Monday, January 19, 2009

The Globe and Mail's Graeme Smith (et al.) on Afstan

The Globe's main person at Kandahar for the last two and a half years gave a talk January 16 at the University of Ottawa, "Never Kick a Hornet's Nest: Why We're Losing the War in Southern Afghanistan" (there's audio of the talk at the listing at the preceding link). Then, on January 17, Mr Smith, along with Murray Brewster of Canadian Press (their Parliamentary defence reporter, sample of his stories here) and Scott Taylot of esprit de corps magazine--both of whom have also spent some time in Afstan, participated in a forum at Carleton University sponsored by the Canadian Association of Journalists, "The real story about Canadians in Afghanistan".

A well-informed acquaintance of mine attended the Ottawa U. event; I coincidently went to the Carleton one. My acquaintance sent me his notes with permission to use them here. They also reflect almost all Mr Smith said at Carleton. Below are most of my acquaintance's notes, with excerpts from my own notes from what he said at Carleton italicized in square brackets. I've done brief write-ups of what Messrs Taylor and Murray said too.
Graeme Smith has devoted more time to southern Afghanistan than any other Western journalist, since the arrival of NATO forces in that region. Hired by The Globe and Mail in 2001, the war in southern Afghanistan became his full-time project in mid-2006. His awards include the Canadian Association of Journalists' prize for investigations; the Amnesty International award for Canadian print journalism; the National Newspaper Award for international reporting; and the 2007 Michener Award. He is working on a book about Afghanistan.

[- Described himself, to considerable laughter, as a "29 year-old dropout from Ryerson.

- Was almost proud of his ignorance of technical military matters.

- Was passionate, in the best sense.]

- Introduction to speaker by Allan Rock, President of University of Ottawa, and Roland Paris, head of the UofO’s Centre for International Policy Studies. Smith will be publishing a book (around 2010) on ‘what went wrong’ in Afghanistan.
- Reported from Afghanistan between 2005 and 2008, will go back one last time in February 2009.

- During that time saw security situation deteriorate, and benefits from international intervention concentrated in Kabul.

o e.g. during that time saw security on the Kabul-Kandahar highway deteriorate to the point where you can’t use it safely any more.

o e.g. locals trying not to associate with international forces any more.

o 2 measures for deteriorating security situation: 1) UN access maps show more and more areas off-limits; 2) violence levels going up every year.

[- Referred to the "foreign occupation".]

- Why is it getting worse?

o Cites military officials as saying that it is necessary to “kick the hornet’s nest”/“no pain no gain” – in order to achieve gains in Afghanistan – short-term spike in violence, for long-term gain.

o However, Smith questions the price to be paid to achieve this end (lots of dead Afghans) – questions whether one should kick the hornet’s nest at all.

- Questions underlying logic of the international mission – is having the Taliban in Afghanistan “a fate worse than death”? Because fighting the Taliban as currently planned will leave many Afghans dead – is this worth it?

o To truly stop terrorists in Afghanistan – impossible, short of nuking the country.

o Must aim for a less-than-perfect outcome – not enough NATO troops, and even if there were enough, too many dead Afghans incurred.

[- Was "conflicted" about Afstan: originally thought going in in 2001 was the right thing--had to deal with "dragons" in a little known region.

- "I believe in the dream" of expanding development to the whole country--but at what cost?

-have to make Afstan no longer a launch pad for terrorist attack--but a what cost?

- There aren't enough troops to force Kabul's writ into the countryside and NATO won't cough up.]

- Fails to understand why Karzai/Kabul government is so ‘desirable’ and worth extending to the regions.
o International community does not have a grasp of what Afghans want politically – this is important, we need to bring something the people want from Kabul.

o Foreigners are ‘ring-fenced’ by Westernized Afghan elites and blinded to what the Afghan people truly want.

[o Foreigners associate with English-speaking educated Afghans who have little to do with the mass of uneducated rural people--get little insight from their contacts--when we're facing a "rural uprising".]

o e.g. casts doubt on polls by organizations like Asia Foundation – e.g. one poll showed that ‘most popular institution’ to turn to for Afghans were the police, which Smith notes is a ridiculous claim to make.

