Come From the Shadows: The Long and Lonely Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan
By Terry Glavin. Douglas & McIntyre, 256 pp, hardcover
Here’s how the world works, according to Victoria writer Terry Glavin. Several years ago, he befriends an Afghan intellectual living in East Vancouver named Abdulrahim Parwani. This writer and journalist, who was part of that country’s Northern Alliance against the Taliban, informs Glavin that antiwar people in Canada have got it all wrong—the Afghan people want NATO troops in their country and Canadians soldiers are bringing freedom from the fascists.
Glavin then travels with his friend to Afghanistan, where he’s introduced to other influential and well-educated Afghans, including a former presidential candidate, a future presidential candidate, and the former head of the Northern Alliance. They tell Glavin that they’re appalled by the corruption and duplicity of President Hamid Karzai, who continues to play footsie with the evil Taliban. Many of Glavin’s Afghan sources are also extremely troubled by the West’s willingness to allow Karzai to negotiate with the enemy.
Along the way, Glavin meets extremely courageous and inspirational Afghans, including several women, who run nongovernmental organizations, mostly in Kabul, which depend heavily on western donors. Glavin listens to their pleas to keep NATO troops in their country as a bulwark against the Taliban returning to power. To Glavin, their comments reinforce his view that former Afghan parliamentarian Malalai Joya has been misleading Canadians when she says that NATO’s presence is making things worse for her country. To drive his point home, Glavin quotes other female politicians in Afghanistan disagreeing with Joya.
He comes away from his visits to Afghanistan convinced that things are getting much better for women. Enrollment of girls in school has increased astronomically. Childhood immunizations and access to medical care have risen sharply. Contrary to popular opinion in the West, Afghanistan is not a basket case, according to Glavin. The country has a glorious democratic past and a bright democratic future, if only the West would come to its rescue.
Karzai is Pashtun, which is the largest minority tribe in Afghanistan. It comprises 42 percent of the population and gave birth to the Taliban. Glavin’s friend, Parwani, is Tajik. They account for about 27 percent of the population. Tajiks, who trace their roots back to the northern part of the country, fought the Taliban and were viciously repressed by Pashtuns in the past.
At one point, Glavin suggests in Come From the Shadows: The Long and Lonely Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan that tribalism is overblown. But elsewhere in the book (which shares the title of a Joan Baez album), he weaves in the history of Pashtun leaders consorting with Nazis in the 1930s, which ties into his broader narrative of Pashtun leaders being expansionist thugs.
The author sees odious parallels between J.S. Woodsworth, the leader of Canada’s left-wing party in Parliament in the 1930s, opposing war against the Nazis and former NDP leader Jack Layton’s call for withdrawing Canadian troops from Afghanistan in 2006. To Glavin, it’s reminiscent of the Spanish Civil War, only this time the Taliban are the modern-day Fascist Falange and the conflict is unfolding in a landlocked multi-ethnic state surrounded by nasty neighbours.
Glavin devotes an entire chapter to insulting and vilifying left wingers—including Layton, linguist Noam Chomsky, and filmmaker Michael Moore—for being dupes of the Islamofascists and for failing to recognize key differences between the UN-backed mission in Afghanistan and the U.S.-led attack on Iraq. But only one paragraph is allocated to Karzai’s drug-dealing half-brother Wali, the King of Kandahar, who was reportedly flooding the West with heroin before he was killed earlier this year. And just when Glavin sees that the brave people of Afghanistan are making a go of things, western heads of state, including Stephen Harper, are ready to sell them out to the Taliban.
In Glavin’s world, this reeks of treachery. You can almost hear him wistfully mourn that if only the “proudly interventionist” and “glamorous human rights academic” Michael Ignatieff had become prime minister. Those who disagree with Glavin are derided for believing in a fictional place called Absurdistan, where none of Glavin’s hard truths apply.
And so it goes. That, along with some wonderfully descriptive writing and some intriguing historical analysis, is what you’ll get in Come From the Shadows. Often illuminating and at times infuriating, Glavin’s sixth book will no doubt be embraced by supporters of a more muscular, interventionist Canadian foreign policy.
