Wednesday, April 22, 2015

What We're Reading:The War in Afghanistan




The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, by Graeme Smith.

Graeme Smith is a young Canadian journalist who covered the Afghan war for The Globe and Mail, a Canadian national newspaper based in Toronto. Between 2005 and 2009 he spent more time in southern Afghanistan than any other Western journalist. He has made visits back to Afghanistan several times since then, and is currently based in Kabul. The Globe and Mail was interested in covering the Afghan war because Canada had sent troops to the volatile southern region of Afghanistan. They were part of the NATO coalition trying to stabilize the country and fight the insurgency mounted by the recently deposed Taliban. During his time in Afghanistan, Smith worked primarily out of Kandahar, and made excursions as well to the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.



Canadian troops packing up to leave Kandahar Airfield
in 2011. After Smith’s office in Kandahar was broken into,
he feared for his life and worked for a while from the relative
safety of the airfield.
This is a timely book. We are approaching the end of America’s involvement in Afghanistan, now America’s longest war. It is a war that is the most recent in our history of national foreign engagements, and yet in an era when greater amounts of information are available than ever before---and we have spent more than a trillion dollars there---it is perhaps a war Americans have cared less about, and know less about, than any conflict we have fought. This book does not pretend to be a comprehensive overview of the entire Afghan war (for a more comprehensive history see The Good War: Why We Couldn't Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan, by Jack Fairweather). Smith’s book is a personal memoir and a journalist’s analysis of the war he encountered in the area of Afghanistan where he was stationed. But the military and systemic failures Smith chronicles, we suspect, are representative of problems that existed as well in other theaters of the war: the corruption of the Afghan government and police, the long standing tribal animosities and the power of warlords, the consequences of the attempt by foreigners and the Afghan government to eradicate the poppy fields, the civilian casualties from aircraft and heavy firepower that turned local populations against the NATO troops, and the failure to understand that the “insurgents” were not primarily jihadists, international terrorists, or remnants of the Taliban coming down from the mountains or crossing borders from other countries but were in fact people from the local city and countryside. The occupiers were facing not an insurgency but a rebellion.

Canadian troops delivering mattresses to Sarpoza Prison in
Kandahar in 2011.  Sarpoza was the scene of two dramatic escapes
of large numbers prisoners with outside help from the Taliban
(and perhaps inside help from prison administrators and guards).
 One escape was facilitated by a car bomb that blew the gate
off the prison and the other by tunneling into the prison
from an adjacent building.
In Afghanistan, Smith argues, the Western powers thought they would be the saviors of an impoverished and backward country. In the vacuum of power created by the overthrow of the Taliban, they would bring the modern world to Afghanistan, create schools, infrastructure, clinics and public facilities, and bring cultural and political change. They would create long-term stability in a country that had experienced chaos for several generations.

The difficulties of doing this were underestimated. In an accession of hubris, Western powers convinced themselves that Afghans had a strong desire for these changes, that these were their personal and national priorities. “Afghanistan was an unsuccessful laboratory for ideas about how to fix a ruined country,” Smith concludes. That failure is demonstrated not only by the cycles of bombings, ambushes, and assassinations, but also by the stories of military and administrative absurdity, stories that produce the kind of laughter that deflates, in short order, to despair. Smith thinks that what was fundamentally wrong with the war in Afghanistan is that what the United States tried to achieve there was a task that cost more than it was worth and may have very well been impossible to accomplish in the first place. We were seeking to make sure that something like 9/11 could never happen again by controlling every obscure foreign and backward corner in the world in which some evil that might grow to assail us could prosper and endure. Smith argues that we have to learn to live our lives knowing that we cannot eliminate every risk in the world, that we have to be able to better judge what it is possible to achieve as well as better assess the costs of both our “successes” and our misjudgments.

Taliban fighters
Smith’s account has power because it is not only a journalist’s firsthand account of what went wrong-- there is the frisson of immediacy--but because he cared deeply about what he was observing in Afghanistan. He shared the hopes and optimism (perhaps it could be called innocence) of the mission when it began, and he was deeply affected by its failure. We sense this as we read. Smith tells us in the first sentence of his introduction, “We lost the war in Southern Afghanistan and it broke my heart.”

His book will remind readers, as well, about the extraordinary heroism of journalists who cover a conflict. If, as they say, truth is the first casualty of war, the recovery of truth is an enterprise fraught with mortal danger. The risks to Smith's personal safety were enormous. His passion and his moral sense of how what he was doing mattered and might make a difference cause him to stand out in sharp relief from the legions who have cared not at all, who have ever retreated to the comforting fiction that some war was the war of their leaders but not their own.


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