Fourteen seconds of silence pass on an audio recording of Graeme Smith’s interview with Brig.-Gen. David Fraser. Finally, the commander answers a question about Canadian forces handing prisoners over to an Afghan penal system fraught with abuse and torture.
“He knew that he was wading into deep waters by talking about detainees, and he was brave to do so,” Smith recalled on the phone from Kabul, Afghanistan. “But the stuff he said wasn’t accurate. He said in 2006 that nothing bad happens to these people, and he looked me in the eye and he used that reassuring tone of voice that generals have. And he was wrong.”
Smith, now a senior analyst with International Crisis Group, was a Globe and Mail correspondent in southern Afghanistan from 2005 to 2011.
In The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, Smith retraces his time in Kandahar province and a personal transformation from an “excited young journalist” enthusiastic for NATO’s mission to one of the war’s sharpest critics. For that work, he has been nominated for the B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, for which he’s scheduled to pass through Vancouver on February 21.
Smith told the Straight that although a lot of stories he covered contributed to that “unravelling”, as he characterized it, it was Canadian forces’ culpability in the torture of prisoners passed to Afghan authorities that troubled him more than any other.
“It’s hard to feel like things are going well and you’re on the side of good when you’re getting these stories day after day after day—stories about people being choked and burned and whipped and electrocuted and whatever,” he explained. “The whole premise of the war was built on this idea of the rule of law….That there have to be rules of some kind. But then what was scary was when you got to Afghanistan, it was easy to see that rules were being broken. If we were going to be describing ourselves as being on the side of good, that got tougher and tougher as the years went by because we weren’t behaving in a particularly good way when it came to detainees and other issues.”
Two days after Smith’s August 23, 2007, report on detainee abuses appeared in the Globe and Mail, Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed the matter in Parliament and denied there was any problem. Later, Canadian forces quietly introduced some reforms concerning the handover of prisoners, but Smith said he feels there still remains a “stubborn reluctance” to fully take responsibility and address what happened.
An inability to tackle complex and inconvenient problems in real time was one of NATO’s greatest shortcomings, he said. For example, the United States and Canada for years failed to recalibrate strategies on Pakistan despite overwhelming evidence that Afghanistan’s southern neighbour was playing a major role in the conflict.
A reckless use of air support was another policy blunder that NATO allies were slow to acknowledge and correct, Smith continued. It could also often seem like there were parallel wars being waged in Afghanistan with little communication between the two.
“The American counter-terrorism forces had a different mission and a separate chain of command from the NATO troops,” he writes in the book. “While the elite commandos hunted for threats to global security, the rest of the international forces were struggling to put down a local insurgency. Translated into action, this meant that bearded Americans ran around at night kicking down doors, while clean-shaven regular troops went on day patrols and held meetings to foster goodwill and set up the basics of government.” (For more on U.S. clandestine operations in Afghanistan, read the Straight’s review of Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars: The World as a Battlefield.)
Armies that looked relatively the same but sometimes acted independently of one another created disorder that could be detrimental to all, Smith noted.
“Those differences between the groups of foreigners who were running around in Afghanistan were so confusing to the Afghans,” he said. “Just as we had trouble deciphering the different Afghan tribes, they had trouble deciphering the different groups of foreigners who were often acting at cross purposes.”
A passage from The Dogs Are Eating Them Now illustrates the extent to which that confusion might be detrimental to any legacy Canada hopes to leave behind in Afghanistan.
“They saw all of us as Americans,” Smith writes. “For years, people in Kandahar city would look at me and ask, ‘America, yeh?’ and it was hard to persuade them I was from Canada—and then, to convince them Canada was a real country.”
Still living in Afghanistan today, Smith conceded that he sometimes finds himself depressed by the lack of progress made by a NATO force that was likely the most powerful military alliance ever assembled.
“What I think we can hold on to is hope,” he added. “I think despite all the massive screw-ups that I document in the book, I think there is still hope that this situation can be salvaged—maybe not beautifully, but it could still be salvaged.”
Smith, however, noted that a major report he’s produced for International Crisis Group that’s scheduled to be released before the end of March warns that Afghanistan is likely headed for violence worse than it has seen in years.
“It’s a tough thing, trying to get Canadians to still care about Afghanistan,” he said. “I think people would rather just pretend it never happened, which is really a shame because I really feel like we have to have a sense of responsibility for this mess.”