Afghanistan: The Dogs Are Eating Them Now
Graeme Smith has many metaphors for the often bloody mess made of Afghanistan by the supposedly good intentions of the world. One that stayed with me from his knockout new book on the country is that of his favorite barber shop in the south Afghan city of Kandahar. Despite some blue tile and sofa improvements over the years, the roof of the salon picked up a crack in the arched vault from a nearby suicide bomb. The fissure occasionally widens. The hairdresser, and his clients, assume that one day the whole structure will come tumbling down. Until then, however, he just clips to the fashions of the day: long and shaggy when the Taliban are close, cropped or spiky when more pro-Western powers are strong.
“The Dogs are Eating them Now: Our War in Afghanistan” (Knopf Canada, 2013) lays out in chiseled detail much that everyone needs to know about the most important, Pashto-speaking theatre of the Afghan war. The Taliban, Smith discovers, are far more “a bunch of rebellious farmers” than foreign zealots. Military strategies of “clear, hold and build” are delusions, and, like Newton’s law of reaction equaling action, the reality is that levels of violence simply rise in direct correlation to levels of force applied. Foreign forces graft themselves onto local tribal feuds, not a struggle of good versus evil. Many Afghans view the Afghan police as more predatory than the Taliban. Goals and missions may at first be noble, but foot-soldiers on both sides fight mostly in self-defence or for revenge. Ordinary Afghans cannot see the difference between the dominant United States and Canada, or, by implication, any other “willing” coalition partner. Even Canada’s impressive moral codes are stretched to breaking point by association with torturing Afghan security agents. “The Westerners became intimately embroiled with a dirty war,” Smith concludes, “and the filthy awfulness of it will remain a stain on their reputation”.
Finally, for those wondering what will happen after NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, Smith persuasively argues that the likely outcome will be similar to events after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. As long as the West keeps paying for the Afghan government (now 90 per cent of budget revenue), the current regime will likely have the means to keep going, and perhaps things will work more smoothly than when foreign troops were charging around. But the relatively effective regime of President Najib fell within months of Soviet subsidies drying up in 1992, and Smith implies that much the same will happen when the West tires of its Afghan project. In the ensuing chaos, the best-educated Afghans, the backbone of whatever the West was trying to build, will then be almost bound to leave.
Before Smith (full disclosure: the author is now an admired colleague of mine at International Crisis Group) won Canada’s most prestigious non-fiction prize for this book, publishers in London and New York were dismissing its wider relevance. (“We thought it was about Syria”, one told his agent while turning it down, while another rejected it even after the prize because “getting media for a book like this in the States is just too tough”). In fact, it should be required reading for anybody who thinks that nations can be built by foreign troops on temporary assignment. It’s also the best lesson in how lucky we are that no Western soldiers are trying to do in Syria today what they tried and failed to do for 12 years in Afghanistan.
Above all, Smith warns against believing NATO statements that there was any kind of “victory” in this graveyard of empires. “Our modern techniques resemble the early days of medicine, when the human body was poorly understood and doctors prescribed bloodletting or drilled into skulls to treat madness,” he says. He is cautious, too, about the way humanitarian agencies passionately wanted to make the NATO intervention to work for the best. Perhaps there were some eager classes of Afghans on the internationals’ wavelength in Kabul and the north. But, Smith asks, “whose dreams were we chasing in southern Afghanistan? … the road to Kandahar was paved with the best intentions, but the foreigners had no idea what Afghans wanted. That disconnect [had] horrendous consequences.” A persistent piece of graffiti in a Kandahar Air Field washroom – NUKE AFGHANISTAN – prompts Smith to reflect:
Maybe it was a more sophisticated commentary on the absurd logic of the war, a Swiftian modest proposal that revealed the only way Western countries could feel absolutely certain that Afghanistan would never serve as a terrorist haven. Given that no sane person wanted to turn the country into a sheet of radioactive glass, perhaps this was the soldiers’ way of saying that the civilians at home had better get used to accepting risk in their lives, because there was a limit to how many people you can kill as a preventative measure. The phrase ‘never again,’ so often heard after 9/11, represented an impossible task for any military force.
