Afghanistan book reviews: The Savage War and The Long Way Back

Readers hoping to better understand Afghanistan and the outside world’s involvement in the country since 9/11 have been well served by Canadian authors of late.

Terry Glavin’s Come from the Shadows: the Long and Lonely Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan has been reviewed in this space already. Next up are The Savage War: the Untold Battles of Afghanistan, by Canadian Press defence correspondent Murray Brewster, and The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace, by former Canadian and UN diplomat (and current Conservative MP) Chris Alexander.

Brewster spent 15 months in Afghanistan, from 2006 to 2011, covering the period when Canadian soldiers deployed in force to Kandahar, and when the insurgency there burned the hottest. When not in Afghanistan, he stayed with the story in Ottawa and elsewhere. His depth of knowledge shows. Sections dealing with how the war played out on Parliament Hill — and the disconnect between Ottawa and Kandahar — strengthen the book.

Brewster nicely captures the absurdity of the Conservative government’s spinning and message control. Few interviews in Afghanistan could happen without approval from Ottawa. Requests to talk to Canadian civilians about aid work were delayed, ignored, or rejected.

“If you asked for lists of development projects so you could travel independently to view them, some of the development people would stare as though you’d spoken in a foreign, incomprehensible language,” Brewster writes. Journalists were told to submit access-to-information requests. Then Prime Minister Stephen Harper had the audacity to complain that Canadians weren’t getting the real story about Afghanistan.

This book, however, is not about journalists and spin-doctors. The bulk of it is filled with the slog of the war in Kandahar — the soldiers who fought it, and the Afghans who were ground down by it. He describes the war as a series of failures. Western forces could not stamp out the insurgency, win hearts and minds, or build a nation.

Brewster’s prose style is colloquial. He’s fond of similes. The sky is a “billowing menace that boils like witches brew.” Wind-blown sand “pricks your eyes like a thousand tiny knives.” Characters animate his story. All Western journalists in war zones connect with their fixers — the local journalists who act as their translators, guides and protectors. Brewster’s bond with his, Abdul Raziq Khan, was tight. His description of Khan sobbing into his cell phone and begging for help after one of his Afghan fixer colleagues had been murdered will stay with me.

Like most embedded Canadian reporters, Brewster spent the majority of his time in Kandahar. The war might not have looked as hopeless to him from Panjshir or Balkh. But he was in Afghanistan to cover the Canadian war effort, and Kandahar is where Canadian troops were based. The story Brewster tells is therefore a focused one. It’s not about the entire country, or even the entire war. It’s about Canada’s struggle in the insurgency’s heartland. It’s well done.

Chris Alexander approaches post 9/11 Afghanistan from a different perspective. He was a participant in much of the international politics that shaped the country.  This gave him unique access and insight that is reflected in the book. It is a political history, rather than a people’s one. Voices of politicians, civil servants, diplomats and senior military figures dominate over those of Pashtun farmers and army grunts.

But Alexander also lived in Afghanistan for years. He knows the country and its history well. His goal in writing the book, he says, is to convince readers that Afghanistan’s recovery is a worthy cause. Already, he says, there is much to celebrate.

Alexander doesn’t make this case as convincingly as he might have done — even to a reader who is inclined to agree with him. He focuses too much on political processes, rather than results that most Afghans might notice and appreciate.

“Within less than a month, the [Independent Directorate for Local Governance] produced a strategic framework for subnational governance in Afghanistan—a landmark in the country’s nation building,” Alexander writes. One could spend days trying to find an ordinary Afghan who had heard of the IDLG’s “strategic framework,” and weeks more locating one who thought it was a landmark of any sort.

These criticisms, however, are dwarfed by Alexander’s singular accomplishment, which is to frame the conflict in Afghanistan for what it is: an anti-colonial struggle, waged not by the Taliban against America, NATO, and their puppet regime in Kabul; but by Afghans against the Pakistani military (which is to say the Pakistani state) and its proxies who wish to prevent Afghanistan’s re-establishment as a sovereign country.

Others have made this point, not least Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who once put it this way: “The government of Pakistan wants our children to serve as doormen at their hotels in Karachi instead of becoming doctors and engineers.”

Alexander, however, speaks with the authority of a former UN ambassador who confronted Pakistan’s duplicity directly for years. Most international diplomats who tried to deal with the country did, but too often they pretended — at least publicly — that black was white, white was black, and Pakistan wasn’t running a network of child suicide bomb dispatchers.

Alexander refers to a United National Assistance Mission in Afghanistan report that accurately described Pakistan’s role in the Afghanistan insurgency. “The tribal areas of Pakistan remain an important source of human and material assistance for suicide attacks in Afghanistan… In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that [the Federally Administered Tribal Areas] (along with Baluchistan) is not only a Taliban and al-Qaeda sanctuary, but also the base for Taliban decision making and its logistical apparatus.” Alexander’s bosses ordered it removed from all UN websites.

Alexander, to his credit, puts truth before politics. He does so, it seems, because he genuinely loves the country he spent six years trying to help. I’ll give him the last word:

“The UN, ISAF, NATO and the United States have not been fighting independent terrorists in Afghanistan. They have been fighting proxies carefully nurtured on Pakistani soil. The failure to describe this conflict in its true terms has simply prolonged it. Our inability to censure this behavior in the strongest political terms has merely encouraged it further. This appeasement must end.”

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