That’s not to say that Come From the Shadows must be taken at face value. Glavin professes to be a great admirer of George Orwell, but I suspect that if Orwell were alive today, he would blanch at some of Glavin’s tactics in bringing readers onside to his view of the world.
In castigating the antiwar movement, Glavin focuses far too much attention on a cultlike fringe group, Mobilization Against War and Occupation, which has been rejected by mainstream peace activists in Vancouver. In slamming a parliamentary committee reviewing the war, he utterly ignores the testimony of Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin, a brave whistle-blower who publicly spoke about Afghan detainees even though he probably knew this would enrage the prime minister.
In addition, Glavin fires away at the “toxic effects cultural relativism”, but mostly ignores the reality of U.S. imperialism. If he is genuinely curious to know why modern leftists focus so much attention on this topic, he should read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States rather than relying on his cotierie of so-called leftist thinkers who underplay corporate influence on U.S. foreign policy.
Over the years, I’ve been astounded by the lengths to which Glavin will go to slam placard-carrying Vancouver antiwar protesters, while mostly giving a free ride to the Bush administration for horrific crimes against humanity and outrageous violations of international law. Thus it came as a surprise to see that in this book, Glavin takes former U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld to task for expressing disdain for nation-building. But Glavin is far more vehement in condemning leftists—which appears to be one of his favourite activities—whose outrages include not subscribing to the world view of his beloved Sally Armstrong, a journalist who strongly supported the Canadian combat mission in Kandahar.
This book includes the usual Glavin diatribes about many leftists being anti-Semites for cozying up to extremist Muslims. What he fails to acknowledge is that quite a few of the leftist Canadian and U.S. voices condemning Israel and U.S. foreign policy are themselves Jewish. They include Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Vancouver’s Sid Shniad, a founder of Independent Jewish Voices. If Glavin were truly following in the footsteps of Orwell—a great truth teller—he would address this reality head-on, rather than sidestepping it.
Interestingly, U.S. president Barack Obama is singled out for mild criticism in Come From the Shadows for being one of the western quislings prepared to sell out the Afghan people. Given Glavin’s ideological disposition, I expected him to credit the president for instructing the CIA to fly U.S. drones over Pakistan and fire missile attacks that kill Taliban bosses, as well as lower-level foot soldiers.
One of Glavin’s central points is that Canada has a duty to save Afghanistan from the Taliban, whom he equates with the worst fascists of the 20th century. To buttress his argument that a NATO military mission can succeed, he points out that the western troop commitment in Afghanistan is far lower on a per capita basis than what the western military alliance provided to the Balkans.
But are the modern-day Taliban equivalent to the fanatical thugs who executed women in the Kabul soccer stadium in the 1990s? Glavin accepts it as fact—and he could well be right. But in the book Seeds of Terror: How Drugs, Thugs, and Crime Are Reshaping the Afghan War, former ABC journalist Gretchen Peters argues that it’s more complicated than that. She points out that Taliban commanders have morphed into drug runners, who are now far more interested in protecting their business interests to fund arms purchases. In framing her arguments, Peters relies in part on the theoretical work of Loretta Napoleoni, whose books explain in vivid detail how revolutionary movements often evolve into criminal gangs because the sale of contraband is necessary to fund continuing operations. And as more people’s incomes are generated in this way, the entire organization starts to change its focus somewhat to concentrate on maintaining revenues to keep people employed.
CBC reporter Mellissa Fung’s recent memoir of being kidnapped in Afghanistan, Under an Afghan Sky, offers another viewpoint. The so-called Taliban in her book is a gang of criminals focused entirely on trading hostages for money, and not in promoting Islamic extremism.
Glavin’s second point about low NATO troop levels is extremely thought-provoking, and something that isn’t commonly known. I just wish that he mentioned arguments that contradict his point of view—rather than writing a polemical tract—so that readers would be in a better position to draw an informed conclusion.
In the past, Canada’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Robert Fowler, has questioned why Canada was investing so much of its foreign aid and military forces in Afghanistan when the likelihood of failure was so high. Fowler argues that if Canada wants to do good in the world, it would get far more results investing the same amount of resources in other countries, where the prospects of success are greater.
