Thursday, February 5, 2015

Book Review: The dogs are eating them now - Canada at war

Graeme Smith: The dogs are eating them now. Alfred A Knopf Canada, 2013; 283 pages, index, photos, maps. Weak points: no references, chapter notes or bibliography.

          An admirable piece of reporting which stimulated a lot of mixed feeling: always a good sign! - shows the author is challenging old paradigms of thinking.. Anyone interested in West / Muslim geopolitics, Canadian foreign policy or Third World "development" ought to put it on their reading list.

         Dogs is good reading and NOT. Smith writes rather well for a journalist (who, after all, are time pressed people). His message, though, is disconcerting for those who still believe in "traditional Western values", particularly those political values originating in the Enlightenment: reason, rights and representative government.

         Dogs tells the story of Canada at war in Afghanistan following the World Trade Center, New York city, attack of September 11, 2001. Smith was sent to cover the war for the  Toronto Globe and Mail. Apparently, he fell in love with the country and its people for he has left journalism to work for the NGO, International Crisis Group in Kabul.

         Dogs is a rather disturbing book for several reasons. The author's style is transparent, he is rather bright and very curious (a real news ferret - especially dirty news ferret). He appears to be a straight-up dude who tells it like he sees it. The fact that he has chosen to work for the reconstruction of  Afghanistan - despite the personal risks - indicates he is writing from the right place: he cares for Afghanistan's people. (One may disagree with his analyses but at least he is writing from the right place.. which is the essential condition for truth.)

        The central "theme" I take away from Dogs is the incredible - unconscious and unconscionable - hubris of the West. I use this term in both senses: 1- narcissistic arrogance and 2- "transgressive" (knowing no bounds or limits). Stunningly, these attitudes underlie so much of what we did in Afghanistan - so much of what the West does everywhere in the world! - even when we imagined ourselves to be acting selflessly and doing good for Afghans.

        The war started off so good and then began to rapidly unravel after initial victories against the Taliban. What happened? Analyses - post mortems - are difficult: human societies are complex with many "variables" interacting simultaneously. Post mortems will always finger "the" reasons a mission failed but perhaps a better question to ask is "how do we learn to avoid disaster in the first place or, at least, learn to read the signs of impending disaster so we can change our course of action before it is too late?"

        I'm not sure if I did discover much of an answer to that question in Dogs (except, perhaps, in the reconfirmation that Western hubris has once again blinded us to signs which, if we were wiser or humbler, could have warned of future difficulties). But I knew that anyway, I knew we are hubristic; Afghanistan's just worse than I imagined..

        By June 2006, the Afghan Taliban, who had sheltered the terrorist movement Al Queda, appeared to be on the run. Al Queda was held responsible for the 9-11 atrocities against the US and now Al Queda had been successfully expelled from Afghanistan. Likewise, it's Taliban host had been ousted and dispersed into the hinterlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. A suitably pro-Occident government had been set up in Kabul. Foreign "reconstruction" money poured in. Roads were paved or built. Girls, whose education was forbidden by the fundamentalist Taliban, now went to new schools which were being built at an incredible pace. Or so it seemed, following the self-laudatory Western press. The schools for girls were especially touted in Canada since Canadian contractors built many of them. Only later did we learn that corruption and unpredicted funding cutoffs ruined many worthwhile projects (schools, hydraulic works..) Some were simply shoddily built. Failed development projects, falling apart, unused or abandoned, dot the landscape. In some cases, compensations were woefully, insultingly, inadequate. One farmer Smith interviewed had his multigenerational family farm confiscated to build a road needed for economic development in the region. The farmer accepted the need for the road but not what he was payed: a lump sum settlement of $350 for a farm which produced $2500 annually and had been in the family for many generations! The following link provides access to four articles on failed Canadian aid projects in Afghanistan which appeared in the Globe and Mail, July 14 to 25, 2012. 

