Afghanistan and Canada: The 'disconnect' on both sides of the wire

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An American Chinook helicopter crewman looks out over the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2008, where the heaviest fighting occurred at that time. NATO forces have little presence in areas between major bases. Photo: Graham Lavery

"Disconnect" is the term that keeps popping into my mind when I think about Afghanistan and the events unfolding here.

We all talk about this term. We can apply it to almost everything at times, from the relationship with our food, or lack thereof, to the goods we buy and where they come from, our political system and our involvement in it, and the consequences of our lifestyle on the planet as a whole to name but a few.

The term is also incredibly descriptive of the happenings here in Afghanistan, unfortunately.

It struck me recently, while riding in a CC130 Hercules from Kabul to Herat with an ANA (Afghan National Army) officer on my left, and a ANP (Afghan National Police) constable dozing on my camera bag to my right, that the relationship between interested parties here is one of disconnect.

Groups with vested interests go about their business with little apparent concern or recognition of the other groups with vested interests going about their own business. I sense very little in terms of a common goal, a unity of effort, or even recognition of the context within which they work and the long-term effects that are bound to change Afghan culture forever.

This same disconnect was evident last February as I visited Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, as well, and now, almost 10 months after my trip to Haiti, we are seeing the consequences of the disconnect with a cholera outbreak, political chaos and civil unrest.

There are enormous sums of money being spent in Afghanistan by western governments, and there is a great deal of money being made here by western contractors, but beyond this common understanding of monetary reward I see little that leads me to believe anyone is seriously in this for the benefit of the average Afghan, peace, progress, or any of the other much-vaunted goals we hear about on the nightly news. 

The major foreign political and military powers are trying to carve out a long-term foothold in an extremely valuable strategic and economic location, similar I feel, to Iraq where 50,000 American "non-combat" troops remain indefinitely. There is much wealth in this place, waiting to be extracted, and the stakes are high. The local political and military powers from the puppet government of Hamid Karzai to the various tribal warlords left over from decades long gone, provincial governors, and the Taliban with their cohorts, are doing the same -- jockeying for position for the day this all ends.

American troops sit deep in thought in the back of a Canadian C130 Hercules recently on a flight from Kabul to Herat. Photo: Graham Lavery.

The rhetoric is thick from all sides -- "ours" and "theirs" however you choose to define those terms -- with "truth" inevitably falling victim to desire and the lure of power and wealth far outweighing the inclination to help simply for the sake of helping. Make no mistake, there is no charity in our actions here.

I see this disconnect almost everywhere I look. From well-meaning soldiers "just doing [their] job" with little consideration to what that is exactly or how it may impact the people of Afghanistan in the long term, to the endless contractors who now outnumber military personnel making enormous sums, to the journalists who are apparently here to cover the whole thing.

With no cohesive objective it is of little wonder really, I feel like this is what the wild west must have been like back in the days of railway magnates, outlaws, settlers, and, of course, the native peoples who always seemed to get in the way, much to their detriment. The parallels are frightening. 

A major Canadian broadcaster has a team of two here. They are nice, pleasant to talk to and working hard. The problem is, one of them refuses to "leave the wire," military speak for going off the base. In three days, my partner and I have spent more time off the base than they will in their entire tour. How can a reporter report accurately on anything when so disconnected from their surroundings and the people who live, work, and die here, much less a national election dripping with corruption and complexity? The simple answer is they can't. What suffers most in this scenario is the base of knowledge and understanding back home, the ability of our population to ask the right people the right questions, and make a somewhat educated vote in our own elections. True democracy requires an informed public, and that is precisely what we in Canada are not.

This disconnect allows the Canadian government to sweep things like the Afghan detainee scandal under the rug so quickly and with so little fuss -- accountability for our government becomes a moving target when we have so little information and those holding power understand that fact as they do. When we do get good information, like in the Colvin testimony, we have so little to ground it with that doubt is easily cast over it by those pushing another agenda. It is a dangerous precedent.

These reporters -- whose faces and names you all know -- often use "fixers" to go out and get quotes or information when needed, a practice common amongst most of the large news media these days here and elsewhere, and nobody involved seems to question it -- it has become normal. That these "fixers" are relied upon to present a view of any given situation, much less a well-rounded one seems to me at least, flawed in the extreme. Yet, this is exactly how most Canadians and Americans are educated on this conflict, this country, its people -- a conflict and a situation that is mind bogglingly complex and multifaceted, far from the picture presented on the National.


