The Afghan Decade

Two very different views on the success of foreign intervention

Both Chris Alexander’s The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace and Terry Glavin’s Come from the Shadows: The Long and Lonely Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan were released within a few days of the tenth anniversary of the American-led attack on the Afghan Taliban regime in response to the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Both describe the progress and frustrations of the decade-long international intervention in Afghanistan and both hold out hope for the future of that tragic country. That said, Alexander and Glavin have written two very different books that represent two very different views. While Alexander believes that the international community involvement and the political process that began after the fall of the Taliban have contributed to the development and democratization (albeit slow and erratic) of Afghanistan over the past decade, Glavin is highly critical of the international effort, including Afghan and western political leaders and the international media, and credits any progress to the determination and resilience of the Afghan people. The reality is that the evidence supports elements of both of these views, making both The Long Way Back and Come from the Shadows valuable contributions to the growing body of literature on Canada’s and the world’s involvement in Afghanistan. Yet, at the same time, neither tells the whole story.

I worked closely with Alexander during the last few months of his tenure as Canada’s ambassador in Kabul during the summer and fall of 2005; in fact, I could not have done my job without his support and assistance. I also met with him several times while he was the deputy special representative of the secretary general at the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). And I know Glavin, and have corresponded with him over the years and shared a very interesting breakfast with him at the famous Gandamack Lodge during one of his visits to Kabul in 2010.

In The Long Way Back, Alexander begins with a summary of Afghan history to provide the context for his discussion of his “six winters in Kabul.” Although this section is strong, he is at his best when he is describing the major strategic and political events that he either witnessed or participated in. These include the 2003 constitutional loya jirga, the 2004 presidential elections that confirmed Hamid Karzai as the head of state and the successful 2005 parliamentary vote, events that constituted the major milestones of the Bonn process intended to provide Afghanistan with the basic elements of a functioning state.

The final step in the Bonn process was the parliamentary election on September 18, 2005. Although the turnout was not as high as it was for the 2004 presidential election, it still exceeded 50 percent, and the sense of optimism and the enthusiasm at the polling stations that I visited with Alexander were very high. The people of Afghanistan, for the most part, embraced the idea of democracy and, in many cases, took extraordinary risks to cast their ballots. What most observers missed, though, was that with the completion of the Bonn process there was no agreed-upon Afghan-international framework to take the country forward. I distinctly recall Alexander explaining this to me at a polling station in the very rural Logar province, but the description in his book of the development of the Afghanistan Compact, the successor to the Bonn process, does not reflect the critical leadership role that he played in convincing his peers in Kabul that such a framework was needed. Instead, he gives credit for this accomplishment to the UN mission and, in typical diplomatic fashion, describes the document as “at least an outline of what would be required to make the country’s economy, government and infrastructure viable.” Alexander’s description of how the compact was developed and his conclusion reflect his pragmatic but still optimistic view of the international role in Afghanistan, a theme that is apparent throughout the book.

Throughout, Alexander is also very strong and forthright about the role of Pakistan, especially the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, in creating instability in its weaker and smaller neighbour. This criticism is also consistent with the courageous stance that he took as Canadian ambassador, when he was one of the few diplomats in Kabul who would directly challenge Pakistani civilian officials to exercise control over the ISI’s malevolent activities in Afghanistan and in the border areas (with very little success simply due to the ongoing U.S. government and CIA support of the Pakistani government and the ISI).

Alexander discusses his two years as Canada’s first ambassador to Afghanistan in a few short chapters but, unfortunately, offers little insight into the major Canadian strategic decisions of the day—decisions that would shape Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan for a decade. For example, he does not make a single comment on the fateful decision to deploy the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team and a battle group to the volatile and dangerous Kandahar province. Similarly, he makes no mention of the contentious decision to transfer detainees picked up by Canadians on the battlefield to Afghan custody. Tellingly, he mentions Amrulla Saleh, the former head of the National Directorate of Security, nine times, all of which support his contention that Pakistan is largely responsible for the insurgency, but utters not a word about the NDS’s reputation for dealing harshly with detainees, including those captured by Canadians.

