The South Asia Channel

The Days of Saffron and Roses

Graeme Smith, The Dogs are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2013). 

Robert Nickelsberg, Afghanistan: A Distant War (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2013).

In Graeme Smith, Afghanistan has found the writer with both the eye for detail and the appropriate sense of irony to begin to do justice to the Afghanistan conflict.  Smith at one point cites a speech from Vonnegut, and one can hear the echoes of Vonnegut's sense of the absurd in the text.  Smith's long-term view (he begins with a trip from Kabul to Kandahar in 2005) gives him a privileged perspective on the changing dynamics of almost a decade in South-Central Asia.  Yet, despite his lack of illusions about NATO's "self-defeating policies,"  Smith still maintains that there is "hope for southern Afghanistan."  This is a hope for which he presents little evidence in his text, and is cause for rumination about the sense of romantic confidence that Afghanistan seems to inspire in Westerners (a Canadian, in this case).

Smith presents us with the entire arc of NATO's post-Taliban Afghanistan intervention.  As mentioned above, he is able to drive from Kabul to Kandahar in 2005, prior to the Taliban's resurgence (that same trip would be suicidal just years later).  In 2006, he experiences the "heady days of the NATO surge"-the first of several "surges," that would culminate in the West Point-announced Obama surge that would swell troop numbers in Afghanistan to over 100,000.

Smith captures well the tragic naivety that characterized so much of the Afghan war.  In one comic exchange, when asked what might replace opium as the staple crop for southern Afghanistan's peasants, a Canadian officer replies, "Saffron is big," to which a British officer responds, "The other thing is roses."  Saffron and roses indeed.  One might similarly advise a methamphetamine producer to take up baking cookies and brownies as an economic alternative.  That these crops would not be economically viable (just how do they plan to export roses to a country that might demand such luxuries?) is never seriously contemplated.  And yet, as Smith concedes, the journalists accepted these "soft answers" to their hard questions. 

Smith has an incredible eye for detail, important details in particular.  He notes the return of the Taliban with the observation that by 2006 the Kandahari Pashtuns who had "shaved their beards in 2001 were now growing them back."  He notes that the typical infantry soldier did not sign up to be an "armed social worker," and that they did not join to do social engineering "other than population depreciation."    And he gains insight into the culture when he realizes that Afghan families "hedge their bets" by sending sons (not daughters-it is Afghanistan) to serve on all sides of a conflict, so that it is not unlikely that an Afghan solider or border policeman might be fighting his brother in a Taliban faction.

Smith also draws attention to two of the uglier aspects of the Afghanistan war, or just war simply-torture and civilian casualties.  There was (and is) little doubt that torture featured prominently in Afghan prisons (though also, to be fair, in a long chain of prisons stretching  from Libya in North Africa to China in the Far East, including almost every country in between).  Smith makes the interesting point that many Taliban preferred to be captured by the U.S. special operations forces (SOF), as they ran their own detention centers and did not transfer prisoners to the Afghan system.  Smith expresses another of his many regrets here, that he did not more openly and more aggressively cover and write about the abuse suffered by detainees at the hands of the Afghan government-abuse in which NATO forces inadvertently became complicit.  Smith's question to a Canadian military commander, "Is it legal for Canadians to be putting Afghans in a system where we know they face a high percentage chance of abuse or torture?" goes lamentably unanswered.

Smith also spends a great deal of time on the issue of airstrikes and civilian casualties.  He relays a quite telling-and believable-incident of a U.S. Special Forces officer putting him in de facto detention to prevent him from reporting a specific incident that involved perhaps a score of dead and clearly dozens of wounded.  Smith does not report on the era when General McChrystal commanded at International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), but this incident puts the General's later emphasis on reducing civilian casualties in a clear context.  That villagers "correctly saw the soldiers as magnets for trouble" explains both why NATO was right to try to eliminate civilian casualties, and also why NATO seemed to take the blame for casualties caused by their enemies.  The Afghan people correctly discerned that but for the intervening forces, there would be no violence near their homes-the homes which Smith reports they would abandon when foreign soldiers established a presence nearby (a phenomenon I also witnessed on occasion).

