The Current·Q & A

Former Afghanistan correspondent reflects on what he once believed was a 'noble war'

Former Globe and Mail correspondent Graeme Smith says it’s no surprise that the West lost the war in Afghanistan, and that the Taliban took control again so quickly. 

Graeme Smith says he 'drank the Kool-Aid' when he first arrived in Kandahar to cover the war

Graeme Smith is the author of The Dogs are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan. His new documentary Ghosts of Afghanistan will air on TVO and CBC's Ideas this month. (May Jeong)

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Former Globe and Mail journalist Graeme Smith says it's no surprise that the West lost the war in Afghanistan, and that the Taliban took control again so quickly. 

The Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan this summer. U.S. and coalition forces' withdrawal marked the end of a 20-year war that claimed more than 2,400 American lives.

On Tuesday, the Taliban announced an interim government led by Mohammad Hassan Akhund, one of the movement's founders. 

Smith has spent much of his career in Afghanistan, from working as a foreign correspondent for the Globe and Mail to serving as a political affairs officer for the United Nations. His new TVO documentary is called Ghosts of Afghanistan. A radio adaptation of the documentary will air on CBC's Ideas.

Graeme Smith spoke with The Current's Matt Galloway about what he thinks the future might hold for his friends now living under the Taliban. Here is part of their conversation.

Do you believe the Taliban now is different than the Taliban of years past? 

I mean, obviously, it is. It contains different people. They have different ideas. They're much more technologically literate than they were in the past. 

But just because they are different definitely does not mean that they're going to be more palatable to Canadians or to other foreigners. 

They have extremely different ideas than we do about women's rights, about media freedoms, about democracy itself. They're not huge fans of the Western democracy that we tried to install in Afghanistan at gunpoint. 

I want to go back to when you first arrived in Afghanistan. You're in your 20s. You go there to cover the war. When you stepped off the plane the first time, what do you remember about your first impressions of the country?

I remember the first paragraph of the Washington Post's front page story about the new Afghanistan, [which] said that it was going through an exercise in post-war democracy, that the fighting was over, the Taliban were gone. 

I was stepping onto the tarmac in Kabul to cover the 2005 parliamentary elections, and I took seriously that Western narrative and I said, OK, this is a democracy, they're going to elect new leaders, and I didn't think I'd be in Afghanistan for very long. 

I thought it was a boring story. Everything was finished, but of course, it was not finished. And Canadians started dying there in big numbers, and so it sort of took over my life. I ended up spending most of my professional career there. 

You talk in the film about how there was the sense that what was going on in Afghanistan at that time, that this was a noble war. What do you mean by that? 

I remember in those early days down in Kandahar, as a young newspaper correspondent, the Canadian military public affairs officers were extremely eager to have us go and take photographs of Canadian soldiers handing out medical supplies or handing out school supplies to children. 

Taliban soldiers stand in front of protesters during an anti-Pakistan protest in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 7, 2021. (West Asia News Agency/Reuters)

There was a real effort to portray this as something noble, as a kind of "civilizing enterprise," and I say that with scare quotes around it because it is scary, anyone tries to turn up with a whole lot of guns and "civilize" a place. 

It turned into a very, very ugly thing, and then became the deadliest war on the planet earth. The violence kept rising. The number of foreign troops kept growing. 

You got swept up in that idea of the nobility, which you call in the film, "pushing back the forces of darkness and barbarism."

I drank the Kool-Aid at first. It took a couple of years before I really started to see the war as something that had a real dark side to it. 

I think it was probably in Sarposa Prison when I started to meet the people who are being tortured on a regular basis that I started to understand that when bad things happened, if a bomb fell on a village and children died, that could be described as an accident. 

But if day in, day out, Canadian troops were taking detainees and handing them over into torture chambers, you know that it wasn't accidental. It was part of the design of the war, and I started to get really disturbed by what was going on.

There are billions of dollars that were poured into the country as part of the reconstruction effort. And one of the people that you meet in the documentary, he talks to you about some of the alliances that the previous government had made. What did that corruption do to the way the people on the ground saw what was unfolding? 

Corruption is sometimes treated like a side issue. It's sort of like, oh, well, it's Afghanistan that's corrupt. But corruption was such a profound part of what went wrong here. The government was a series of overlapping criminal enterprises backed up by thunderous foreign air support. 

The government preyed on its own people and the people rose up and overthrew it. That's a huge part. It's not the only thing that happened here, but that is a huge part of why we, the West, lost the war. 

Do you see a direct line between that and the return of the Taliban? 

Yes, definitely. I mean, because the birth of the Taliban was ... a rebellion against these multiple squabbling Islamist factions that had been backed by the West against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s. 

The Taliban were revolting against what they saw as financial and moral corruption.... You couldn't drive a truck along the road without being extorted multiple times, and the Taliban rose up against them. 

And then when the West invaded Afghanistan, we aligned ourselves with those same factions and the Taliban reconstituted and rose up against those same people one more time. 

We've spoken with a number of Afghans over the past few weeks and they talk about the last 20 years and what was accomplished. They worry that was for nothing. But they also say that perhaps what happened in those last 20 years would not have happened without the presence of those foreign countries in Afghanistan. So how do you square that? 

I've had conversations along these lines with Taliban and some of the more open-minded amongst the Taliban will say, "Yeah, it is good that some things were built and we got some roads, that telecommunications towers are now dotted across the landscape."

We should feel a sense of responsibility after all the damage was done to Afghanistan.- Graeme Smith

But then they look at me and they'll say, "Just imagine what might have happened if you hadn't turned our country into an inferno of violence."

Yes, the country has developed over the last 20 years, but so have many countries. There is an alternative history that you can imagine in which there was no invasion in 2001. 

You seem genuinely heartbroken in some ways by where the country has gone. But the way that you're describing that also suggests that there is a bit of hope in there as well. 

The deadliest war on the planet just ended. I think there is a chance that foreign donors like Canada will still commit some money to keeping the lights on, quite literally ... making sure the electricity utility is still working.

And why would they do that? Well, hopefully because we should feel a sense of responsibility after all the damage was done to Afghanistan. So, yeah, I think there is still some hope, despite everything. 

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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