In the same vein, Alexander’s description of his four years as the UN’s deputy special representative is benign. He avoids direct criticism of the mission’s weaknesses in preparing for the 2009 presidential elections and its ongoing security failures, such as the attack on the Bakhtar guest house in Kabul in October 2009. Alexander also manages to sidestep any discussion of the failure of UNAMA to coordinate the efforts of the UN’s “family” of agencies on the development front. Instead, he uses his UN platform to highlight the deteriorating security situation and further criticize Pakistan. He alludes to “the growing rift between Karzai and the West,” but is judicious about not assigning blame.

As a privileged insider, he also fails to discuss the very obvious lack of a coherent strategy that both the Afghan government and the international community would both sign on to and follow. He describes the 2006 London Conference on the Future of Afghanistan as “an enormous success.” As a member of the team that helped the Afghan government prepare the interim Afghanistan National Development Strategy presented at that conference, I would have agreed at the time. Alexander ascribes the subsequent failure of the strategy to gain traction solely to the fact that “security was not adequate.” However, to those of us working inside nascent Afghan institutions, an equally important reason for the lack of progress was the blatant difference of opinion among the major national donors, the multilateral agencies, the International Security Assistance Force and the Americans. In short, the international effort in Afghanistan has been, and still is, the sum of any number of disparate strategies and approaches. The resulting incoherence represents the single largest impediment to the development of a professional and responsive Afghan government. It is disappointing that Alexander does not really examine the reasons that the international community has failed to develop a coherent strategy to support Afghans.

To be fair, Alexander clearly states in his introduction that he has “sought to protect the confidences entrusted to me during my six years in Afghanistan.” He warns that the book offers a “personal, not an official, perspective.” Despite this caveat, and my concerns that he has not provided us with any new insights into some important issues, Alexander has written an excellent high-level overview of the international effort in Afghanistan. More importantly, he exposes some of the important fault lines within the Afghan elite without being judgemental, and he portrays major figures as independent actors instead of the caricatures usually captured by the western media. This is especially evident in his honest but empathetic treatment of Karzai’s evolution as leader. Although Karzai enjoyed a great deal of popularity in the West during the early days of his presidency, by the latter half of Alexander’s tenure at UNAMA he was increasingly seen as erratic and unreliable by western leaders and the media. Even though Alexander does admit to Karzai’s failings in establishing good governance, he is able to offer the reader insight into the pressures that the president must deal with, and thus adds nuance to controversies that are too often portrayed in “black and white” terms in the West. For example, Alexander’s discussion of Karzai’s 2008 rejection of the UK politician and diplomat Paddy Ashdown as the UN secretary general’s special representative was interpreted in the western press as evidence of Karzai’s weakness and paranoia. Alexander, on the other hand, sees this incident as the cumulative result of increasing western criticism of Karzai’s leadership and continual attacks on his character in the western press, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy when “Karzai began to see enemies everywhere, even among the ranks of loyal Western supporters.” This is one example of Alexander’s ability to understand the problems in Afghanistan and, at the same time, to provide the reader with some understanding of the complexity of the Afghan political scene.

Throughout The Long Way Back, Chris Alexander’s passion for Afghanistan and its people is palpable. He has done much to dispel the stereotype of a backward country and people that are beyond hope. For example, much of one chapter is dedicated to the revival of Afghan arts and culture. Most eloquently, Alexander uses the last chapter of the book to counter the pundits who “seem to proclaim with one voice that Afghanistan will never change” with the assertion that Afghanistan “has changed” and that “the vast majority of Afghans have put aside self-interest in order to start building a better country for future generations.” Many of us who have worked with Afghans on a daily basis over the past few years can only echo this conclusion. This alone is enough to make this a book worth reading.