An 11-year-old Afghan girl from Jalalabad is Medivac'd to the surgical facility at Bagram Air Base in the north after being run over by an American convoy earlier in the day. With her right leg amputated, head injuries, and thoracic trauma requiring her chest to be opened, it is hard to imagine there will be many easy days for her should she live. Afghans, children in particular, make up more than 50 per cent of the U.S. Amy's dustoff medivac 'business.' Photo: Graham Lavery.

It is this frustration with media coverage and the ensuing lack of information that brought my partner Elan and I here in 2008 to see for ourselves, and it saddens us both to find it unchanged since. Elan's ongoing personal frustration plays out in a portion of a recent e-mail to a magazine editor, which was shared with me:

"... There's not much more that I can say without sounding like a broken record. I've spoken with reporters for three of Canada's largest newspapers, the Canadian Press, and CBC (all Canadian, because I am currently embedded with the Canadian Forces). I've followed them to media briefings and read the stories they've filed from Kandahar. And the experience has been profoundly discouraging. It's telling that this is the first time in my life I've ever been ashamed to admit that I'm a reporter.

"On the flight to Kandahar, the man sitting next to me asked me what I did, and I said I was a reporter. The look on his face was of such disgust that I hastened to add, 'For a helicopter magazine.' 'Oh,' he said, 'are you also a pilot?' 'I am,' I said, and after that we were OK. That identity -- as a helicopter pilot -- is the one I've been using during my embed, and while I've always been proud of being a pilot, I'm sorry that I can't be proud of being part of the media as well..."

There are other forms of disconnect here too.

Afghanistan is spectacularly rugged, basic in terms of infrastructure, in many places little changed over many years, with the good word of the Prophet not even finding some areas in the north-east until a mere 100 years ago. In large expanses of the country, I'm certain the day-to-day of life has changed insignificantly over time -- except that now remotely operated drones release laser-guided munitions into mud-brick houses on a regular basis, top secret listening posts and balloons record conversations 10km away from our bases and beam intelligence half way around the world via satellite, where decisions to kill people are made in real-time and executed on TV. It is a bizarre feeling to be in midst of such a dichotomy.

A few evenings ago, we had three rocket attacks on the base in quick succession, unfortunately there were some injuries and all the high technology on hand did nothing to prevent it. It's remarkable really, that these attacks occur with such frequency, sometimes as many as 30 per month, as they generally consist of the most basic of left-over or home-made munitions jury rigged on a nearby mountain and wired to improvised timers (often just wrist watches or other rudimentary means).

Western forces are spending billions on cutting-edge technology represented by some truly astounding drone-based surveillance capabilities, helicopters and airplanes flying with the latest night vision or FLIR (forward looking infra-red) technology 24/7, they have trucks and camels. We have laser-guided munitions launched from stealth bombers and attack fighters and helicopters, they stack Soviet-era landmines by the side of the road and wait for a target to come along, or use suicide attacks of varying forms. The disparity is stunning.

Boys and potatoes

Two young Afghan boys peel potatoes in an alley behind a Kabul market. The level of poverty existing in Afghanistan is extreme. Speaking with several Afghans on the subject of poverty, it is clear initial excitement and anticipation of better times felt in 2003 was already wearing off by 2005, when little had be done by NATO in the three preceding years. By 2006, it was clear true help was never coming, coinciding with the resurgence of the Taliban. According to the Afghan government, 93 per cent of the money spent by western governments, aid organizations and NGOs leaves the country. Photo: Graham Lavery

There is something profound missing in our overall approach here, both militarily and with the media. Particularly if we somehow still choose to accept America's assurances in every press conference that we are here to provide "freedom, democracy, and security," as I see none of those things in evidence, most notably for women and children.

I think there is something missing, and I am left very much with the impression that our presence here, our methods here, and the long-terms effects of those are disconnected entirely from the stated goals as the math just does not add up when one stops to look around. The Wikileaks dispatches just released implicating specific British Army units in the deaths of Afghan civilians may just begin to shed some light on these incongruences, finally giving the general public some numbers to work with.

Truth is indeed the first casualty of war.

A helicopter pilot by trade, Graham Lavery's personal interest in international affairs has taken him to Afghanistan, Haiti, south-east Asia, and other corners of the world as a freelance journalist and photographer where western media coverage is frequently inadequate and misleading. On assignment in Kandahar to primarily cover the Canadian Forces Air Wing's largest operations of the war in Afghanistan, Lavery has been fortunate over the last few years to spend time with several of the major powers in the conflict, in addition to local Afghans.

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