As Western policy unravels across the Middle East, it is more important than ever to expose media complicity in interventions such as in Afghanistan, argues Helen Redmond
'The most important lesson one can acquire about US foreign policy is the understanding that our leaders do not mean well. They do not have any noble goals of democracy and freedom and all that jazz. They aim to dominate the world by any means necessary. And as long as an American believes that the intentions are noble and honorable, it’s very difficult to penetrate that wall. That wall surrounds the thinking and blocks any attempt to make them realize the harm being done by US foreign policy.'
– William Blum, former member of the US State Department, author of Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions since World War II (Zed Books).
Graeme Smith, The Dogs are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan (Vintage Books Canada, September 2014), 320pp.
A slew of new books by an international crew of journalists are being churned out to explain the complete failure of America’s thirteen-year long, $753 billion dollar war and occupation of Afghanistan.
The vast majority of these books share a similar template and selective amnesia. These journalists believe Afghanistan was ‘the good war’, the Taliban had to be overthrown, al-Qaeda evicted, that Pakistan and poppy are intractable problems, the war was to bring democracy and President Karzai is crazy. Then, after cheerleading and providing cover for the war, occupation and troop surges, they admit that it all went horribly wrong. But after a decade of ‘missteps’ and ‘folly’, these ‘objective’ journalists declare that Nato troops must stay in Afghanistan to ‘repair and mitigate the damage’.
Journalists who work for mainstream media outlets don’t question why ‘American interests’ should determine the future of Afghanistan. It is an implicit, unstated assumption that the United States has the right to dictate to Afghans how they will be governed and even to select their president. American foreign policy in the region needs no serious examination or explicit acknowledgement. It just is. Since 9/11, direct intervention is an imperial right and responsibility in order to fight the so-called ‘war on terror’. The right of all nations to self-determination; what’s that?
Graeme Smith’s memoir, The Dogs are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, follows this template and he doesn’t challenge the precepts of the war on terror. Smith, a former reporter for Canada’s The Globe and Mail, reserves critical scrutiny and outrage for corrupt Afghan officials who profit from the drug trade and Afghan intelligence police whom he discovers (OMG!) torture prisoners.
The book is a combination of Mr. Smith Goes to Afghanistan and Graeme’s Excellent Adventure. The twenty-six-year-old who describes himself as ‘an excited kid’ is full of naiveté, and pumped up on adrenaline and testosterone as he stumbles across the bazaars and battlefields of southern Afghanistan dressed in a shalwar kameez, translator in tow. Smith writes on being in a war zone:
‘It did feel glamorous, though. I enjoyed the freedom of camping outdoors; sleeping in the dirt wasn’t so bad … this was the kind of place where a guy could piss where he wanted, belch when he wanted, and in some ways act more naturally than is usually allowed. My mouth tasted awful, and my combat pants grew crusted with rings of salt from days of accumulated sweat, but it felt like an adventure’ (p.64).
Smith publishes stories to build public support for the occupation of Afghanistan. He argues in one article:
‘It’s important for the people of Canada to understand the broader picture, which is that Afghanistan will descend into chaos if the foreign troops leave. Everybody I speak with – diplomats, journalists, soldiers, ordinary Afghans – seem to agree on that point’ (p.42).
Really? Smith couldn’t find one Afghan in Kandahar province who wanted foreign troops out? In fact, there is widespread support among those who live in southern Afghanistan for the withdrawal of troops because they have suffered the brunt of night raids, aerial and drone bombing, poppy eradication and civilian casualties.
The author doesn’t report stories showing the utter contempt Canadian troops have for ordinary Afghans. Smith witnesses a meeting between a Canadian commander and Afghan elders. The elders repeatedly assert that there is no Taliban presence in their village and that Nato attacks have harmed their families, but the belligerent commander won’t believe the men and doesn’t care that bombs are killing them. He threatens:
‘The best option for everybody here is for Taliban to give themselves up to coalition forces so we can get rid of the menace. The second option, if they don’t give up? They will die an early death. We will find them, hunt them down and we will kill them like the cowards they are … They hide behind women and children’ (p.49)
Smith chooses not to quote this commander or file this story because that would jeopardize his cozy relationship to, and ability to embed with, the military.
