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”.
When I was wondering what to call my new book on the broader Middle East, I went to Homer’s bookshop in Istanbul to check out the many shelves full of competition. I soon decided I didn’t want my title to be heavy with dry theorification about Islam, democracy, politics, or terrorism. It also seemed a bit soft to join the romantic set, beckoning readers with images of Persian nights, caravans, deserts, marshes and mountains. But I didn’t want to go to the other extreme with gory high drama. In just recent years, the sanguinary sub-class alone has included dozens of titles like Holy Blood; the Blood of Lambs; the Blood of the Moon; Blood, Sweat and Steel; Blood and Oil in the Orient; and my favorite, The Land of Blood and Honey.
Middle East book titles have to struggle for attention: about 300 come out every year in the U.S. alone. I wanted something that conjured up multiple dimensions, like Stephen Glain’s Dreaming of Damascus (actually about the economics of the front-line Arab states), or Jonathan Randal’s After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? (about the Kurds). When I gave up on my first title idea — Mr. Q., I Love You — and settled on Dining with al-Qaeda, I was pleased that I’d featured the Q-word, but in an unexpected way that might draw in a reader seeking the back story. What better way to symbolize the human side of things than breaking bread together? Little did I realize that there’s nothing new under the sun, and that there were already volumes called Dining with Terrorists, The Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Tea with Hezbollah. They have now been joined by Tea with the Taliban: war reporting for beginners.
Actually it’s Thee met de Taliban, since it’s written in Dutch (De Geus, 2010) by Deedee Derksen. It’s fresh and topical, the fruit of Derksen’s past four years living and working in Afghanistan, mostly reporting for the Dutch left-leaning newspaper De Volkskrant. I was particularly interested to see that in some ways she shared my own confusion about the country, especially about the Taliban and women.
Derksen meets women who tell her that life was actually o.k. under the Taliban, and that things had gone downhill since they were driven from power. The bigger problem in women’s lives was violence and chaos. Schools for girls were all very well, but rights were not much use without honest courts to enforce them. As Derksen says: “I would hear from rural women that there was no change in their lives before or after the Taliban” and that, compared to deeper problems like unemployment and power cuts, “Western concerns with cultural matters just poured oil on the flames.”
Derksen’s mission to Afghanistan took flight when her new posting was announced at a public event, at which her Volkskrant editor was challenged about the lack of coverage of the ‘other side’ by Joris Luyendijk, an ex-journalist Dutch commentator known for his iconoclasm about Dutch coverage of Middle East news in his book Het Zijn Net Mensen, recently published in English as Hello Everybody. But she soon finds herself wrapped up in the expatriate whirl of Kabul.
“The crazy thing is that as a war correspondent in Afghanistan it’s not at all easy to get to the war,” she says, despite the fact, as she details, the Pentagon spends an annual $4.7 billion on public relations and employs 27,000 people to supply upbeat pictures and stories for the press corps. One of the Pentagons front-line media handlers digs up Derksen’s file in their computer, along with her picture and an evaluation of her reports. If a reporter is judged to be “negative”, this handler says, the Pentagon will cut him or her off.
She’s judged to be neutral and gets to see a terrifying part of the American side of the war in a distant mountain valley: “that’s it, people: bombs, grenades, and fear so pure that you begin believing in God on the spot”. But she’s frustrated that she can’t hear at first hand what Afghan villages think of what is being done in their name, and worries that maybe she’s giving a one-dimensional, Hollywood rewrite of what people already think the war is. She gets hooked on the idea of getting to the bottom of it all, and of not being like the Westerners in their “luxury jail” in Kabul, who speak about what Afghans think without ever speaking to Afghans. “The more often I went [to Kabul], the more often I wanted to go. It was a sort of gold rush fever.”
Panning for this gold was tough. Travel proved dangerous and the risk of kidnapping great. Afghan militants targeted Westerners, be they journalists, aid workers or diplomats. Reporting was a juggling act of managing fixers, telephone calls to Taliban commanders, swapping information with local journalists, opportunistic interviews in Kabul with provincial visitors, and occasional sorties into the countryside. Western soldiers appear as almost accidental actors. One Dutch lieutenant studied to be a hotelier and tells Derksen “and then I went and did this.” An American “Major B”, who only “lives in the world of Major B”, gives her bibles to study admits that he is busy trying to proselytize the Afghan population – and then advises her to read Tolkien, “an author at home in the Christian tradition”. She attends a painstakingly arranged town-hall meeting between the American troops and Afghans, at which the Americans rush away before listening to anybody. And, of course, editors all want it summed up in 700 words, with villain and victim clearly identified.
She admits that sometimes, the more she hears about the real Afghanistan war, the less she understands. Reporting one story, “every Mohammad says the other Mohammad is a murderer, which the said Mohammad admits, while pointing the finger straight back. At Mohammad.” There are tales of head-hacking cruelty by the Taliban, for sure, but she attacks the myth of any ideological divide between Taliban and non-Taliban, says non-Pashtuns do not necessarily rule out cooperating with the group and that the Karzai government is in a semi-permanent negotiation with them about its own survival. Above all, she notes that no Afghan faction is necessarily more ‘Islamic’ than another, all having shared in an upsurge in religious extremism and violence during the past decades of war.
Among ordinary Afghans, she finds farmers have little incentive to cultivate more than poppies for opium, since there are no refrigerated stores or roads to transport vegetables or other normal crops. During an attempt to track down the financing of an aid project, she finds that everyone believes a different sum of money is involved. Afghans feel Koran schools are preferable to no schools at all; yet ignorance means that young, poor, illiterate Afghans are susceptible to anything, from acting as suicide bombers to believing that American soldiers’ sunglasses mean they can see straight through you. She reaches one Afghan village to find its conservatism a façade, with everything for sale in secret, from whisky to opium to prostitutes, be they young or old, women or men. “All very hypocritical,” the phlegmatic local Afghan governor tells her.
