The Stuff of Nightmares

A front-line journalist reflects on his coverage of the Afghan War.

In the fiercely contested field of journalism, analysis and commentary about the vexing conundrum called “the war in Afghanistan,” there exists a gobsmacking surfeit of material that operates almost exactly like that strange phenomenon of particle physics known as antimatter.

It is a phylum of reportage that actually subtracts from the sum total of knowledge on the subject. You set out to read an article in a perfectly reputable newspaper, say, The Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star, and if you are not very careful by the end of it you will know less about Afghanistan than when you started.

Just the other day I came upon an occurrence of the phenomenon in the pages of The Guardian under the headline: “US drone strikes more deadly to Afghan civilians than manned aircraft—adviser.”

Among many necessary pieces of context the article failed to take into account is the simple fact that NATO has pretty well abandoned the use of jet fighters against any “human targets,” so it would not be surprising that “ten times” the number of deaths resulted from drone strikes as from conventional bombing. The 2010–11 period under study was also a time of the most intense campaign of U.S. and NATO air strikes since the initial bombing runs of 2001.

Furthermore, what The Guardian left unreported was the total death toll from the combined U.S., NATO and Afghan National Army operations of all kinds—drone strikes and conventional bombing operations included—for that two-year period: it was fewer than 900 of the 5,798 reported war-related Afghan civilian deaths. The Taliban and their jihadist associates killed all the rest. You would never know that from reading The Guardian story. Distortions of this kind have nothing to do with the “fog of war.”

An especially striking peculiarity of the “western” misunderstanding of Afghanistan since 2001 is that the thing the privileged and wealthy people of the NATO countries call “the war in Afghanistan” is exactly coterminous with an era that most of Afghanistan has been experiencing as one of nearly uninterrupted peace and unparalleled progress.

Because 9/11 and its aftermath occurred at more or less the fulcrum of the disorienting transition period between the analog epoch and the digital age, journalism concerned with Afghanistan has also produced a wholly unique genre that is not easy to classify. One outstanding example of this type was The Globe and Mail’s ambitious 2007 multimedia project, “Talking to the Taliban.”

The six-part series—words and pictures, video and sound files—consisted almost solely of interviews with 42 Taliban foot soldiers conducted mainly by the Globe’s Afghan “fixers.” The much-argued-about project ended up earning such accolades as a National Newspaper Award, an Editor & Publisher magazine EPPY award for online journalism and an Emmy award in the news and documentary category.

The project’s unlikely impresario was the Globe’s 28-year-old Graeme Smith, a reporter whose meteoric career trajectory had taken him almost straight from Ryerson University’s journalism school to a plum posting as the Globe’s Moscow bureau chief, and from there to a more or less permanent assignment in Kandahar.

Smith’s long-awaited book, The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, is mainly the memoir of his service as the Globe’s Afghanistan correspondent, from his arrival in 2006 to 2009. It is a heartrending chronicle of his time accompanying Canadian soldiers into battle, as well as a romping tale of rattling around “outside the wire” in Kandahar on his own and roving about on various hair-raising excursions to neighbouring provinces and to Quetta, across the frontier in Pakistan, with one or two diversions in Kabul.

Smith at first seems to come close to confessing that the critics of his “Talking to the Taliban” project might have been right all along, and that the enterprise shed little useful light on the cannibalistic sociopathology that shows up in most reporters’ lexicons as the Taliban “insurgency.” Indeed, with the benefit of five years’ hindsight, the project does seem now like nothing so much as a drearily repetitive collection of crudely propagandistic self-exculpations uttered by creepy and mostly illiterate Kandahari mercenaries.

Even though Smith largely fails in the effort, his resolve to stoutly defend the project against its critics should not be taken as evidence for anything like dishonesty, however. Much of Smith’s book is bracingly honest.

It helps that Smith is candid enough to admit up front that he should not be taken as qualified to talk about Afghanistan, but rather only about “the troubled south.” This admission highlights a fairly straightforward reason for the absurd ubiquity of misapprehensions about Afghanistan abroad in western countries.

The Pashtun people constitute only a minority of the Afghan people. While it afflicts only a minority of Pashtuns, Talibanism is almost exclusively a Pashtun disease. Smith’s “troubled south” constitutes Afghanistan’s Pashtun belt. Smith was ensconced in the city of Kandahar and its environs, which is to say Talibanism’s epicentre, for almost the duration of his Afghan sojourn. Kandahar is not Afghanistan, not even close, and that is the truth of it. Throughout The Dogs Are Eating Them Now, Smith struggles with the truth. He agonizes over it.

Smith is to be credited for coming clean about those times when he was less than forthright with the Globe’s readers for fear that he would undermine the upbeat “narrative” he was hoping to uphold at the time. It is precisely in the honest pains that Smith takes as a journalist and a diarist in this book, sometimes in spite of himself, that The Dogs Are Eating Them Now succeeds.

One story Smith failed to report for the Globe, a story Smith confesses in the book to being angry about having let “slip away,” is the story of the book’s title. The incident occurred on the front lines of Operation Medusa, the 2006 turning-point offensive that Canadian Forces led against Taliban columns in the restive district of Panjwaii. A Canadian reconnaissance platoon had placed Taliban corpses on a nighttime battlefield to lure the enemy into the open. The corpses failed as bait, and one unnamed soldier was said to remark: “The dogs are eating them now.”

Smith’s courageous foray across the border into the teeming and fetid city of Quetta, the post-2001 Pakistani capital of Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s Afghan emirate-in-exile, could have produced a book all on its own. It was while he was slouching around the backstreets of Quetta disguised as a visiting tribesman that Smith got his first and deepest insights into the criminal nexus of Pakistani intelligence bosses, opium-industry kingpins and crackpots, and Arab-financed religious demagogues who form the core machinery of Taliban barbarism.

