Seeing through the fog of war: Graeme Smith on Canada in Afghanistan

Graeme Smith stood out among his colleagues for his comprehensive coverage of the war in Afghanistan in a 2007 to 2009 posting for the Globe and Mail. Now he is on a book tour, promoting The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, published by Random House. He recently sat down for an interview with rabble.ca.

Smith, dressed in a dark brown sports jacket, is soft spoken and modest in person. He has written a frank and honest account of his posting in southern Afghanistan in the conflict zones.

It was easy, he explains, to identify initially as he did with the NATO solders, diplomats and NGOs who arrived in Afghanistan in the post 9/11 period with the naive idea of reshaping the seemingly medieval country in a significant way.

"Any foreign journalist who claimed to be a dispassionate observer was kidding himself. The project involved 'us' in the broadest sense. As reporters we may have used the third person in our text, but in conversation we slipped easily into a collective 'we' that included the whole panoply of foreigners," he writes in the new book.

For Smith disillusionment with the official narrative coming out of Ottawa and Washington -- about the war being largely a campaign against global jihadists -- happened in 2006, while he was covering the largely Canadian-led Operation Medusa NATO onslaught in the Panjwai Valley against the Taliban insurgents.

Rather, it turned out that NATO soldiers were facing local farmers fuelled by a hot resentment against the abuses of a predatory and thieving Afghan police force (in Pashto they are called topakan which translates loosely as gun-lord or warlord), led by a commander from a rival tribe -- Abdul Razik. Today Razik is a Brigadier General, the "most powerful" man in southern Afghanistan as head of his country's security apparatus.

"I was with soldiers on this very big operation, Canada's biggest fight since the Korean War, and when I actually started to scratch beneath the surface and try to figure out whom exactly we were fighting against, the narrative didn't match," he tells rabble.ca.

During our conversation, Smith is diplomatic when it comes to other foreign media correspondents from Canada in Afghanistan. He maintains that the majority of his fellow scribes were "same as me trying to scratch out bits of information," while following the progress of Canadian troops on the ground as part of a NATO led mission over a ten period in Afghanistan before the exit of our combat units in 2011.

Nonetheless, Smith was fortunate to have an employer -- the Globe and Mail -- which kept him and two paid researchers in the field for a lengthy period of time covering this difficult war and the Canadian role. He cannot say if his former newspaper would undertake the same kind of commitment in terms of money and resources on another foreign venture of this kind.

"I had an advantage over some of my colleagues," says Smith. "While a lot of news organizations cycled a lot of people through, they maintained a presence there but with different correspondents. It made it harder for the journalists to get their head around what is going on."

With news organizations reducing their budgets for overseas coverage of news events, it appears there are fewer journalists of the "old school" variety, he says, who stick around and live in a foreign land for years trying to understand what is happening and reporting back home. He doesn't mention their names but presumably he is referring to greyer oldsters like Patrick Cockburn (Ireland) and Robert Fisk (UK) who have been living and writing about the Middle East for a long time.

Smith is only 34 but he is clearly more of the old school. While his colleagues are gone and Canadian interest in Afghanistan has waned, he still resides in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, watching the events unfold with other NATO forces including the U.S. winding down their military operations.

These days, he is working as a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, a non-profit Washington DC based organization, writing up reports after following "threads" from previous investigations as a reporter. The only difference between what he does now and his previous position at the Globe is that he can now make policy recommendations.

Smith predicts that with most NATO soldiers are gone, with the exception of a small U.S. force training the Afghan military, a new confrontation is shaping up in Afghanistan.

He doubts that the Kabul based government of Hamid Karzai backed by a stronger military will immediately fall as has been predicted, as long as foreign donor money from countries like the U.S. and Canada remains available. And he is also not sure that negotiations with the Taliban leading to a substantial settlement can happen in the short run.

"Negotiations are not going to produce substantive results for the next 12 to 24 months, probably not for the next few years because both the Taliban and the Afghan government are eager to prove themselves on the battlefield."

"Both sides dramatically underestimate each other's power, and the abrupt departure of foreign troops [from Afghanistan] has brought us to a situation where nobody really knows where the military balance lies and so if you don't know where the battle lines are drawn, it is hard to negotiate."

What makes the ICC unique, Smith says, is that it is one of the few non-profit research organizations operating in a place of Afghanistan that publishes reports that are freely available for the public.

He still talks with a lot of local Afghans as well as senior government officials but he cannot communicate directly with the Taliban as he did through various creative ways (including a poll) while as a reporter the Globe and Mail.

The ICC, he reveals, is governed as an American registered charity in the District of Columbia in Washington which disallows any contact with people deemed as terrorists. "They are pretty careful about following the rules about [the official US government] terrorism blacklist," he told me. At the moment Smith says he is trying to figure out how he can accomplish his research without violating this provision.

But at the time when the notion of talking to Taliban in any kind of peace negotiations is not exactly heretical anymore in Washington and Kabul these restrictions may in the long run be superfluous.

However, it was not the Taliban that drove Smith out of Afghanistan temporarily but the challenge for any journalist, western or Afghan in following the drug corruption inside the Kabul government among former warlords, the military and government officials.

After reporting in 2009 about a connection between the top Afghan counter-narcotics police official General Mohammed Daud Daud and local drug dealers, Smith got the hard message it might be a good idea for his health to leave Afghanistan, which he did for two years. The subsequent death of Daud in a bomb attack eased up things for him considerably and so he was able to return.

"Foreigners really have trouble grasping how the profits from the world's largest drug production gets distributed; the estimated value... how big is the Taliban's cut, how big is the mafia's inside the government. If you look at all of the best guesses from the foreigners they are all over the map, I don't know we know very much," he explained.

Smith is not a journalist anymore but he still has concerns about the future of foreign reporting. With the above mentioned newsroom budgets, there is a greater dependence by the top media organizations on freelance journalists, who are essentially on their own in terms of resources and lack of insurance -- beyond payment for the story.

This explains why he showed some sympathy in a recent review of a book, House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout and a co-author. Lindhout ventured as a young freelancer into Somalia to report on the civil war in that country when she was subsequently kidnapped, endured physical beatings and sexual assault and kept hostage for 15 months by a local gang.

"Some of my Canadian colleagues have been pretty hard on Amanda. I did a sympathetic review because I saw so many Amandas especially in Libya [during the rebel offensive that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi]," Smith tells rabble.ca. "They would fly in and hang out with the rebels. It is a terrifying thing in journalism. If these brave people weren't running around seeing everything in a war zone, how do you find out what is going on?"

 

Paul Weinberg is a freelance writer and journalist based in Hamilton. His website is www.paulweinberg.ca

Photo: Cecilia / flickr 

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