quite obvious that, at least in Southern Afghanistan, ISAF has been dragged into a conflict that contains complex tribal dynamics, which it has yet to fully grasp and engage with effectively. Hamid Karzai and his weak administration are made up of a few tribes, which are exclusively responsible for governing the country. This has antagonized other tribes throughout Afghanistan. This kind of tribal rivalry has fueled the insurgency. The Zirak Durrani tribal federation, which includes Karzai’s Popalzai tribe, dominates the Afghan government. The insurgents surveyed were all ethnic Pashtuns who were part of tribes that inhabited the South. When it comes to building Afghanistan’s future, these tribes feel excluded by Karzai’s inner circle.
NATO’s use of airstrikes has further compounded the problem by causing “collateral damage” among the civilian population. According to Human Rights Watch, in 2007, civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes “almost tripled” compared to 2006.
Smith also outlines another Western strategy that backfired: the destruction of poppy fields in order to cut off funding to the Taliban. Again, Western forces found themselves caught up in a complex dynamic they did not appreciate quickly enough. The logic seemed simple: poppies fuel the opium trade, which is used to fund the insurgents. Fewer poppies must mean less insurgents. Unfortunately, the destruction of poppies also meant the eradication of many Afghanis’ livelihoods. In a country with a crippled economy and limited industry, growing poppies was a means of survival for many Afghan farmers. Angry farmers who had their soil destroyed by airstrikes, or who had their fields burned by foreign occupiers naturally saw the invaders in the worst possible light. This helped fuel the insurgency.
Smith provides superb (and brave) reporting on how corrupt and powerful Afghan officials have themselves been involved in drug trafficking. Near the end of the book, Smith recalls a memorable episode involving a drug trafficker caught by Afghanistan’s Counter-narcotics Police, who carried a letter of protection signed by Mohammed Daud Daud, the deputy minister of interior responsible for counter-narcotics. Daud was Afghanistan’s most powerful anti-drug czar before being killed in 2011.
The Torture of Detainees
Among ISAF’s many errors, the detainee torture scandal has received perhaps the most attention. The hand over of prisoners by Canadian Forces (CF) to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Directorate of Security(NDS) resulted in detainees being systematically tortured.
Investigations into the matter, as well as information from whistle-blowing diplomats, seem to suggest CF knew torture was happening and refused to act. A subsequent investigation into the matter by the Military Police Complaints Commission concluded CF brass actively kept its investigators in the dark about the detainees’ situations. The watchdog noted that Canada’s Harper administration actively stonewalled its investigation, threatening the commission’s independence while insisting it ought to have final say over information disclosed to the public.
Sadly, this gap between government policy and reality has remained consistent throughout the Afghan war. Smith hopes the international community will change course and find new ways to serve Afghans. Yet the mystery here is how, after fighting a prolonged war with such a stubbornly flawed mindset, the United States and the rest of NATO can find it within them to radically change course.
The United States and its allies want to exit Afghanistan without losing face. That means focusing on repeating successes while glossing over errors and failures. Though the West has been able to improve certain aspects of Afghan life, such as decreasing the rate of infant mortality, the country, known as the “Graveyard of Empires,” is a more violent place now than before the invasion.
Smith leaves his audience with more questions than solutions. But the points he raises are necessary to consider for policy makers and those who care about Afghanistan. Only by acknowledging failure can Afghanistan’s future be accurately assessed. Perhaps that is why the international community’s relationship with Afghanistan has been, and is likely to remain, a rather depressing one.