On the Ground in Afghanistan

Graeme Smith on the prospect of democratic elections, his new book, and Canada's continuing responsibility to Kandahar.
By: /
May 27, 2013

Graeme Smith, former foreign correspondent for The Globe and Mail and award-winning reporter on southern Afghanistan is back on the ground in Kabul as a Senior Analyst for the International Crisis Group. OpenCanada talked to Graeme about Afghanistan's political progress, his soon-to-be-released new book, and Canada's ongoing responsibility to help those living in Kandahar.

The International Crisis Group’s most recent report on Afghanistan expressed the organization’s skepticism about the country’s readiness for the 2014 transition. Do you agree?

The International Crisis Group, ICG, has been working in Afghanistan for more than a decade. When I arrived here in January, my first tasks were to do some internal reorganization and help finish up a report about political dynamics ahead of the 2014-15 election season. When we published our last major report it was unclear if the elections would take place, but now it’s looking far more likely that they will. I think that’s one way we can mark progress over the last 9 or 10 months.

The focus of conversation has moved from whether there should be elections to how those elections should be held. There is some really interesting coalition-building happening: elites in Kabul who previously hated each other and fought each other in the civil war are now sitting down together and having tea. Some of these guys are meeting on a weekly basis and talking about who the next president should be; how to build a state; how to create a consensus government. A handful of candidates are emerging from these backroom negotiations now taking place in Kabul, which could make the presidential elections more of a referendum than a political contest, depending on how many candidates there are and what configurations of strongmen end up backing them.

Do you think the general public is becoming more optimistic about the political process?

People are really nervous about what’s going to happen next year – the double whammy of foreign troops withdrawing and a potential presidential election has people spooked.  The price of real estate in Kabul has dropped to about half of what it was last year, which tells you that people are selling and moving their assets out of the country. Nobody wants to make permanent investments in Kabul at a time when they’re really not sure what’s going to happen next. To me, that a decade of war has failed to settle things is one of the most terrible things. It’s a real tragedy that so much uncertainty remains, and one that the whole international community should feel shameful about.

In your reporting in 2008 for The Globe and Mail on the Taliban, you emphasized that the international community lacked sufficient information on the Taliban. Has that problem been addressed?

No. The Taliban continues to change and evolve and the ability of the international community to really understand the insurgency hasn't gotten much better. Too often it feels like we’re playing catch up, and that’s one of the subjects I hope to study now that I’m here on behalf of the International Crisis Group. Working for ICG is different than being a journalist; I have a lot more resources at my disposal, and I’d like to use them to really sink my teeth into questions like, “what are the various strategies that insurgents will use for the next couple of years?” and “what are the bad guys planning to do next?”.

More unconventional approaches to understanding the Taliban have emerged recently, such as Felix Kuehn and Alex Strick’s short anthology Poetry of the Taliban. Are these new tools useful?

Felix and Alex are both lovely guys and they do amazing, groundbreaking work. It’s groundbreaking in the sense that they have been able to humanize the insurgents, which really improves our understanding of what’s going on. So often the insurgents are dehumanized, which doesn’t help us predict what they’re going to do next.

What can you tell us about your new book coming out this September, The Dogs are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, and your motivations for writing it?

It’s a lament for southern Afghanistan and all that we tried to do there – it's about how the mission failed. I don’t write about the rest of the country, because I’m not an expert on Afghanistan as a whole, but also because the southern region is where most of the fighting has happened – it’s where the Canadians were fighting, and it’s where we focused all our great ideas about bringing peace and democracy.

We  need to stop and think about why and how we failed to do both of those things, and how we can do better next time. It’s a incredibly depressing topic, however there was some comedy amid the tragedy – which I highlight in the book – and it ends with an impassioned call for continued engagement. Our surges of troops demonstrably did not work: they did not bring peace and security and increases in the number of troops did not decrease the killing. Empirically, we failed. But that failure should not discourage us. There should be a sense of responsibility that lingers over the mess. You can’t simply walk away and shrug your shoulders. Afghanistan still needs continued engagement. Okay, troop surges didn’t work. So, we try something else. I think it is possible that with the right kind of financial and political support and a certain limited degree of military training and advising, Afghanistan could pull through. But there are a lot of big question marks hanging over its future. If we simply shrug our shoulders and walk away, if we pull out the dollars and divert our political attention, things could get very messy.

What kind of role, ideally, would you see Canada play in a continued international engagement strategy?

I’m from a small town in southern Ontario where if you walk into a shop and break something, you buy it. It’s pretty much the law. Canada should feel the same sense of responsibility about Kandahar. We went in there with a huge number of troops and a huge number of dollars and we made a big mess. And now I think it’s really scary to see the way that Kandahar has completely fallen off the political radar in Canada. Nobody talks about it anymore. I think Canada should feel a sense of responsibility about what it is leaving behind. We should continue working down there.

Lastly, Pakistan’s recent election. What kind of impact do you think the outcome will have on the relationship between these two countries?

Some people here in Kabul are pretty optimistic about the changing of the guard in Pakistan. I think it’s still very early. Some NATO officials are optimistic that Nawaz Sharif will be better able to exert civilian control over the foreign affairs and defence files that have long been dominated by Pakistan’s military establishment. We’ll see. Personally, I’m skeptical. I don't see the military and intelligence elites in Pakistan giving up any of their control over those files, and I don’t think that Pakistan’s political footing will shift considerably as result of the election.