- Rise of Taliban in 1990s – was not just due to ISI backing. They also brought justice, no corruption (largely), rule of law, security – and that’s it.

o Contract offered to people was minimal government – very popular at the time (civil war and widescale destruction from warlords and Soviet occupation).

[o We need to steal the Taliban's platform.]

o Then Taliban went and did other horrible things.

- Therefore, international community needs to re-think goals – democratization and ‘good stuff’ (cites Chris Alexander [former Canadian ambassador and now number two UN person in country] as embodying these hopes) are a dead dream.

o Need for more de-centralization, not centralized government.

o Questions why we focus on having women in Afghan parliament, since it is out of sync with societal mores there.

o Have corruption and drug-trade involvement of members of Karzai administration.

o Each region requires different approach.

- Too many missions being fought in Afghanistan: counter-terror, counter-insurgency, culture war, war on drugs.

o Need to focus, and should not fight things like economy (poppy cultivation, for example) and culture (misogyny, for example).

o [We need to be "less annoying" to Afghans]

- Need for radical change, need for new ideas to deal with Afghan situation.

[- Very pessimistic about 2009; course should have been corrected a couple of years ago.]

o Obstacles to this:
*Uprising by Taliban is primarily endogenous phenomenon.
* Giving Taliban what they want (foreign withdrawal) will lead to even more dead.
*US/Obama approach: ‘kick more ass’ in Afghanistan in order to have leverage for a good political deal down the road.
*Regional solution being offered (Rubin/Rashid) – Iran, Pakistan – not very clear.
[*How do you prevent terrorism planning in the middle of a war? Difficult situation in which to collect intelligence.]
- Smith’s opinion on what to do:

o Move to a political situation now.

o International forces need to show humility – Taliban have been winning over the past 3 years, and international forces need to recognize this.

o Need to determine what are the ‘minimum’ goals for the mission:
*Ensure Afghanistan is a territory (not necessarily a country) from which not attacks can be launched.
*Decreasing violence levels for Afghan civilians and to allow international forces to withdraw with heads held high.
o Need to throw out the other goals: e.g. female emancipation/education, democracy, eradication of drugs, culture, etc.

[o Need to cut political deal with some Taliban fairly soon.]

o Afghans want to be left alone, to mistreat their women and girls, to cultivate poppy, and to live in a decentralized system.
*We don’t have to like it.
Question and Answer session

...are increased Canadian aid/diplomacy/development efforts visible, effective?

Smith: Yes, efforts are increased. But not very effective in the long-term, doesn’t last; you can build all that you want, but need a political situation to ensure that the development lasts. Kajaki Turbine, Dahla Dam – very good, but questionable long-term viability in war situation.

...bottom-up approach, micro-finance, diaspora involvement – is this effective?

Smith: yes! Also effective is National Solidarity Programme and Community Development Councils – seem positive, go in at the community level, local ownership and involvement at the grassroots.

...what are views at Kandahar Airfield, within CF, on the mission? What do CF think of 2011 withdrawal?

Smith: soldiers don’t seem to agree with me; however, information/views at KAF seem to be self-contained, in a bubble/separated from reality. Notes that, as a journalist, he “describes, not prescribes” (Author’s note – a very pompous claim if I ever heard one). Senior CF officers not comfortable in keeping battlegroup in Kandahar post-2011, too much strain on CF.

...what are inter-ethnic relations like?

Smith: few Kandahari Pashtuns in ANA/officer corps – this is troubling and a concern. Other ethnic groups joining police/army – could be trouble when deployed to other areas (e.g. Hazaras in south). Not seeing an outbreak of ethnic tensions… more inter-tribal tensions within the Pashtun.

...roles of India, China?

Smith: Indians need to stop pissing off Pakistanis – e.g. road construction and paramilitary groups, big consulate in Kandahar. China keeping nose out of insurgency, want Afghanistan stable, especially with stake in e.g. Aynak copper mine.

...women’s rights?

Smith: Afghan women’s rights have to come from within Afghan society – international pressure leads to suspicion about motives and does more harm than good. Mentions case of acid-throwing on girls in Kandahar, and is incredulous that they are going back to school.