As things turned out, it was his pursuit of drug-money corruption allegations against the Afghan deputy interior minister and counter-narcotics police general Mohammed Daoud Daoud that caused Smith to eventually leave Afghanistan. Not unwisely, Smith decided to take it seriously when he started getting warnings in 2009 that he was putting himself at grave personal risk by chasing such stories. But it was Daoud who ended up assassinated, in 2011, allowing Smith to confidently return for a final Afghan sojourn with The Globe and Mail.

To the task of writing a book with an honestly grounded narrative and rhetorical coherence, Smith’s efforts in The Dogs Are Eating Them Now are not especially helpful. Here is the book’s opening sentence: “We lost the war in southern Afghanistan and it broke my heart.” And yet in the book’s final paragraph, we have this: “At best, we are leaving behind an ongoing war. At worst, it’s a looming disaster.”

If the war is ongoing, it is not lost, and if a great disaster looms—and evidence for that hypothesis is not hard to muster—then it is due almost entirely to the incompetence and mendacity of the “war-weary” Obama White House. But any assertion that “the war” has been in vain would have to explain away the overwhelming majority of consistently pro-NATO Afghans, far beyond the blighted Pashtun-belt wastelands of Smith’s troubled south, who have been struggling with remarkable success to rebuild their broken country since 2001. You would also have to wholly ignore the women of Afghanistan, and indeed women are almost entirely absent from the pages of The Dogs Are Eating Them Now.

But then, Smith’s analytical judgement is known to be a bit eccentric. Two years ago he was properly and publicly upbraided by Michael Petrou, foreign editor for Maclean’s magazine, for absurdly nominating the Taliban as a potential partner in the struggle against the Islamist terrorism of al Qaeda. In The Dogs Are Eating Them Now, however, Smith appears to have come around, at least to some degree. To cling to the fashionable delusion that negotiations with the Taliban will produce any stable result is to be preposterously optimistic and “in denial,” Smith now concludes.

Apart from the “Talking to the Taliban” project, Smith’s journalistic output from Kandahar was most notable—some of his colleagues would say most notorious—for its relentless pursuit of what came to be called the Afghan detainee controversy. Much of Smith’s work for the Globe on this front consisted of outstanding journalism, but it ended up serving mainly as grist for a squalid opposition campaign in Ottawa to conjure melodramatic “war crimes” charges of the kind that Smith’s older and longer-serving Kandahar colleague Matthew Fisher of Postmedia News at the time called “preposterous.”

Smith marks his own preoccupations with torture, which began in 2007, as a kind of emotional turning point, the moment that he began to “seriously doubt the nobility of the war.” And fair enough—it is not as though important stories about the horrors of Afghan dungeons were not crying out to be told. Smith threw himself into the work. But the way the Afghan detainee “scandal” was handled was sufficient to cause any reasonable person to seriously doubt the nobility of journalism, too.

The point of Afghan detainee stories, for all appearances, was that we had all been taken for chumps and Canadian soldiers were knowingly and routinely delivering simple and otherwise harmless Kandahari brigands to monstrous Afghan prison warders in order that the poor boys might be tortured with cattle prods and thumbscrews and thrashed with cats-o’-nine-tails without cease or mercy.

What Fisher and other journalists noticed about the so-called “detainee scandal” was that it relied upon flimsy and scurrilous bits of “evidence” and the insinuations of such sketchy characters as Richard Colvin, the pompous diplomat whose flamboyant insubordinations and downright weirdness are unaccountably overlooked in The Dogs Are Eating Them Now. Still, it is in Smith’s intensely personal accounts of his wandering and witnessing that this book redeems itself.

It is as if to insist that the reader face the awful truth of what warfare is really like that Smith retells the story of 23-year-old Private Josh Klukie, whose misfortune was to have stepped on a Taliban landmine. His body was sundered into several pieces. “He landed in the vineyard,” one of Klukie’s young comrades recalls for Smith. “I had that last tourniquet on him, I grabbed him by the shoulder, I’m like, ‘This is nothing, Josh, this is nothing.’ He just looked at me, smiled, and that was it.”

Smith contends that it was only by such “immersion” in the bleak madhouse of the Afghan south that a reporter had any hope of producing work that might provide lessons to inform sensible international community policy toward Afghanistan. Perhaps, but it is without question a method that will tend to drive the journalist a bit crazy, even if it does produce riveting journalism, of which there is a great deal in The Dogs Are Eating Them Now. This is an old-fashioned ripping yarn of adventure and courage and intrigue, told with regret and self-doubt and tempered by an acute awareness of the tale’s tragedies.

“You must get down in the dust and shit,” Smith writes. “I spent a lot of days smelling the death, getting sunburns. The charred flesh of suicide bombers got stuck in the treads of my shoes. I was shot at, bombed, rocketed, mortared, chased through narrow streets. I took photographs, recorded audio, filled a suitcase with leather-bound notebooks. I filed the material into folders on my computer, and later took a leave of absence from my job so I could sit quietly and let the echoes settle. I tried to pick out scenes and bits of dialogue that might help you understand. This was a healthy process. The nightmares faded, and I stopped obsessing about the tactical properties of every room.”

The stuff of Smith’s nightmares is the substance of this book. Whether or not Smith is healthier for writing The Dogs Are Eating Them Now—he has moved on from the Globe and now works as a researcher with the International Crisis Group in Kabul—the rest of us are all the richer for him having done so.