She shows again and again how the chief ingredient of the Afghanistan war is village feuds, sometimes magnified by Western arms and support into province-wide conflicts that are mistakenly interpreted as being struggles about the fate of the Kabul regime. She finds that storied gunfights between American troops and the “Taliban” can also be described more simply as clashes between the Americans and “armed men who hate the Americans”, fueled in part by a high rate of civilian Afghan casualties rarely admitted to by the Pentagon press machine. Between Afghans, the role of victim and killer has switched so often that everyone is performing in both roles, all waiting for their chance of a sign of weakness to “hold the other’s head under the water.”
Derksen’s strongest criticism is of the Western governments, who ignored Afghanistan for too long and still give it far less support for reconstruction than other post-conflict situations. (In East Timor, she says there was one international peacekeeper for every 65 people; the figure is one for every 5,380 in Afghanistan). The US is blamed for storming in like cowboys in 2001, shooting for al-Qaeda and hiring anyone who would help, however corrupt. “The US and other NATO countries pretend that there is a properly functioning government, but there isn’t”, she quotes a disillusioned American aid worker as saying. “It’s a band of criminals who are raping the country. We pretend that we’re not responsible, but we are.”
Looking at the four-year Dutch misadventure trying and failing to bring peace and development to the province of Uruzgan, she asks whether The Hague had ever thought through what it meant to take their mission into a place where the US was arming and supporting a regional faction that was clearly oppressing many local people – and on whose support the Dutch also relied for their lifeline of convoy-borne supplies. Or was The Hague in fact fully aware of the situation, sending in its troops simply to be a good U.S. ally, and never mind about the fate of the Afghans? The whole disaster, she reckons, was a bad piece of theater that could only be called “War For the Wrong People Against the Wrong People.”
I read much of Tea with the Taliban on a transatlantic flight, and on arrival in the U.S. I did some occasional testing of its findings. Indeed, judging by my straw poll of experiences and conversations over a week, America still seemed to be both aware of and disconnected from the Afghan reality. Shawn, my driver from the airport to a lecture at Amherst College in Massachusetts, knew a thing or two. His best friend was serving on the Afghan side of the Pakistan border, and had just been back home to tell of his experiences. The poor friend was apparently strung out as taut as the trip-wire of an IED, drinking heavily as he told of his ‘seven confirmed kills’, of being administered military drugs to stay awake on night duties, and, in a telling irony, of being unable to see as much from his base watchtower with state of the art night-sight equipment as his Afghan army companion could see with his bare eyes. On top of that, as Derksen often points out, he was utterly sealed off from the Afghan civilian population.
On the first morning of my visit, the hotel’s complimentary copy of USA Today had just one page of foreign news. Half of it was a story called “Afghan villagers stronger against Taliban” (here). The US general in charge of a province, perhaps in charge of Shawn’s friend, was claiming that a new strategy aimed at making Afghan villages defend themselves was working. This was an interesting claim, given that Derksen shows in her book that it is precisely in the villages that the Afghan war starts and Western influence ends. And, illustrating another of Derksen’s complaints, there wasn’t a single Afghan voice in the piece, let alone a quote from the Taliban, or any sign that the reporter had been able to go to an Afghan village to check out if indeed its inhabitants felt stronger. Instead the report was just assertions by the military, accompanied by a few vague ‘to be sure’ paragraphs, which, if taken seriously, would actually contradict the military claims, and, indeed, the whole point of writing the story. As International Crisis Group says in its new report on Afghanistan: “An alluring narrative of a successful counter-insurgency campaign has begun to take shape, but the storyline does not match facts on the ground.” Or, as a recent call by some of the best writers on and aid workers in Afghanistan put it, “the military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure.” The only verified new fact in that USA Today report appeared to be the obituary notice naming two more young American soldiers in their early 20s killed by an IED in Kandahar.
(The coverage is not all like this, of course. Much more to the point was another piece done around the same time for National Public Radio’s intrepid Quil Lawrence (here). Jumping from helicopters perilously perched on cliff-edges, Quil laconically reveals the mindlessness of the war and how little communication there is even within the various U.S. groups trying to get a grip on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border – let alone between the Americans and the Afghans themselves.)
My other conversations in America did not encourage me to believe that much was about to change. Amherst, I was told by the generous professorial hosts of my visit for an evening lecture about Turkey’s new strategic choices, is one of the top liberal arts colleges in the United States, with 8000 candidates for 400 places every year. Yet not a single student showed up for a brown-bag lunch organized to discuss journalism and the Middle East. In Washington DC, a highly placed former US official informed me that there was no chance of the US leaving Afghanistan in 2014, as is being publicly suggested. Yet the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not even feature in the recent mid-term election campaign.
If anger about these expensive and damaging conflicts was being expressed anywhere, it was in worsening sentiment blaming all Muslims for the trouble. The Moroccan immigrant who drove me away from Amherst was sanguine about his personal safety, but said that the real enemy was ignorance, the problem that writers like Derksen and I are trying to combat with books about Middle Eastern realities on the ground. “I came to the U.S. to be a guide to the Moroccan pavilion at Disney world, and that’s the kind of place where you really find out how little people know about what goes on outside America,” he said. “One person looked at me and asked if in Morocco we lived in the trees.”