Terry Glavin’s passion is at least equal to Alexander’s and is the main feature of Come from the Shadows. Glavin is a British Columbia–based author, journalist and commentator who is also a founding member of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee, an advocacy group that supports “international and Canadian intervention in Afghanistan with the aim of ending the violence of all illegal armed groups, alleviating poverty, and supporting Afghan struggles for democracy, peace, justice, and stability.” Glavin, whose work over the years covers an eclectic range of topics from the environment to aboriginal culture on the B.C. coast, came to the Afghan issue through his friendship with Abdul Rahim Parwani, an Afghan immigrant in Vancouver, and other émigrés who were “perplexed by the masses of white people staging demonstrations to demand that Canada pull its soldiers from Afghanistan.”

Unlike Alexander, Glavin makes no effort to provide strategic analysis. Instead, his intent is to counter the stereotypical views of Afghanistan that have become embedded in the western psyche over the past decade. At the same time he uses the book to discredit the left’s critique of the Afghan intervention, even though he self-identifies as of “the Left.” His main approach is to contrast the image of Afghanistan perpetuated by the media (“Absurdistan”) to the reality of the country and the Afghans he encountered in his travels.

Glavin sets up this construct early in the book when he contrasts the mythical Absurdistan of suicide bombers, terrorists and crooks with his perceived reality of a bustling, anarchic and thriving Kabul. Although Glavin is at times overly exuberant about the future of Afghanistan (“Kabul was the capital of a country fast becoming the bright spot of Central Asia”), the literary device of Absurdistan works well. It allows him to present the reader with an alternative view to that generally presented by the mainstream media and, at the same time, to criticize the most absurd aspects of the international intervention.

Throughout the book Glavin gives voice to a wide range of Afghans. From taxi drivers to teachers to politicians, he demonstrates that, for the most part, Afghans want the same things that we do—peace, order, good government and a modicum of economic prosperity. Fawzia Koofi, a young, widowed member of Parliament from the remote northern province of Badakhshan, is one of the most effective advocates for democratization and women’s rights. She contends that there is “a lack of proper communication in your country about Afghanistan. They don’t see all the good progresses. For me, the hope is for the younger generation.” The author of Letters to My Daughters: A Memoir, a moving personal story told in the context of the historical turmoil of the last three decades, Koofi has used her role in Parliament to work for the future of her country. Others, like the 38-year-old anti-poverty activist Mahboob Shah take a “bottom-up” approach by working with individual refugee families. Shah defines his approach in the most simple of terms: “I just do what I can do.” For Glavin, Shah and Koofi represent the real Afghanistan. Their conviction convinces him that commentators like Alexander Cockburn who reinforce the myth that Afghanistan is “nothing but mountains filled with barbarous ethnics with views as medieval as their muskets” are simply wrong.

The most difficult parts of Come from the Shadows are Glavin’s occasional (but long) sidebars that excoriate the left in western democracies and the media. Clearly intended to place the anti-war movement on the wrong side of history, these tend to make the story about us, as opposed to the Afghans who will either prosper or suffer because of our intervention. Regardless of the merits of his views, the tone of this critique detracts from Glavin’s otherwise excellent articulation of Afghan voices and views, and will likely confuse the reader who has not been immersed in the details of the Afghan mission over the last decade.

Nonetheless, Glavin’s demolition of the prevailing wisdom and mythology that surround Afghanistan and Afghans makes Come from the Shadows worth reading. It is well written and his language is clear, simple and blunt throughout the book. He wears his heart on his sleeve and he pulls no punches in assigning the blame for a decade’s worth of incoherent and ineffective effort at the door of western politicians, their lack of strong leadership and the absence of the political will and courage to do what is really necessary. Having spent five Canada Days in Afghanistan since 2005, I am convinced by his argument, even if I do not agree with all of the detail in this important contribution to the ongoing Afghan debate.

Chris Alexander and Terry Glavin both love Afghanistan. It shows in their writing. At the same time, they are clear-eyed enough to understand how difficult the last decade has been and the uncertain future that Afghans continue to face. Unlike most politicians and commentators who have no Afghan experience, Alexander and Glavin also understand that the decade-long international mission should have been about Afghans and not, as was the case, about domestic American, Canadian, British or Dutch politics. Neither book is the authoritative history of ten years of intervention, but both make an important contribution to our understanding of a place that I too have come to love.