Sta­bil­ity proves elu­sive in trou­bled Afghanistan

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Ron Kir­byson

IT is said that life in a war zone is cheap, but con­di­tions in south­ern Afghanistan in the last cen­tury have been sin­gu­larly dif­fi­cult. In a style marked by smooth­ness as well as clar­ity and ex­cep­tional de­tail, Cana­dian for­eign cor­re­spon­dent Graeme Smith de­scribes the stress­ful state of con­di­tions in Afghanistan, par­tic­u­larly the south­ern part. He was 26 and full of op­ti­mism when he ar­rived in the trou­bled coun­try in 2005 with his Globe and Mail as­sign­ment. He hoped to find Cana­dian and other NATO troops sup­port­ing some kind of demo­cratic life­style. Al­to­gether Smith vis­ited south­ern Afghanistan 17 times from 2005 to 2011, work­ing in­de­pen­dently of the in­ter­na­tional forces, and also spend­ing time with U.S., Cana­dian, Bri­tish and Dutch troops. Though he strove to main­tain a pos­i­tive view, and even de­vel­oped an af­fec­tion for the be­lea­guered coun­try, he quickly rec­og­nized the like­li­hood that Cana­dian forces and other NATO units were bound to fail in ef­forts at pre­serv­ing sta­bil­ity. Among Smith’s dif­fi­cul­ties in south­ern Afghanistan was that he stood out as a for­eigner. Ev­ery­body seemed to know it, even though he wore lo­cal cloth­ing (the long shirt, for ex­am­ple). Though many peo­ple spoke English, he was care­ful in its use, ex­cept with friends. He man­aged to find and em­ploy a num­ber of trans­la­tors, who served as in­form­ers. And in spite of the Tal­iban, he makes friends and col­lects in­for­ma­tion that helped him write and file re­ports and jour­nal ar­ti­cles. Much of his re­search and in­ter­view­ing had to take place with him con­cealed in the hot back seat of a car with the win­dows closed. Dan­ger was con­stant. One minute peo­ple were sit­ting at a table drink­ing tea; sec­onds later they were div­ing under the fur­ni­ture in re­sponse to an ex­plo­sion. One real­ity to which it took Smith time to adapt was the con­stant dan­ger of be­ing shot at or blown up by bombs, es­pe­cially ones em­bed­ded in the ground. Mean­while the NATO troops were ag­gres­sive in their en­coun­ters. Their out­ings took on the na­ture of “hunt­ing ex­pe­di­tions” against the in­sur­gents. A ma­jor is­sue arose be­tween NATO forces and the Afghan sys­tem — charges that pris­on­ers turned over to the lo­cal forces were beaten and tor­tured. Smith, as well as some other jour­nal­ists, helped ex­pose such prac­tices. One of Smith’s bolder ef­forts was to meet and com­pare pos­si­ble plans with the Tal­iban. Con­trary to ex­pec­ta­tion, these fron­tiers­men did not strike him as be­ing so vi­cious or ag­gres­sive. As Smith notes, “The Tal­iban did not seem like men who nec­es­sar­ily wanted to crash planes into dis­tant cities, and most of them would never see a sky­scraper in their lives.” A meet­ing Smith did not find use­ful to seek was one with Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai. Un­like the NATO forces which were ac­tive in the front lines, “risk-tak­ing was not fash­ion­able in the Afghan gov­ern­ment.” To find even an Afghan po­lice chief took ex­cep­tional pa­tience and as­sis­tance from lo­cal ci­ti­zens. Find­ing a po­lice chief was no great bonus any­way, as cor­rup­tion was so ram­pant that cops were more than likely to be re­spon­si­ble for crimes. Ac­tu­ally crime was dif­fi­cult to de­fine in Afghanistan. Crime was so much the norm that fight­ing it was futile. Yet the cul­ti­va­tion of pop­pies was re­garded by the au­thor­i­ties in Afghanistan as il­le­gal. It seems to have been just about the only pol­icy of the lo­cal gov­ern­ment. Mean­while, for­eign­ers crit­i­cized it as the foun­da­tion of in­ter­na­tional traf­fic in drugs. Smith ar­rived in Afghanistan be­liev­ing that Cana­di­ans and other NATO forces could es­tab­lish a mod­er­ate and sta­ble state in Afghanistan, yet they failed, un­able to man­age the ba­sic test of state­hood: mo­nop­oly on the le­git­i­mate use of vi­o­lence. Ron Kir­byson is a Win­nipeg writer

and ed­u­ca­tor.

The Dogs Are Eat­ing

Them Now Our War in Afghanistan By Graeme Smith Knopf Canada, 298

pages, $32

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