Smith is not naïve about the Taliban, whose propaganda “showed a sickening taste for blood,” and whose tactics included a ruthless pattern of assassinations of anyone they believed to be cooperating with their enemies (500 people in Kandahar at the latest count). But his innovative interviews with the militants taught him four main lessons: the war is basically a family feud; air strikes, rather than being an effective deterrent, often pushed people into the insurgency; things were only made worse by destroying poppy fields (now double the size they were under the Taliban, a drug that “powered the south like … an invisible life-giving energy”); and that the real Afghan nationalism of the Taliban does ultimately leave room to negotiate.
Amid the tragedy and hypocrisy are moments of black comedy. The man given a U.S. contract to plant pomegranates in the war zone jokingly calls it “combat farming.” The military’s positive thinking about how each final push would bring victory becomes a doctrine Smith sums up as “rivers of blood … but it’s a good thing.” He describes the paradox of a “stubbornly optimistic atmosphere [in which] a bright young commander could stand near a troop carrier spattered with human remains and declare victory.” Amidst a rich feast of soldiers’ vocabulary, bullets popping off inside a burning armoured car are known as a “cook-off”. Then there is the Kandahar governor who takes Smith for a walk along a path where a disabled land mine still lay half-concealed and gestures “at the hazard casually, the way somebody might warn a friend to avoid dog poop on a sidewalk.”
Smith told me that much of his reporting technique involved transcribing hundreds of hours of audio recordings, one reason perhaps why the quotes in the book are so vivid. A soldier describes bittersweet Afghanistan as “eating at McDonalds and then going and visiting the slaughterhouse”. Then of course the battlefield quote from a Canadian officer for the book’s title: “We hit a couple of guys over there. Left them out as bait. And the dogs are eating them now”.
He is also a superb photographer, the 16 chapters accompanied by gems of images that capture both desert wastes and human spirit in grainy paper tones of grey. These in turn complement his literary gifts, particularly intense as he writes down exactly what it was like to experience military camp life, battles and suicide bombings. He describes an Afghan earth so fine it is puffs up “feathery plumes of talcum powder”; an early commitment by the internationals to saving Afghanistan is so intense that a whole military camp “seems to vibrate with an energy like the thudding rotors of a helicopter”; and at one point he finds the Afghan government presence in the insecure south like “the dust devils that flitted into empty quarters, appearing and disappearing, taking form only long enough to make you wonder if they had shape.”
Smith’s voice is in tune with other clear-eyed narratives of foreign intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq – Deedee Derksen’s Thee met de Taliban (Tea with the Taliban, my review here), or Peter Van Buren’s We Meant Well (review here). As a Globe and Mail reporter, Smith regrets how he just can’t fit into stories some comments by interviewees that don’t match his Canadian readers’ preconceptions, the same problem I encountered as a Wall Street Journal correspondent (described in my book Dining with al-Qaeda).
When writing a story about apparent popular support in Kandahar for the Taliban, for instance, Smith meets a psychologist who tells him that the main reason for it is the ruling foreigners’ own mistakes, including their desire to change the way Afghan women dress. “’Ninety per cent of women here are happy with the burka’ [the psychologist said]… That evening, back in my tent at the military base, I omitted those quotes from my article about his clinic. They didn’t fit my story about a city under siege by unwelcome militants.”
The book’s last reporting tour de force is from Kandahar’s main prison. Here Smith details with elegant lucidity the failure of all the vigorous, expensive efforts of the internationals to make it safe, well-guarded and impregnable. “None of these improvements would matter, however, if the ideas behind the mission proved incorrect” he writes. “They cleared, they held, they built – but it fell apart in an instant … there was nothing they could do about the bigger problem, that few people in the south seemed enthusiastic about resisting the Taliban”.