Smith concludes with a quite sensible laundry list of lessons that should be-or should have been-learned from the Afghan War.  First, the war is a "family feud," with local rivalries as the principal driver, and is not primarily about Pakistani influence or alliances with jihadists.  Second, air strikes drove local Afghans to join the fight and declare "jihad" against foreign troops.  Third, drug eradication was counterproductive, as these opium fields were often the only means of survival for the peasant farmers.  And finally, that the Taliban were-in an ugly sense-Afghan nationalists and could therefore be bargained with, as they had/have little to no interest in any global jihad (though this might be contested by those who fought in Afghanistan's eastern provinces against the al-Qaeda aligned Haqqani network).  This last is perhaps the hardest lesson to absorb since, as Smith rightly observes, if "the troops were not fighting global terrorists, if they were battling rural bumpkins with no greater ambition that shutting down the cinemas in Kabul, what exactly was at stake?" 


Smith's diagnosis of the war is precise and damning.  Yet when it comes time for prescription, he suddenly lapses into a romanticism that is otherwise lacking in his probing analysis.  He still believes that there is "hope for southern Afghanistan" and that the fact that the "mission was a debacle...should not discourage us."  Smith maintains, somewhat bafflingly to this reviewer, that the failure should instead "spur our work to repair and mitigate the damage in southern Afghanistan."  How this would be done, given all the obstacles he so carefully documents throughout his text, is not clear.

There seems to be something about Afghanistan that causes Westerners (Americans most notably, but Smith shows that Canadians are not immune) to fall in love with the place and people, in a way that makes a rational calculus of interests, costs, and probability of success difficult or impossible. 

The stunning pictorial history of Robert Nickelsberg perhaps gives some insight into the why-if not the how-of this love and romanticism.  Nickelsberg's Afghanistan: A Distant War provides both historical depth and visual breadth to Afghanistan's many wars.  Beginning in 1988, when the Afghanistan mujahideen were just completing their struggle against the Soviet occupation and continuing through 2013 and the beginning of the end of the American and NATO "surge," Nickelsberg's breathtaking images give context to the suffering and dignity of Afghanistan's people, as well as beautifully illustrating the majesty of its terrain.  The accompanying essays by a host of Afghanistan experts (John Lee Anderson, Ahmad Nader Nadery, Steve Coll, Ahmed Rashid, Tim McGirk, and Masood Khalili) give helpful context, but I'm sure none of the authors would be offended by my observation that it is the pictures that, in the old cliché, tell a thousand words each.

Nickelsberg documents the Afghan people in a host of circumstances-triumphant over the Soviet occupiers, engaged in internecine battles, struggling through the American and NATO occupation.  Nickelsberg goes out of his way to keep us from romanticizing the Afghans.  In one set of liner notes he informs his readers that the series of pictures they are about to see involves a fight over a television set that descended into one fighter being gutshot during the fall of Kabul.  There is nothing remotely noble to be seen here.

But while the Afghans can exhibit terrible pettiness, they are capable of a great deal more.  The passion that highlights the minor squabbles can take on more positive forms, which can be greatly admirable.  Of course, the Afghans (leaving aside their internal divisions) are a people just like any other, capable of the incredibly base and the heroically virtuous.  But there seems to be something about their situation-both in history and geography-that leads many outside observers to overly romanticize the character the Afghans exhibit, thus leading (e.g.) to the non sequitur that concludes Smith's otherwise excellent and coldly analytical text.

These books, taken in tandem, may help us begin to understand how we have found ourselves in this Afghan situation, where even 13 years after the events of 9-11, we are still contemplating spending around $20 billion annually in Afghanistan (for context, an amount roughly equaling  40% of the entire State Department budget for Fiscal Year 2013).  Despite an admission by all actors except the government agencies involved (ISAF, Embassy Kabul, USAID's Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs) that the prognosis is bleak, the United States seems unable to cut its losses and insists on throwing good money after bad.  This may be one of those rare instances where expertise in the region is counterproductive, as it comes with an irrational attachment.  Smith's excellent book shows us the result of this attachment, while Nickelsberg's stunning one helps us understand how it might happen. 

Douglas A. Ollivant is a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, as well as a Managing Partner of Mantid International LLC.  A retired infantry officer, he served two tours in Iraq, was the senior counterinsurgency advisor to the Regional Command-East commander in Afghanistan, and was a Director for Iraq on the National Security Council of both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.  He holds a doctorate in political science from Indiana University.  Follow him on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant. 

Author Photo/Robert Nickelsberg