In those early, hopelessly naive years, when Canadian soldiers and their energetic general encamped in Kandahar to kill “scumbags” and set Afghanistan on the road to democracy, the accompanying media fell into line – in love with the general, the soldiers and their mission.
The early coverage was largely ahistorical, gung-ho, a big group hug for the Canadians – a travesty of journalism, really. What Canadians needed then was a clear-eyed analysis of the country and its history, an understanding of its regional antagonisms, an appreciation of the daunting, even impossible task Canada and its government – to say nothing of the entire North Atlantic Treaty Organization – had signed up for in that forbidding, post-medieval place.
Many years later, as the Americans prepare to withdraw their forces and the last Canadians (trainers for the Afghan army) can see the end of their time in Afghanistan, Westerners will have left behind graveyards of their fallen and a country still corrupt, tribally divided and closer to civil strife than civil peace.
After that first full flush of nonsense reporting that, in fairness, played well at home and was supplemented by the country’s biggest windbag on Hockey Night in Canada, along came another group of correspondents, sympathetic to the troops and their travails, of course, but willing to question the party line and explore beyond the perimeters of the Canadian base in Kandahar.
There were some very good journalists in this group, brave men and women in a place growing more violent every day. One lost her life. Another was held hostage. Another was seriously wounded.
The Globe and Mail’s Graeme Smith (now with the International Crisis Group in Kabul) was among them. He stayed longer than most, took extraordinary risks around Kandahar and in Quetta across the Pakistani border, interviewed the Taliban (despite criticism for giving a microphone to the enemy) and, more than anyone else, exposed the story of Afghan prisoner detainees turned over by Canadians and other NATO forces to local authorities, who tortured and abused them.
Canada’s government lied about many aspects of the detainee affair, insisting that Ottawa didn’t know what was happening or that Afghan authorities were examining all allegations of misconduct – despite memos from Canadian officials on the ground saying that wasn’t so.
Mr. Smith explains the detainee affair, from the prison where he visited and interviewed prisoners to the government’s mendacity in the House of Commons, in The Dogs Are Eating Them Now, a memoir of his correspondent days in Kandahar and Kabul. But the detainees represent but one small part of a wise, enthralling, detailed, realistic account of his time in Afghanistan.
Many are the lessons from Mr. Smith’s book, but one emerges above all: that the presence of foreigners did not necessarily turn the tide against the Taliban. Indeed, the foreigners’ military forays and strange (to the Pashtuns) ways may even have allowed the Taliban to survive and, ultimately, to grow.
Mr. Smith doesn’t say so, but he would be honest to admit that his portrait is of only one part of a sprawling, diverse country. There were and are much less violent parts of Afghanistan, where leaders fought against the Taliban before and might do so again after the Americans leave.
His is a picture of Kandahar and its surroundings, where the Pashtun code of tribal identity and revenge has for centuries proved difficult for foreigners to understand. In southern Afghanistan, at any rate, “we are leaving behind an ongoing war; at worst, it’s a looming disaster,” Mr. Smith says.
How the West, including Canadians, unintentionally made things worse is a textbook case of cross-cultural misunderstanding and hubris. The West will tell itself heroic stories, then forget about Afghanistan.
Perhaps unexpectedly, given his depressing account, Mr. Smith concludes that saying goodbye would be a mistake. The Afghan government Westerners leave behind will need support, and lots of it. Without foreign money and help, he argues, the chances of a moderately peaceful Afghanistan seem remote – as remote as that support continuing.