Selective amnesia about Afghanistan

The Dogs Are Eating Them Now:

Our War in Afghanistan

A slew of new books by an international coterie of journalists are being churned out to explain the complete failure of America’s thirteen-year long, $753 billion war and occupation of Afghanistan.

The vast majority of these books share a similar template and selective amnesia. These journalists believe that: Afghanistan was “the good war,” the Taliban had to be overthrown, al-Qaeda evicted, Pakistan and poppy are intractable problems, the war was to bring democracy, and President Karzai is crazy. Then, after cheerleading and providing cover for the war, occupation, and troop surges, they admit that it all went horribly wrong. But after a decade of “missteps” and “folly,” these “objective” journalists declare that NATO troops must stay in Afghanistan to “repair and mitigate the damage.”

Journalists who work for mainstream media outlets don’t question why “American interests” should determine the future of Afghanistan. It is an implicit, unstated assumption that the United States has the right to dictate to Afghans how they will be governed and even to select their president. American foreign policy in the region needs no serious examination or explicit acknowledgement. It just is. Since 9/11, direct intervention is an imperial right and responsibility in order to fight the so-called “war on terror.” The right of all nations to self-determination—what’s that?

Graeme Smith’s memoir, The Dogs are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, follows this template and never challenges the precepts of “the war on terror”. Smith, a former reporter for Canada’s The Globe and Mail, reserves critical scrutiny and outrage for corrupt officials who profit from the drug trade and Afghan intelligence police who, he discovers, torture prisoners. 

The book is like a combination of Mr. Smith Goes to Afghanistan and Graeme’s Excellent Adventure. The twenty-six-year-old, who describes himself as “an excited kid,” is full of naiveté and adrenaline as he stumbles across the bazaars and battlefields of southern Afghanistan dressed in a shalwar kameez, translator in tow. Smith writes on being in a war zone: “It did feel glamorous, though. I enjoyed the freedom of camping outdoors; sleeping in the dirt wasn’t so bad. . . this was the kind of place where a guy could piss where he wanted, belch when he wanted, and in some ways act more naturally than is usually allowed. . . it felt like an adventure.”

Smith publishes stories to build public support for the occupation of Afghanistan. He argues in one article: “It’s important for the people of Canada to understand the broader picture, which is that Afghanistan will descend into chaos if the foreign troops leave. Everybody I speak with–diplomats, journalists, soldiers, ordinary Afghans–seem to agree on that point.” Really? Smith couldn’t find one Afghan in Kandahar province where he was based who wanted foreign troops out? In fact, there is widespread support among those who live in southern Afghanistan for the withdrawal of troops because the people of this region have suffered the brunt of night raids, aerial and drone bombing, poppy eradication and civilian casualties.

The author doesn’t report stories showing the utter brutality and contempt Canadian troops have for ordinary Afghans. Smith witnesses a meeting between a Canadian commander and Afghan elders. The elders repeatedly assert that there is no Taliban presence in their village and that NATO attacks have affected their families, but the belligerent commander won’t believe the men and doesn’t care that bombs are killing them. He threatens: “The best option for everybody here is for Taliban to give themselves up to coalition forces so we can get rid of the menace. The second option, if they don’t give up? They will die an early death. We will find them, hunt them down and we will kill them like the cowards they are. . . . They hide behind women and children.” Smith chooses not to file this story because that would jeopardize his cozy relationship with the military.  

Smith gets his war on during Operation Medusa, a major battle that took place in Kandahar in September of 2006. He embedded with Canadian troops who led the fight. At one point, to the astonishment of NATO, the Taliban fought them to a standstill. It was relentless air bombardment that eventually drove the insurgents out of the Panjwai valley. His description of the physics and feel of war are amazing and one of the few strengths of the book. It’s September 11 and he’s on the ground in a final attack:

Engineers ran up to walls of farmhouses and set up charges using so much plastic explosive that the detonation kicked up rolling clouds that swept over the troops like the end of the world, blotting out the sun and immersing them in an otherworldly universe of filtered light and falling debris. . . . “What the fuck was that?” said Captain Pappin. “Fucking rain of fucking building,” I replied. Building materials were falling from the sky: Wood, stone, mud.

In his chapter “Detainees”, Smith chronicles the fate of Afghans who are detained by Canadian forces and turned over to the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan's dreaded intelligence police. His articles on the systematic torture of Afghans were eye opening and forced an embarrassed Canadian government to respond. But that was the easy part­: reporting that the NDS tortures prisoners. And it had a knock-on effect of reinforcing the racist, age-old narrative that Afghans are a cruel and violent people who need to be civilized by Western powers. The riskier part of the story would have been to investigate and expose the complicity of the Canadian military because after all, if their soldiers weren’t delivering suspected terrorists to Afghan prisons they wouldn’t be getting tortured. But Smith doesn’t do that.

Eventually, the excited kid becomes jaded by the gristle of war and realizes he has censored his reporting. Looking back in anger, guilt, and sadness, Smith confesses that he didn’t use quotes that challenged the official military line, he avoided reporting civilian casualties, and he couldn’t acknowledge that Canadian commanders condoned torture.        

The title of Smith’s book is nauseatingly provocative and he explains its source. A Canadian platoon used Taliban corpses as bait and placed infrared glow sticks next to the bodies. They waited for insurgents to collect their dead so they could slaughter them but they never arrived. The strong smell of decomposing human flesh attracted a pack of wild dogs. He recorded a soldier saying nonchalantly, “Left them out as bait. The dogs are eating them now.”

The author currently lives in Kabul and is a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, an NGO that in May presented an award to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “for her commitment to promoting human rights and ensuring peace and security”  at their  “In Pursuit of Peace” annual fundraising dinner.

Smith recently penned an op-ed for the New York Times in which he argues the mission in Afghanistan hasn’t been accomplished. He writes: “Afghan and American leaders must sign a bilateral security agreement to allow a modest number of NATO troops to stay. Afghan forces need more helicopters, as well as logistics, intelligence and medical support. They will need, at a minimum, $4.1 billion.” Smith wants the NDS to be fully funded well into the future.   

It’s as if he’s learned nothing from covering the war that has decimated large swathes of the country, killed and incarcerated thousands of innocent civilians, and made the Taliban stronger. Add to the above the revelations of US atrocities and pervasive, private contractor corruption. So why isn’t Smith making the case for a complete troop withdrawal?

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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