SCREENINGS, READINGS & MEANINGS
By Gerald Schmitz
What in the world after terror’s hot summer?
Part one of two parts: as Afghanistan turns
The number 13 is said to be unlucky, and on the eve of the 13th anniversary of 9/11, the dismal results of the global “war on terror” would seem to confirm that. Islamist fighters more extreme than Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida, including some recruited from western countries including Canada, now control large areas of Syria and Iraq as I will explore further next week.
Afghanistan’s Taliban regime was the first target of the post-9/11 war on terror. So looking at what is happening there is a good place to start.
Korengal (U.S. 2014)
How much do we still care about Afghanistan’s future? Clearly the decision to withdraw all Canadian troops has been popular. And although the government congratulated itself with a “national day of honour” in May, no high government official was present when the Canadian flag was lowered in Kabul on March 12. Precious few could name our ambassador there (it’s Deborah Lyons). But after 158 dead, how much has been accomplished? Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election is a months-long soap opera of fraud allegations and sectarian hostility. Insecurity reigns in much of the country. The regime we backed could still collapse.
Canada has yet to produce a really significant feature film on the conflict, certainly nothing on the order of Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo or the Danish Armadillo. Hetherington was tragically killed in Libya in 2011. Junger’s followup Korengal, using work done with his fallen comrade, further examines the circumstances lived by American soldiers in this murderous valley in northeastern Afghanistan. As indicated by the subtitle “this is what war feels like,” the focus explored through post-combat interviews is on how it affects them. Call this another example of the social psychology of young men with guns. (As Joseph Heath quotes Edward Shils in Enlightenment 2.0: “The soldier’s motivation to fight is not derived from his perceiving and striving toward any strategic or political goals; it is a function of his need to protect his primary group and to conform to its expectations.”)
The conflict seen from the point of view of young Americans in uniform and embedded journalists has even inspired a pseudo-documentary of the “found footage” genre in Damian Voerg’s oddly named Cigarette Soup (which is military-speak for onion soup that looks like an ashtray-filled with water). Like Lone Survivor it was actually filmed in New Mexico though inspired by incidents related by the filmmaker’s brother, and its deadly conclusion leaves no doubt about the ruthlessness of the Taliban enemy. In this crude macho world it’s kill or be killed, no questions asked.
Such films tell us little about Afghans, so documentaries like Danish-Afghan journalist Nagieb Khaja’s My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone (http://myafghanistan.dk/) help fill in a few of the blanks. Concerned that a realistic picture wasn’t reaching the West, Khaja, who was once held prisoner by the Taliban, went to violent areas of Helmand province and distributed 30 cameras to citizens who recorded aspects of their daily lives. The result is uneven and inconclusive but at least puts Afghan faces on the conflict.
Any Canadian who cares about what our 12 years of military involvement have wrought should read Graeme Smith’s The Dogs are Eating Them Now — a title that refers to an incident during Operation Medusa when Canadian troops used Taliban corpses as bait in an unsuccessful attempt to ambush insurgents coming to retrieve them.
We lost the war in southern Afghanistan and it broke my heart. . . . We have abandoned our lofty goals. Now it’s all about damage control, about exercising options that limit embarrassment. The years when our armies pounded their way into the south will be remembered for heights of violence that exceeded the gruesome body count of the Taliban wars in the 1990s. . . . Our attempts to set up a moderate Afghan administration gave birth to a regime that resembled neither a fully democratic government nor a group capable of ruling its entire territory. . . . The insurgents were not defeated. We killed thousands of them but their movement would not die.
Smith admits that at the beginning of the intervention he was among those sharing a naive optimistic faith about its declared aims and good intentions, which actual experience soon showed going badly awry. We knew far less than we claimed. Much of the official reporting of progress lacked any credible foundation. With that rhetoric now gone, “we’re leaving behind a dangerous mess.” Smith observes that the “Afghan economy is a bubble created with war money,” not to mention riddled by corruption and narco-trafficking. In military terms: “Over a decade of war has settled nothing, and that in itself is profoundly unsettling.” It’s a highly unstable situation that could degenerate into another bloody civil war. Realistically this is where we are.
“The moment when we hold our breath, watching anxiously as the foreign troops pull back, should serve as a time of reflection about our mistakes.” Unfortunately there’s scant evidence of the current government doing so. It’s as if the Afghanistan engagement is over, earning a merit badge for our troops but otherwise put away on the back burner if not out of mind. So journalists who have lived for years in the country like Kabul-based Smith, who now researches for the International Crisis Group, provide an invaluable service through their analysis.
Some key points emerge from the wealth of detailed observations Smith offers. On the military side, there was a great deal of hubris and bravado masking slim achievements. Each eruption of insurgent violence was said to be the “last gasp” of a Taliban too easily routed in 2001. Yet the counter-insurgency surges of 2005 — 2007 (the worst years for Canadian losses) failed to produce stability of any duration. Indeed “every increase in troop number in southern Afghanistan brought a corresponding increase in violence” — including a disturbing number of civilian casualties. Smith also recounts the sorry facts of the mistreatment of detainees turned over to Afghan forces, in particular those ending up in the custody of the notorious National Directorate of Security (NDS) with its history of torture from the Soviet era. Official denials and coverups just made it worse. “The westerners became intimately embroiled with a dirty war, and the filthy awfulness of it will remain a stain on their reputation.”
As for the dream of instituting democratic “good governance,” despite several rounds of elections (those of 2009 were particularly fraudulent) and huge sums spent on foreign advisers, the record of 12 years of Hamid Karzai’s presidency is rather dismal. (Any successor could hardly do worse.) At best Karzai barely controlled the capital. “In the rest of the country, the influence of Kabul was a gust of wind that stormed into town and vanished.” In many cases former warlords and tribal leaders recycled themselves into regional strongmen with far more sway than the corrupt centralized and mostly impotent administration in Kabul. Some had private militias, ran drug-trade mafias, were involved in smuggling, kidnapping and extortion. Illicit money infected all levels of government in positions that provided opportunities to share in the profits. Meanwhile foreign expatriates, often young and not there for a long time, lived in their own Kabul bubble that Smith describes as an alcohol-fuelled “party circuit,” perhaps to relieve the tension and disappointment.
In regard to the persistent Taliban insurgency, Smith argues persuasively that “basic truths” about it have not been widely understood by the generals and politicians making decisions. Having conducted his own on-the-ground survey he identifies four important lessons: “the war is a family feud”; “air strikes pushed people to join the insurgency”; “destroying poppy field makes things worse”; “Taliban nationalism leaves room to negotiate.” However ignorant and religiously misguided may be Taliban fighters, their goal is limited to a conservative and clean Islamic government for Afghans, not global jihad.
The temptation as foreign troops depart and foreign money shrinks is to put it all behind us. But dropping Afghanistan as “an unsuccessful laboratory for ideas about how to fix a ruined country” is irresponsible. “It’s morally unacceptable to claim success in a few limited areas — child mortality, access to education — and walk away. At best, we are leaving behind an ongoing war. At worst, it’s a looming disaster.” Smith calls for continued engagement “to repair and mitigate the damage in southern Afghanistan, and inspire a more careful approach to the next international crisis.”
Will that plea fall on deaf ears?
*Note: Speaking of damage, in theatrical release at last is The Kill Team (http://killteammovie.com/), best documentary at Tribeca 2013, reviewed here June 26 last year.