Author’s Notes:

- A clear presentation of his views, which we may disagree with, but they are internally logical and consistent.
- Questionable claims as to ‘what Afghans want’.
- Clearly a fan of ‘live and let live’ or variant of same.
- ...His words have great influence on the Afghanistan debate in Canada, and judging by the full house of around 100 people and the calibre (and rapt attention) of the audience, people listen to him and take his word as credible...
Question and Answer session at Carleton (answers only)
- Americans only players that matter. Obama has painted himself into a corner, must rely on military efforts for now publicly. Canada should emulate the UK and speak out for political progress.

- Karzai government can't really conduct negotiatons. The "war is extremely profitable". Karzai sees NATO forces as his government's military.

- Perhaps some turned Taliban might even be used to provide security in some parts of the country.
- Canada is being overtaken by events, the US is effectively taking over in the south. Canada has moral authority with other members of NATO as a result of our efforts.
- He is grateful to the CF: under their embed program one can go in and out of Kandahar Air Field at will; no other military allows that.

- He no longer interviews CF generals or senior Canadian civilians--a waste of time.

I do question a reporter's giving policy prescriptions in public. It's hard to believe such conclusions are not reflected in his stories. But the distinction between reporting and opining seems ever more lost in Canadian journalism.

At Carleton Scott Taylor actually spoke first, followed by Murray Brewster, then Mr Smith. All three focused very much on the south, giving the audience almost no impression of what is happening in the rest of Afstan. I must say that all three are serious people, with a strong commitment to each one's approach to journalism.

Scott Taylor was, well, Scott Taylor. He is a brave man with his own views; many of them have been expressed here, here and here.

Murray Brewster:

- Maintained that the longer the mission went on, the more heavily politicized it has become (yet it was barely mentioned it the 2008 federal election).

- He has been stunned--yea made "aghast"--by many politicians' ignorance of Afghan issues (he's not the only one).

- Our politicians are unaware that Canadian political divisions over Afstan get considerable media coverage in the region, especially Pakistan.

- There is incredible political pressure to show progress for the mission, esp. in development.

- There are many roadblocks even to covering development projects, very hard to interview civilians.

He was particularly critical of the government's and CF's dealing with the media:

- The CF don't understand the elements that make up a good story, gave poor briefings on significant incidents when he was in-theatre.

- He was angry at the government and CF for lousy media relations--not even telling some good stories well; most military, diplomatic and aid people in Afstan are "hopelessly inarticulate".

- "Do I tell you how to plan a battle? Don't tell me how to cover a war."

- He was scathing about an article critical of our media in On Track, published by the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, by the Institute's president John Scott Cowan: “War and National Interest” (p. 11 at link).

- But he obviously likes most soldiers.

Well, I must say we at The Torch too have certainly been very critical of the government's media relations regarding Afstan, and defence issues generally--and of our media themselves.

A sad concluding note. I may not have heard this exactly right but Mr Smith seemed to say that CBC and CTV are now sharing video feeds from Afstan to save costs. He did say that overall the Canadian media are reducing their Kandahar coverage (and I note that no-one from the Canadian media is stationed in Kabul; no wonder we get skewed coverage) . Our media are losing interest in the war and the mission--often there are only six Canadian journalists at Kandahar Air Field (!!!).

Update thoughts: The United States has been severely criticized for turning its back on Afstan once the Soviets withdrew in 1989. After that the Mujahadin finally defeated the Afghan Communists in 1992 and then civil war amongst the Mujahedin factions followed--leading to the devastation of Kabul (think Gaza Strip today, or Grozny under Russian attack), finally resulting in the Taliban's taking Kabul in 1996. And most of the country thereafter.

If the West withdraws fairly soon a similar course of events seems likely, as Mr Smith himself says. So: abandon once bad; abandon twice good? I do not know the answer, but if the first absenting was wrong, the second might be even more so with "other horrible things" done by the Taliban, to use Mr Smith's words. Is that what we should, by calculation, contemplate however serenely?


Blogger Unknown said...

Wow, thanks a lot for posting this. Very informative.

1:03 p.m., January 23, 2009  

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