The Western coalition legacy in Afghanistan will be no different from those of other foreign interventionists with similar misguided convictions about installing a modern and democratic system. Coalition troop surges did not work to reverse insurgencies and defeat terrorism. Local Afghans eventually did not want international forces as they became increasingly terrified and angry after being overrun by foreign troops and airstrikes. International jihadists remain a fighting force on loan to the Afghan Taliban in districts bordering Pakistan. All of this explains the war was a spectacular military approach that did not work to achieve its objectives.
There is realisation among many of those who were present in southern Afghanistan from 2005 to 2012 that the American version of a post-war democracy was troubled and misguided from the start. Many believe that the remnants of the former Taliban regime’s fighting cadre are waiting to re-emerge to fill the vacuum. Journalist Graeme Smith, embedded with the Canadians in southern Afghanistan (Kandahar) in the early days of the Nato surge, was privy to a war fought without any specific rules of engagement and where the enemy remained resilient.
In his book, The Dogs are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, Smith makes the assessment that “over a decade of war in Afghanistan has settled nothing, and that in itself is profoundly unsettling.” The book’s title comes from an incident Smith witnessed where Canadian forces used Taliban corpses as bait for insurgents, but instead the bodies were eaten by wild dogs.
Not unlike many others (Carter Malkasian, Rajiv Chandrasekaran) who were in Afghanistan in those years, Smith’s in-depth account of the fighting season ends with disillusionment at what he terms the dark side of the international military presence in the south. “Afghanistan breeds toughness,” writes Smith, giving the reader details of his embedded experience in the summer of 2007 and reminding that the world needs to draw lessons about what happened.
With violence such an integral part of the war and with more than 10,000 international forces deployed in southern Afghanistan initially — that figure went to 70,000 soldiers in the years after 2007 — it would become easy for an author to become repetitive. Smith cleverly works around this by introducing a range of local actors: government officials, warlords, Taliban fighters, barbers, interpreters, prisoners, Afghan policemen and ordinary village people. He writes of his contact with the former mujahideen commander, Habibullah Jan, a parliamentarian in Kabul who had assisted foreign troops in hunting down the insurgents during Operation Medusa with his private army in Kandahar.
Part-analytical, Smith attempts to unravel the main political forces in the south, including the importance of various tribes and their willful association with the Taliban. Because of the uncertainty of life in Kandahar around the time of the surge, tribalism had emerged when it came to trusting leaders to make decisions. Western policymakers failed to understand the dynamics that kept tribal warlords and their personal armies closely connected with the Taliban, ensuring that these warlords — especially those who had fought against the Soviets — become even more invincible and able to share their loyalties (with the Taliban and the foreign forces). Later on, it appeared that some influential warlords had cut deals with the Taliban to stem trouble in their districts so their money-making ventures remained uninterrupted. These warlords were also paid by foreign militaries for their allegiance. This, despite the Taliban’s assassination campaign targeting warlords, major government officials and aid workers to communicate their power over districts that were traditionally insurgent strongholds and sapping the will of those assisting the central government and foreign forces.
The Dogs Are Eating Them Now also lends a critical perspective on the international fighting force, how differently they operated in terms of their objectives — the British, Americans, Canadians, and Dutch — and why a saturation of forces in insurgency-hit districts did not decrease the violence, nor provide civilians security or even increase local trust. The British military operated outposts, part of the counter-insurgency strategy, without using obvious strong-arm tactics in areas such as the Sangin district in Helmand province in 2006, which also witnessed some of the deadliest fighting. And unlike US forces perceived to be “trigger-happy cowboys,” they attempted to make troops part of communities. Strengthening local communities and providing education and healthcare was seen to win over trust. Why this failed was partly because US soldiers saw their counterparts as “weak and useless,” and interestingly it was this dysfunctional relationship between the two militaries that caused distrust among local communities. They would provide intelligence on Taliban movements, but abandon their villages when the Americans arrived to kick down doors during night-raids and shoot indiscriminately at unidentified targets while patrolling. While the Americans were there to eliminate threats to global security, other coalition militaries were tasked with fighting local insurgents and winning over tribal populations with civilian projects which gradually became impossible given the local population suffered indiscriminate bloodletting.
Talking to the Taliban for their perspective is how Smith cuts through official Canadian military jargon to assess what drives insurgents to fight. He includes findings from a survey with 42 interviews with fighters conducted by a freelance researcher, Hafiz, who had worked for the Taliban regime as a policeman. Smith, who won an Emmy in 2009 for this video series (‘Talking to the Taliban’), concludes that insurgents are created when bombs are dropped on peoples’ families. They will then want to fight back, he writes, especially in the Pakhtun culture of honour and revenge.
Smith notes that at the time of these interviews in 2007, hundreds of civilians had died that year as airstrikes escalated and Afghanistan got bombed partly because of the open terrain that made for easier targeting. Destroying poppy fields also became a reason why the Taliban summoned men to fight because they had to defend their livelihoods. This survey found that 80 per cent of the respondents farmed opium and losing fields meant debts that also inspired people to fight. Eradication programmes decreased in 2009-2010 when the international community realised that their war on drugs had worsened the conflict.
Alternative crop growing was also part of this experiment but didn’t work because of the lack of knowledge that farmers had and the types of crops selected by Western governments. The rising influence of the Taliban in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border districts points to American miscalculations (and Pakistan’s disastrous recipe for home-grown extremism) when it came to destroying Al Qaeda’s network during the course of a war that has won Obama domestic disapproval — according to a recent poll 58 per cent Americans disapprove of his foreign policy. Although more than 40 countries contributed forces to counter-insurgency and civilian assistance to Afghanistan over more than 10 years, the war against the Taliban was fought without sufficient planning for what would come after the massive influx of Nato troops had chased away insurgents in remote villages.
The Nato-trained Afghan National Army remains challenged by the Taliban that have started grabbing districts and troop withdrawals will probably leave more of the country without adequate security forces. As the fighting season began last month, it has been estimated that around 800 Taliban fighters stormed government offices and police outposts in the Sangin district. The question to ask now is whether the Afghan Taliban will remain confined to their home sanctuaries or host global jihadists with visions of grandeur to coordinate large-scale attacks. Will the fighting cadre back key leaders who make peace with Kabul and join the central government or follow extremist hardliners rejecting the legitimacy of a new Afghan government?
Afghanistan’s war policy was made in another country by civilian and military analysts — some had never travelled to southern and eastern provinces — with insufficient knowledge and understanding of the people and their tribal customs and associations that go back generations.
The future, when Western combat troops leave the country and a new government settles into its responsibilities, is something that isn’t easy to predict in the present. However, much will depend on the state of the Afghan economy that will need to temporarily sustain on donor funding, and the continuation of international projects that have bettered people’s lives, especially those focused on girls’ education and the participation of women in public and political spheres. Fear that parts of the country will descend into civil war and anarchy is widespread among local Afghans, and as Smith writes, the fight is far from settled: “Afghanistan was an unsuccessful laboratory of ideas about how to fix a ruined country,” he says, stressing that just because gains have been made in healthcare and education it does not mean the West should cut off its engagement. “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.”
The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan
By Graeme Smith