When war correspondent Graeme Smith arrived in Afghanistan in 2005, international military officials and aid organizations were confident they could quickly establish a safe and stable democracy. They discussed plans for boys’ soccer camps and girls’ essay contests. The capital city of Kabul was safe enough that Smith could walk the streets in jeans and a T-shirt with no hired protection. It was even safe to drive the highway connecting Kandahar and Kabul.
Everything changed within a few years. The skeletons of burned vehicles lined the highway. Having conversations in English in many public places was now nearly suicidal. Reinforced concrete that could withstand the impact of rocket-propelled grenades became a necessity. The optimism of the war’s early days fizzled and faded.
These deteriorating conditions coincided with the influx of millions of dollars of aid money and an increase in the numbers of foreign soldiers charged with maintaining stability and eliminating extremism. Despite some much-reported cases of minor progress, the international community had achieved precisely the opposite of its intentions. What went wrong?
This question haunts Graeme Smith’s powerful new book, The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan. A war correspondent for Canada’s The Globe and Mail, Smith lived for years in Kandahar while reporting on everything from the dubious treatment of detainees to the intricate tribal dynamics of local politics. A story he wrote in 2009 exposing the corrupt ties linking opium traffickers to both insurgents and government figures made him enemies so deadly he had to flee the country, though he was later able to return.
After years of on-the-ground reporting and experience, Smith quit his job and wrote a book to try and make sense of a decade of war and nation-building by international forces. His verdict is harsh: “Afghanistan was an unsuccessful laboratory for ideas about how to fix a ruined country.” But his analysis of this failed laboratory is deeply illuminating; his stories span the many scales of the conflict, capturing everything from the official bombast of military strategists to the dust and discomforts of daily life in a war zone. His book has the emotional candor of a memoir and the geopolitical acuity of an expert policy paper.
Many of Smith’s insights derive from his intrepid persistence in pursuing local sources. When a commander announces to the press that villagers in southern Afghanistan support NATO and the Afghan militia, Smith quickly darkens this picture by talking to shopkeepers and farmers who admit they pay protection money to the Taliban. The decision is practical, not ideological. The national Afghan army is deeply corrupt and disorganized, and the foreign troops can’t detect and disrupt every instance of Taliban extortion. Not to take out insurance against a Taliban attack would be foolish.
But a habit of binary thinking and an allergy to subtlety often drove military leaders to perceive entire villages as either for or against the Taliban. The reality was far more nuanced. Tribal allegiances dating back centuries crisscross and complicate any simple division between the Taliban and its Afghan enemies. Many of the national Afghan troops, for instance, belong to a tribe with a long-standing hatred for a second tribal group in southern Afghanistan. Members of this second tribe typically felt no particular allegiance to the Taliban, but many joined or supported the insurgency because they feared that the tribe that dominated the Afghan forces would seize power.
Inadvertently reigniting old tribal feuds was only one way in which the international coalition empowered the insurgency. The tactic of razing fields of poppies also drove many opium farmers to the Taliban for protection or revenge. Indiscriminate air raids killed many civilians and left behind many more brothers, cousins, nephews, uncles, and friends who wanted revenge. Coalition forces often handed detainees over to Afghan police trained in torture tactics by the KGB. Many prisoners endured beatings, rape, and electrocution.
Smith makes the uncomfortable but accurate point that some of those who were tortured had beheaded the friends and colleagues of Afghan security forces. To expect that the Afghan forces would then treat detainees with restraint was probably unrealistic. Other detainees, however, had no apparent connection to the Taliban and suffered due to a mistake or the settling of a local grudge. Smith successfully broke a series of stories on the treatment of prisoners that helped pressure Canada and NATO to demand an end to torture. But progress was incremental and gradually reversed. His happiness about making a difference soon gives way to grief and rage.
The title of Smith’s book – "The Dogs Are Eating Them Now" – comes from an episode when the corpses of suspected Taliban fighters were left in a field as bait to lure their comrades back to give them a proper burial. The ploy did not work, and wild dogs began their grisly work. This sort of gory detail appears in almost every chapter and highlights the dehumanizing effects of war. One Canadian soldier tells Smith: “I want to shoot somebody.... I didn’t join this to make fucking changes in the world.” A member of the American Special Forces boasts, “we basically shoot a guy if we don’t like the way he’s scratching his face.”
Many of the foreign troops, however, are humane and genuinely idealistic in their desire to improve Afghanistan. That so many of their actions tended to create more insurgents and worsen conditions imbues the book with a tragic futility. Smith is not the impartial journalist of popular myth. He is angry and saddened by misguided policies and pointless loss of life. His prose is clear and strong, but it seethes with frustration. He wanted a different ending to this story.
A seemingly minor anecdote Smith relates is a potent metaphor for the entire occupation. One night a soldier attacked a camel spider that wriggled into his sleeping quarters with a combat knife, hacking it into a dozen pieces. The camel spider was not actually venomous, and it was potentially helpful as a hunter of truly poisonous insects and scorpions. “But the camel spider was a convenient target,” Smith writes. “Its obliteration seemed in keeping with all of NATO’s misplaced fury.”