Book reveals incredible truth on Canada in Afghanistan

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April 24, 2014

The Dogs are Eating Them Now

By Graeme Smith

Alfred A. Knopf Canada

298 pages, $32

Reviewed by Katrin Horowitz

“The cycle of outrage and convenient forgetting seems likely to continue,” Graeme Smith writes in this extraordinary book about Canada’s war in Afghanistan.  The quotation comes from his chapter on the detainee crisis.  Unfortunately it applies all too aptly to the war as a whole, although now that our troops are home, “convenient forgetting” is more dominant.

Since 2005, Smith has spent much of his life in Afghanistan, far more time than any single Canadian soldier of any rank, which is why this account of what went wrong and why it went wrong is so compelling.  He arrived as a 26-year old Globe and Mail war correspondent:  “…an excited kid, recording what felt in some ways like a climactic battle between the forces of barbarism and civilization.”  Unlike our soldiers, he stayed long enough to see the big picture and to understand how that picture deteriorated over the years, despite occasional local successes.

One example: NATO funds the building of paved roads to improve transportation and strengthen civil society. The local insurgents demand protection money from the contractors (as much as $50,000 U.S. per kilometre) to allow construction to proceed. A success – the road is built and traffic moves swiftly.  Then various government and/or insurgent groups put up roadblocks to collect kickbacks or to steal goods. Success is redefined so that getting through with not too many delays and not too many payments is good. Meanwhile, the drug dealers use the nicely paved road to speed opium to Pakistan or Iran. And the insurgents buy more weapons, and the war worsens.

Another: A schoolteacher who knew Afghan President Hamid Karzai as a child tells Smith about his old friend’s government. “It’s corrupt . . . morally and economically,” he says.

By the end of the book, after seeing all the surges that only made things more dangerous, after cutting through the complexities and disinformation around the detainee-torture crisis, after itemizing the cascading corruption of government theft and bribes and collusion with the Taliban, after watching the Americans and other NATO forces work at cross purposes, after conducting the first-ever survey of insurgent fighters and discovering that the Taliban were more interested in closing cinemas than global jihad, after being targeted by a drug lord for his revelations of government collusion in the drug trade, and after seeing too many small, heartbreaking catastrophes where a farmer loses his livelihood to the war on drugs or loses his family to friendly fire or loses his freedom because he was in the wrong place, after all this, as the Canadian presence comes to an end, Smith sums up the West’s collective failure as, quite simply, “our inability to understand the needs and desires of the local people.” It was always all about us.

Graeme Smith is still in Afghanistan, now as an analyst with the International Crisis Group. We can only hope that he will continue to report on events there with the same unblinkered honesty that is evident throughout The Dogs are Eating Them Now. Lest we forget.

Katrin Horowitz is the author of The Best Soldier’s Wife, a novel about Canada’s war in Afghanistan from the perspective of a military wife.

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