         Less than two years later, by March of 2008, things were going amazingly badly. The "insurgents" - the Taliban and "sympathizers" - were recapturing lost territory. Corruption seemed worse than ever. Suicide bombers were sowing havoc with a new wave of attacks, often against supposedly secure or "hardened" targets. One can cite multiple brazen jailbreaks at the Kandahar city prison, liberating many suspected Taliban along with common criminals. Some degree of inside assistance to the insurgents - even within the civilian population of the neighborhood of the jail - must be assumed. "Foreigners" were so unpopular that, prior to one jailbreak, Taliban fighters actually went brazenly door to door warning people in the prison's neighborhood to be out of town when the shooting started. And none of those people bothered informing the authorities of the impending jailbreak! Meanwhile, the drug trade in opium and heroin boomed as never before, fed by lots of loose foreign money and a nascent local consumer culture (electronics, SUVs, gated communities.. for the emergent Western-style bourgeoisie).

          In conclusion, Smith lists four general errors or misconceptions committed by NATO forces:

1- Afghanistan is a tribal society. The war against terrorism, on Afghan soil, tended to degenerate and dissipate into tribal feuding, actually exacerbating traditional cleavages and feuds. "Those connected to the rich foreigners showered patronage on their own clans, while the excluded groups jealously fought for their share." (page 202)

2- Airstrikes feeds insurgency. "Technology" is the magic bullet, we think. The Vietnam Conflict had a 50 : 1 kill ratio due to the technological superiority of Western forces. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the kill ratio was over 100 : 1. Such lethal asymmetry makes war palatable for Western publics. Just enough allied dead to strike patriotic chords but not enough to impel bloodthirsty mobs to set up guillotines on the White House lawn for a regime change. But, as we have learned elsewhere, "there is no free lunch, kid!" There are hidden costs (externalities) of high tech war. Most obvious is "collateral damage", civilians killed in error, either in targeted drone hits or in more conventional bombing and strafing runs. Worse, Afghanistan is an "honor culture": familial honor is sacred, dishonor requires revenge. "Afghans saw the international forces as cowardly when they called fire power from the sky. When civilians died, whole families felt a need for revenge" (page 204)

3- Opium is a cottage industry. Dissatisfied with his access to sources, Smith tried an experiment. He sent a trusted confidant to interview Taliban and insurgent sympathizers, always asking the same set of 20 questions. 80% of the interviewees admitted to growing opium (for the cash, since they were poor and the war wasn't helping..) 50% claimed to be be victims of opium eradication programs. Interestingly, the insurgents claimed that, if they could make money other than by growing poppy, they would prefer to do so. They recognized the social and moral issues involved in opium cultivation: criminality, addiction, production of a crop which injures others.. The first question which comes to my mind here: why, 70 years after World War II, are countries like Afghanistan still "economically depressed and technologically backward"? Have we spent our money badly, on arms rather than on small scale, participatory, sustainable development? On investment in large scale cash crop monocultures to the exclusion - even detriment - of social infrastructure like schools, hospitals, old age pensions, family planning / birth control / abortion, female education, child support (for education)..? It's obvious we've done something wrong! "As a man sows, so shall he reap" - Jesus (but also the Buddha and other world Teachers)

Here is the link to Taliban interviews conducted for the Globe and Mail by Graeme Smith and colleagues: 

4- Perhaps most surprisingly, the Taliban are nationalistic - or patriotic - reactionaries who want to expel the morally, spiritually corrupting influence of the West. They do not appear to be "international terrorists", they just want foreigners out of their country. (Other groups, of course, can and do, promote international jihadism which raises the question: are we fighting the right war in Afghanistan? It was supposed to be about fighting international terrorism..) 

         Will we learn from our past mistakes? In Iraq and Afghanistan many of the errors of Vietnam appear to be repeated. Can democracy be imposed by war on a society with little or no democratic tradition? So far, one must admit, the results aren't too promising.. 

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