Graeme Smith on NATO’s war in Afghanistan

For the Afghan government to gain the upper hand, however, the foreign money needs to continue flowing. If salaries aren’t paid, local police could turn into insurgents or bandits. Problems with the pay structure would also threaten the integrity of the Afghan military, possibly breaking a key national institution into feuding factions. Donors have promised to continue supporting the cost of Afghan security forces until 2017, but even the most optimistic projections show the donations shrinking in coming years. The Afghan forces will also require help with air support and logistics, making sure that enough diesel, bullets and other supplies reach the front lines. Just as importantly, they need to refrain from beating people, stealing money and fighting each other. They need to behave in a way that inspires trust.

These are tall orders, but not impossible. Afghan security forces with a healthy budget from foreign donors may succeed in keeping the Taliban at bay. There’s also a risk that parts of the country could fall into anarchy, or break into civil war. I keep thinking about the hairdresser in Kandahar city and the cracked ceiling of his shop, always threatening to collapse. I hope that the United States and its allies feel a sense of responsibility about leaving southern Afghanistan in that kind of peril. In his State of the Union address in early 2013, President Barack Obama predicted “by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.” Perhaps the war will be finished for many US troops, but the fight is far from settled. Afghanistan was an unsuccessful laboratory for ideas about how to fix a ruined country. 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 us an ongoing war. At worst, it’s a looming disaster. This is not an argument in favour of keeping battalions of foreign soldiers in the south, but a plea for continued engagement. Troop surges didn’t work; the mission was a debacle. That should not discourage us. Rather, it should spur our work to repair and mitigate the damage in southern Afghanistan, and inspire a more careful approach to the next international crisis. The soldier who told me that modern civilization cannot tolerate empty spots on the map was probably right: we cannot write “Here be dragons” in the blank spaces, cannot turn away and ignore countries that become dangerous. That kind of neglect always bites us in the ass.

Smith, Graeme. The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan. Knopf Canada, Toronto. 2013. p. 282-3

Terrorism and counterfactuals

Modern terrorists have rarely killed more than a few thousand people in any given year. Many times in Afghanistan, when my boots were stained with human gristle, I asked myself if the bloody effort could be justified by the hunt for small bands of madmen.

Defeating terrorism was never described as NATO’s main goal in southern Afghanistan, however. Military interpreters sometimes heard Arabic on the Taliban communication intercepts, but for the most part the international jihadists had disappeared by the time NATO pushed into the south. Instead, the soldiers were assigned to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans. This wasn’t entirely altruistic—military planners believed that the region would become more resistant to extremist ideology with a healthy dose of development—but it wasn’t all cold calculation. Many prominent humanitarians were among those who called for a large contingent of foreign soldiers in the south. In July 2003, more than eighty non-governmental organizations declared the need for a bigger, tougher NATO presence in the provinces. “If Afghanistan is to have any hope for peace and stabilization, now is the time to expand international peacekeepers to key cities and transport routes outside of Kabul,” the statement said. I’m biased in favour of one of the signatories—the International Crisis Group, which later became my employer—but it’s fair to say that the organizations that signed the call to arms were some of the most respected voices in conflict zones around the world. Seasoned policy professionals genuinely felt that an influx of firepower could help the situation. Many of them still feel short-changed, that if only a larger NATO contingent had been rushed into southern Afghanistan, with greater haste, then perhaps things would not have gone so badly.

Smith, Graeme. The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan. Knopf Canada, Toronto. 2013. p. 280-1

Fight them over there, not over here

Karzai suffered criticism for his statement [that security in Afghanistan was better between 2002 and 2006 than in 2012], but he was correct. The NATO surges into the south will almost certainly be remembered as a spectacular mistake. Many of the aims were noble: peace, democracy, rule of law. We thought that a sweeping program of armed nation-building might improve the lives of people in southern Afghanistan and simultaneously remove a haven for terrorism. Both of these guesses proved incorrect. Flooding the south with troops did not have a pacifying effect. The villagers were not, despite the assurances from experts, clamouring for the arrival of international forces. Many of them now hate the outside world more than ever. As the troops withdraw, they leave behind pockets of territory not controlled by the government of Afghanistan, and few guarantees that these will never again serve as incubators for international jihadists.

But how much guarantee did we need, that southern Afghanistan will not rever to a hideout for terrorists? I was never convinced that any military, no matter how large or capable, could roll into a swath of terrain and make sure that conspirators could never again use that location as a base for nefarious plots.

Smith, Graeme. The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan. Knopf Canada, Toronto. 2013. p. 278-9

Exploiting global misunderstanding for local purposes

I told the UN chief about my recent conversations with disgruntled tribesmen, and their complaints about the Afghan police behaving like robbers.

“Yes, this is a case of bad governance,” Mr. Masadykov replied. “I can say now, when we’re talking about Taliban, maybe half of these so-called anti-government elements acting here in this area of the south, they had to join the Taliban movement or anti-government movement because of the misbehaviour of these bad guys.” He paused for effect, looking intently at me, and then looking at my digital recorder on the table between us. He probably understood that it wasn’t good for his career, describing NATO’s triumph as the killing of farmers with legitimate grievances. But he continued anyway: “I recently saw the report where they listed the names of the so-called Taliban commanders. Among them, knowing this area more or less — not all of them, of course, but some of them — I saw they are not Taliban. They were listed by internationals because internationals were informed by the local [Afghan] administration. And we still have people who are trying to play games, using the Canadians and Brits against their own personal tribal enemies. I saw people who were never Taliban, they’re now fighting against some certain tribal elders or certain groups.”

Not long after my story was published, under the headline “Inspiring tale of triumph over Taliban not all it seems,” the UN chief was transferred away from Kandahar. Mr. Masadykov’s boss downplayed his comments, saying they did not reflect the official view of the United Nations.

Smith, Graeme. The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan. Knopf Canada, Toronto. 2013. p. 87-8. Square brackets in original.

Indistinct nationalities

It was easy to guess why the American had been selected to deliver the message: other countries in the NATO alliance were describing their presence as a humanitarian gesture. A British minister infamously predicted the military surge would happen without a shot fired, and the Canadian military was pushing journalists to write about medical programs. By contrast, the Americans advertised their willingness to draw blood. The US colonel aimed his words directly at the insurgents: “If they want to die, stay,” he said. “If they don’t want to die, give up.” This prompted a look of discomfort from a Canadian press officer, who immediately tried to soften the message.

“I would simply add that…” he said.

“I thought I answered it pretty good,” said the American colonel, with a smile at the journalists. The Afghan press didn’t get the joke, however, because to them differences among the foreigners were hard to understand. They found it difficult to imagine that English-speaking soldiers who wore similar uniforms, carried the same weapons and fought on the same side would have fundamental disagreements about the war. They saw all of us as Americans.

Smith, Graeme. The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan. Knopf Canada, Toronto. 2013. p. 58-9. Italics in original

Postponed freshman fifteen

Over the course of the term since September, I have noticed myself progressively gaining weight and am now at the point that I am the heaviest I can recall being at around 200 lbs. This was happening at the same time as I was doing Judo twice a week, but I suspect only a fairly small fraction of the weight gain is from muscle. In fact, I suspect excess weight may be contributing to my apparent tendency to get injured infrequently often during class.

I have generally found 185 lbs to be a manageable, though not ideal, weight. I am going to try to trend back toward that level despite continuing with Judo in January, and will hopefully stop popping buttons off my MEC cargo trousers.