Journalists who embed with Canadian, British or American troops have to sign a media ‘ground rules’ agreement that forces them to censor and sanitize their stories. Reporting ‘unfavorable’ stories can result in a journalist being blacklisted. Chelsea Manning wrote in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times about how the US military strictly controls media access and punishes those who report stories they don’t like. Manning wrote:
‘The process of limiting press access to a conflict begins when a reporter applies for embed status. All reporters are carefully vetted by military public affairs officials. This system is far from unbiased. Unsurprisingly, reporters who have established relationships with the military are more likely to be granted access.’
That would be Graeme Smith.
Smith gets his war on during Operation Medusa, a major battle that took place in Kandahar in September of 2006. He is embedded with the Canadian troops who led the fight. At one point, to the astonishment of Nato, the Taliban fought them to a standstill. It was relentless air bombardment that eventually drove the insurgents out of the Panjwai valley. His descriptions of the physics and feel of war are amazing and one of the few strengths of the book. It is September 11th and he is on the ground in a final attack:
‘Engineers ran up to walls of farmhouses and set up charges using so much plastic explosive that the detonation kicked up rolling clouds that swept over the troops like the end of the world, blotting out the sun and immersing them in an otherworldly universe of filtered light and falling debris … “What the fuck was that?” said Captain Pappin. “Fucking rain of fucking building,” I replied. Building materials were falling from the sky: Wood, stone, mud’ (p.70).
Complicity with Torture
In his chapter ‘Detainees’ Smith chronicles the fate of Afghans who are detained by Canadian forces and turned over to the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s dreaded intelligence police. His articles on the systematic torture of Afghans were eye opening and forced an embarrassed Canadian government to respond. But that was the easy part; reporting that the NDS tortures prisoners. And it had a knock-on effect of reinforcing the racist, age-old narrative that Afghans are a cruel and violent people who need to be civilized by Western powers. The riskier part of the story was to investigate and expose the complicity of the Canadian military, because after all, if their soldiers were not delivering suspected terrorists to Afghan prisons they would not be getting tortured. But Smith doesn’t do that
To his credit, Smith attempts to understand what motivates the Taliban to fight. In the chapter, ‘Lessons From the Taliban Survey’, he hires a local Afghan to interview members of the Taliban and videotape them with a cellphone camera. The videos revealed two important reasons why the insurgency was able to recruit new fighters; the constant air strikes that indiscriminately killed Afghans and the destruction of poppy-farmers’ fields. The 42 video interviews were compiled into a multimedia series that won Smith an Emmy. They are compelling portraits of ordinary Afghans and in many ways, give the viewer a much better understanding of the complexity of the war and occupation than his book.
Eventually, though, the excited kid becomes jaded by the gristle of war and Smith realizes he has censored his reporting. Looking back in anger, guilt and sadness, Smith confesses that he didn’t use quotations that challenged the official military line, he avoided reporting civilian casualties and he was incredibly naïve to believe that Canadian commanders didn’t know about and condone the torture of Afghan prisoners.
Smith was punk’d. And he still is.
The author currently lives in Kabul and is a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, an NGO that conferred an award on Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State, ‘for her commitment to promoting human rights and ensuring peace and security’ at their ‘In Pursuit of Peace’ annual fundraising dinner. Smith penned an Op-ed for the New York Times in which he argues troops must remain in Afghanistan. He writes: ‘Afghan and American leaders must sign a bilateral security agreement to allow a modest number of Nato troops to stay. Afghan forces need more helicopters, as well as logistics, intelligence and medical support. They will need, at a minimum, $4.1 billion….’ Smith’s insistence on more money for the military ensures that torture at the hands of the NDS will be funded well into the future.
It’s as if Smith has learned nothing from covering the war and occupation that decimated large swathes of the country and economy, killed and incarcerated thousands of innocent civilians, entrenched government corruption and strengthened the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. Is it possible that Smith operates in such a bubble that he hasn’t read the work of left-wing journalists like Ann Jones or the late Michael Hastings? The two reported extensively from Afghanistan and exposed over and over again that the war and occupation is not about democracy, women’s rights or fighting terrorism.
The title of Smith’s book is nauseatingly provocative and he explains its source. A Canadian platoon used Taliban corpses as bait and placed infrared glow sticks next to the bodies. They waited for insurgents to collect their dead so they could slaughter them but they never arrived. The strong smell of decomposing human flesh attracted a pack of wild dogs. He recorded a soldier saying nonchalantly, “Left them out as bait. The dogs are eating them now” (p.65).
The dogs are eating Graeme Smith now in his Afghanistan.
Helen is an independent journalist based in New York City. She writes about the War on Drugs, healthcare and Afghanistan.