Ideas·IDEAS AFTERNOON

Why the 'forever war' failed Afghans

Former Globe and Mail war correspondent Graeme Smith travels deep inside Taliban territory to catch a glimpse of their growing control over the country and uncovers what went wrong with the 'forever war' in his TVO documentary, Ghosts of Afghanistan.

'When I first started coming to Afghanistan, the Taliban were just ghosts,’ says former correspondent

'As a young Canadian war correspondent more than 15 years ago, I followed troops into battle. I took thousands of photographs and spent years smelling the death,' says former journalist Graeme Smith in his TVO documentary, Ghosts of Afghanistan. (Galafilm Productions)

*Originally published on September 9, 2021.

On August 15th, 2021, the Taliban entered Kabul and cemented their hold on the country — ending a weeks-long campaign of fighting and negotiations between Taliban leaders and local power brokers. The last American soldier left Afghanistan on August 31. 

Graeme Smith spent much of his reporting career on what has been dubbed the 'forever war.' He first went to Afghanistan in 2005, when he was a journalist in his twenties. A place he says "felt like the edges of civilization." Smith followed troops into battle, documenting the war intended to defeat the Taliban.

But in the years since, the Taliban returned stronger than ever.

"I'm heartbroken about the way things went in Afghanistan. Powerful armies invaded this country with slogans about peace, democracy, women's rights. It was a disaster. Now the foreign troops are withdrawing. Whatever they leave behind, it is nothing like what we promised," Smith said.

In his TVO  documentary, Ghosts of Afghanistan by Galafilm Productions, the former Globe and Mail correspondent — currently a consultant for the International Crisis Group — travels deep inside Taliban territory to witness the reality of their growing control over the country. He also speaks to top Taliban leaders at the peace talks in Doha.

His journey and the interviews were conducted prior to the fall of the Afghan government to the Taliban. 

"When I first started coming to Afghanistan, the Taliban were just ghosts. You would never see them — I mean, even on the battlefield just the occasional muzzle flash or a bit of movement in the foliage, Smith explained in the film.

"They were very good at removing their dead from the battlefield so you didn't see the corpses. They were a myth more than anything else."

A flawed notion

Smith says like all foreigners at the time, he was swept up in what he says felt like a a "flawed, romantic notion" — that the war against a corrupt Afghanistan was justified.

"I don't know now if there is such a thing as 'a good war.' But definitely at the time, there was a feeling that the war in Afghanistan was noble somehow. Not just the foreign troops but everybody who came with the foreign troops, the aid workers, the journalists, almost all of them felt as though they were pushing back the forces of darkness in Afghanistan," Smith explained.  

Once the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, girls' schools closed, women were not allowed to work and were forced to wear the burka, music and television were banned, and the Taliban executed people for perceived moral transgressions, Smith said. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan until 2001, enforcing an ultra-strict interpretation of Islamic law.

"But they offered an alternative to the rampant unrest of earlier years. That made the Taliban popular in some places, especially in the southern villages."

Graeme Smith meets with women in Kandahar to talk about their experience and hope for the future. Burka-clad women in the countryside insist that freedom from war and bombing is most important. (Galafilm Productions)

In Afghanistan, an all-male Taliban cabinet has recently been ushered in, according to a Reuters report. While new leaders have vowed to respect women's rights, in accordance with Shariah law, many women fear their hard-won freedoms over the last two decades will be eliminated entirely.

As the head of Afghanistan's Human Rights Commission, Shaharzad Akbar has always advocated for women's rights — but in her interview with Smith, conducted prior to the Taliban takeover, she said she is also in favour of peace talks.  At the time, Akbar said she believed that negotiations with the Taliban may be the only way to end the suffering in the country.

"It's not that we, or anyone, are in a position to forgive their human rights record — or the government's human rights record," Akbar told Smith in the film.

"We are saying, if we want to create opportunities for more Afghans to benefit from their basic human rights, we should try to reduce violence. And the best way to reduce violence, without causing more damage, is to initiate talks."

In the summer of 2019, Akbar went to Doha along with other prominent Afghans to meet the Taliban. She pushed Taliban official Khairullah Khairkhwa and his comrades on where they stood on women's rights but his answers were too opaque to reassure her.

Akbar has recently fled to Egypt.

Shaharzad Akbar was the first Afghan woman to study at Oxford University. 'I grew up in a family with parents that really believed in human rights, striving to create a universe where all humans are treated with respect and dignity.' (Galafilm Productions)

Can there be peace?

During the many years that Smith has been reporting on Afghanistan, he says people had always debated on how to win the war. 

Freelance journalist and full-time activist, Bismillah Watandost is focused on peace.

"In Afghanistan, just living is taking a chance. Nobody feels safe here. Not from the Taliban, not from the U.S., not from the government," Watandost told Smith.

Watandost arranged to meet with local Taliban leaders to talk about a ceasefire and peace.

"We said to them: This is not fair. This war is not our war. You have to stop this war. You have to tell your leaders to stop this war."

'From the start, this war as given two names: jihad and fighting terrorism. On both sides, Afghan Muslims are killed,' peace activist Bismallah Wantadost tells Graeme Smith. (Galafilm Productions)

Watandost said that on of the Taliban members cried during their talk, then hit his gun to the ground and said: "The Afghans are my brothers. I'm killing my brothers and my brothers are killing me."

One of the country's most respected political analysts, Rahmatullah Amiri narrowly survived a Taliban attack on the American University in Kabul in 2016. Thirteen people were killed and more than 40 injured, including Amiri. He argued that it was necessary for the government to accept the Taliban as a powerful force, with a strong civilian and military system. 

"People want peace, that's one thing. How they want it is subject to different interpretations, different groups, different ethnicities," Amiri told Smith.

"Most of the people in Afghanistan want international troops to withdraw from this country. Having said that, they also want the Taliban to compromise with the other Afghans."

Amiri suggests there must be some sort of "in-between" compromise that include all afghans at the peace table.

But with the Taliban victory, that dream has crumbled.

To watch the full documentary by Galafilms Productions, please visit tvo.org/documentaries, or TVO Youtube and Roku

Ghosts of Afghanistan was written by Julian Sher, Graeme Smith, and Natalie Dubois.
Director: Julian Sher.
Starring: Graeme Smith.
Produced by:Natalie Dubois, Arnie Gelbart
Edited by:Susan Shanks
Cinematography:Iqbal Sapand
The film's executive producer, Arnie Gelbart.
Original music composed by Eric Lemoyne.

 

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