Of course, this will come as no solace to progressive democrats living in Kabul. But let’s say that Glavin had befriended an opponent of the government in Congo or Zimbabwe or North Korea or Burma—rather than a foe of Pashtun supremacy in Afghanistan. Would Glavin then argue that these countries were more worthy of a Canadian military mission? It’s a fair question, notwithstanding the fact that the UN has supported propping up of the Karzai regime in Afghanistan, even though he stole the 2009 election and surrounds himself with religious extremists and gangsters.
Here’s something else to consider. Jeffrey Sachs, a well-known U.S. international-development consultant and economist, pointed out in his 2005 book The End of Poverty that landlocked countries face far greater economic challenges than nations with access to the sea. According to Sachs, it’s no surprise that Africa is so poverty-ridden, given the number of landlocked countries on the continent. It’s also no coincidence that Bolivia is the poorest country in South America.
Afghanistan is in a similar predicament, which goes unremarked in Glavin’s book. But it speaks to Fowler’s point (not to mention Rumsfeld’s controversial comment) about the challenge of nation-building in that country.
Meanwhile, with neighbouring Pakistan producing jihadis as if they were rolling off an assembly line—and with the Pakistani intelligence service having a vested interest in keeping Afghanistan weak—it’s hard to see how NATO will ever “win” this war. That’s because there’s an endless number of Taliban recruits coming out of the madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan. Come From the Shadows largely overlooks how to address this reality.
Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan has its roots in the madrassas, which are financed by Arab oil money. But because bombing Saudi Arabia would jeopardize American oil imports, the U.S. will never take its war there. So Canada sent troops to Kandahar as part of a UN-backed mission on the invitation of Karzai to keep him in power.
Then consider the constant meddling of Iran, which is a major regional power. Glavin points out that the Iranian regime has basically put Karzai on the payroll—this has also been reported in the New York Times. But the author doesn’t take that extra step and seriously examine the likelihood of a multiparty system succeeding alongside much larger neighbours like Iran and Pakistan, which have no desire for a strong, independent, Afghanistan on their borders. Glavin may feel that he's on the side of the Afghan democrats, but he’s loathe to entertain any arguments about why this could be an exercise in futility. In Glavin’s world, people who raise these points are talking about a place called Absurdistan, not the real Afghanistan.
There’s another element undermining the success of the NATO mission: global warming. In the recent book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, U.S. writer Christian Parenti points out that Central Asia is suffering from “water shocks” as a result of declining snowpacks. According to Parenti, a poppy uses one-sixth of the water required to grow wheat. “That fact alone can explain the drug trade in drought-stricken Afghanistan,” he writes.
Afghan farmers prefer growing poppies because they’ll make more money than growing traditional crops. But NATO countries are fed up with heroin from Afghanistan ending up in their cities, so they discourage poppy farming. If Glavin’s book suffers from one major shortcoming, it’s that he mostly relied on urban voices from Kabul and, to a lesser extent, from Kandahar. He also brings forth views from people living in the north, but we don’t hear from a single poppy farmer.
Then throw in the country’s tribal differences, the difficult terrain, and the fact that India wants a strong Afghanistan to counter Pakistan, and the situation starts looking extremely complicated.
Come From the Shadows is an ambitious book. Never before have I seen so many articulate Afghan voices from within the country arguing for NATO’s continued presence. This presents an authentic challenge to those who think Canada should cut and run. This is the main reason why this book should be read by opponents of Canada's military mission in Afghanistan. But for Glavin to liken the situation there to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s seems a tad simplistic in light of all the different variables in the current era.
This comparison to the Spanish Civil War gives Glavin plenty of ammunition to machine-gun critics of the NATO mission, including Layton. I suspect it will appeal to book reviewers across the country, who will herald Glavin as a 21st-century Orwell. This is probably how he would like to be seen. But his book is not fair to many of those with legitimate objections to Canada’s involvement in combat operations, including Layton, who is no longer around to defend himself. Orwell taught us all about the importance of being tough but fair. It's a lesson that Glavin has yet to learn.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.