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A soldier touches the plaque of a fallen comrade at the war memorial after the last Remembrance Day ceremony at Kandahar Air Field Friday, November 11, 2011 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The Canadian death toll in Afghanistan was 158 soldiers, one diplomat, one journalist and two civilian contractors. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A soldier touches the plaque of a fallen comrade at the war memorial after the last Remembrance Day ceremony at Kandahar Air Field Friday, November 11, 2011 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The Canadian death toll in Afghanistan was 158 soldiers, one diplomat, one journalist and two civilian contractors. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Graeme Smith: Canada leaves ‘a lot of unfinished business’ in Afghanistan Add to ...

Graeme Smith, a former Globe and Mail correspondent and author of The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, works as a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Kabul.

The Dogs Are Eating Them Now is one of five nominees for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for political writing, which will be awarded April 2. The Globe and Mail will feature interviews with each nominated author during the week of March 17.

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When you sat down to write this book, you said you couldn’t help but type expletives because “there is something profane about the errors we committed in Afghanistan.” What were our worst mistakes?

I think the whole enterprise might’ve come off better if we’d been able to adjust what we were doing in real time. It’s tragic that now, in retrospect, all these diplomats and generals are writing memoirs from their armchairs, years afterward, saying, “Oops. Counterinsurgency theory didn’t work out the way we thought it would.” I was always amazed at how information didn’t percolate through the razor-wire barriers surrounding the military bases.

The title of the book comes from a Canadian soldier, who, after putting some enemy corpses out in an unsuccessful bid to bait their comrades, said, “the dogs are eating them now.” What were you thinking at that moment?

It was a revolting image, for sure. It was just one of many, many things that the foreigners tried that didn’t work, ultimately – and one of many things we tried that, in retrospect, maybe we shouldn’t have. It was a reminder of my own failures as a journalist, because I probably should’ve reported that incident at the time. That comes with a lot of regret.

How important do you think Afghanistan will be to NATO’s legacy?

Afghanistan was the biggest thing NATO attempted outside its own territory. You had the world’s greatest armies on their biggest adventure. And it didn’t go well. But it’s important to emphasize it’s not over. NATO is still struggling to find ways of supporting the Afghan forces after the end of the International Security Assistance Force mandate on Dec. 31. If the Afghan security forces are well-enough supported that the state doesn’t collapse, and if Afghanistan struggles through this difficult period of troop withdrawals, then maybe this situation can be redeemed somehow.

The Americans fund military units to carry out aid and social development work; the Canadians and the British put that money in the hands of local agencies. From what you saw, who do you think has it most right?

This is an annoying answer, but I have to say neither. We get so caught up with these bureaucratic questions. The simple fact is that we were sending tens of thousands of heavily armed troops into the remotest, most tribally backward corners of the world, and just not setting them up for success. The mission we gave them was ‘Never again.’ Never again would crazy people organize crazy terrorist attacks. They were trying to stamp out extremist ideas with their 2,000-pound bombs.

To locals, every soldier was an American – regardless of their actual nationality. What effect did that have on Canada’s mission?

The Canadians and the [British] and the other NATO troops laboured under a mistaken idea for a while that they could carve out a separate identity for themselves. I remember Chris Alexander [who was at the time a UN deputy special representative in Afghanistan, and is now a Conservative cabinet minister] telling me that he was worried the Canadians were going to do so well in Kandahar – take such a different tact – that the Canadians might embarrass the Americans.

You noted a Canadian corporal’s assertion that nobody back home would believe the intensity of the fight, because people see Canada as a pacifist nation. Do you think people here misunderstand Canada’s military role in the world?

I don’t think Canada understands its military role in the world. It’s not as though Canada really needs to become an expert at counterinsurgency in dusty, Asian countries, because it’s not as though there’s a huge appetite on the part of the international community to engage in another Afghanistan. There’s a reason why Canada is literally cutting up its armoured vehicles for scrap in Afghanistan. I think this is a soul-searching moment for Canada and its foreign policy.

At one point, you summarized the lessons you’d learned, including that airstrikes drew locals to join the insurgency. How do reflect on those lessons now?

I think it’s important to go back to that chapter and look at where I was wrong. The effect [of troop withdrawal] was that the fighting got more intense. When the Taliban stared into my little camera and said, ‘When foreigners aren’t here, we won’t fight,’ they were wrong. Across the country, violence in the last year was up.

What do you make of Canada’s exit from the country?

The fact is that there’s a lot of unfinished business. The presence of international forces has stirred up a lot of animosities. Military commanders used to say they were going and kicking the hornets’ nest. And they were right. Now there’s a bunch of angry hornets. I think Canada should feel more of a lingering sense of responsibility than I think it does.

You wrote, ‘At best, we are leaving behind an ongoing war. At worst, it’s a looming disaster.’ Which of those feels more likely to you?

In some ways, if the war just continues, that in itself is a disaster. Today, I think we’re leaving behind an ongoing war. I just spent six months researching the short-term prospects, and I came away thinking the Afghan government has a fighting chance of avoiding state collapse. The Afghan government is losing ground but not, so far, losing any critical ground. We’re likely to see bigger, more bitter contests on the countryside, but the urban areas, like where I live, will hopefully stand – at least that’s what I’m betting by living in Kabul.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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