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Afghanistan: Perspectives In Conflict

Clockwise from left: In Bazaar-e-Panjwai, a Canadian soldier stands guard; a Canadian patrol passes through the outskirts of Kandahar; village elders meet with members of the Provincial Reconstruction Team.

Canada’s war in Afghanistan is fundamentally about national security. Though many outcomes for the mission are possible, the one thing Canada–and NATO–can’t accept is that Afghanistan once again becomes a place where international terrorists are free to train and plot attacks against our societies. In order to prevent this from happening, Canada and its NATO allies are working alongside the government of Afghanistan to build a new nation there, one that follows international law.

The stated goal of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan is to assist in the creation of a stable and functioning Afghan state. The strategy to achieve this goal is to conduct military operations against anti-government forces while simultaneously helping to rebuild the country and its economy, thereby winning the allegiance–hearts and minds–of the Afghan people. Though Canadian military and political leaders have differed slightly on the time frame, most believe this will happen in less than 20 years.

Despite the apparent clarity of these goals, victory is far from assured. There are multiple armed groups opposed to Canada’s aims, none of which show any signs of giving up the battle. Beyond that, the Afghan people are famously wary of foreign military forces. While defeating violent enemies like the Taliban will be hard enough, winning the allegiance of Afghans may be harder still.

Though there are many perspectives on how the mission is being conducted–and its chances for success–one thing is clear: there is not a lot of room for error. While Canada and its NATO allies believe in their strategy (Task Force Afghanistan: The Battle for the People, January/ February) it may be useful to consider the perspectives of others who don’t share that view. And so, in the interest of understanding the mission from all angles, what follows are interviews with two men who have some hard-earned thoughts to share about the situation in Afghanistan. Both are highly skeptical, and for sure not everything they say should be taken as fact, but they also have some interesting points to make about the mission. The first interview is with a veteran of the Afghan-Soviet war now living in Canada and the second is with a young doctor who grew up in Kabul during the Taliban’s reign and lives there still.

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The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and withdrew in defeat 10 years later. Lieutenant Yuri Sekret deployed to Ghazni, Afghanistan, in 1987 with a helicopter squadron attached to the 40th Red Army of the Soviet Union. He was 28.

Sekret was a helicopter communications engineer whose unit was attached to the Afghan forces. Though Sekret was not directly in the line of combat, helicopters in his unit were shot at by U.S.-supplied Stinger missiles and sniper fire was common in the area of his base.

Originally from Riga, Latvia, Sekret came to Canada in 1999 and now lives near Ottawa. He has been speaking English only since arriving in Canada.

He said joining the Soviet military forces was his childhood dream and, after graduating from military university, was commissioned into the Red Army.

Once deployed to Afghanistan, Sekret found himself appointed to a unique position within his unit, which he compared to the role of a chaplain in the Canadian Forces. “I was working more with the politicians. Like a commissar. It was really a political job. All officers were communist, because if you wanted to have a career you must be communist. It was normal for everyone, and actually nobody was thinking about it. In Canada maybe people think communists are monsters, but we were normal people.”

According to Sekret, one of the main difficulties of operating in Afghanistan was trying to understand the complex nature of the Afghan people and their shifting allegiances. Though this perhaps sounds like a thin observation, it is a very central problem, since the allegiance of the Afghans is one of the central planks of Canada’s strategy. “The Afghans are very different people. Very friendly and very aggressive at the same time,” said Sekret. “Many Afghans really appreciated that we were there. So many thousands of times, from so many thousands of people, I heard things like ‘Oh, you guys are very good, you give food. When England was here they never give us anything.’ Our soldiers always give everything what they have. Candy, food, doesn’t matter. Every time, our soldiers share.”

“But,” Sekret believes, “the Afghans are really not an understandable people. Today they can give you a hug, tomorrow you never know what you’ll get. If you really look deep, nobody knows what the Afghan people are like. It’s like they are always thinking, ‘If somebody pays me enough, I will fight for the other side.'”

While of course not all Afghans are like this, Sekret’s observations do echo some of the current difficulties Canadian soldiers are having while trying to get information from people who seem friendly but never really co-operate. Despite his inability to understand the Afghans, Sekret argued that the West’s impression of the Soviet war in Afghanistan was distorted by propaganda and that, far from total war, the Soviet experience was not dramatically different than what Canada is currently experiencing. Indeed, Sekret produced a picture of himself, looking young and fit, standing unarmed and alone in downtown Ghazni in late 1987. This is not something a NATO soldier would be eager to do today.

Perhaps understandably, given his experiences, Sekret is not optimistic that Canada’s goal of a stable democracy can be achieved on the current timeline of 10 to 20 years. In fact, Sekret is not optimistic it can be achieved at all. “I do not believe we can put our culture and our democracy to these people. Because these people have their rules, their religion, and they believe in what they have. And when we put our nose here–Russia did it because of the Cold War–we couldn’t change them because it is a culture of people and people like to have it the way they choose. First of all, you have to educate people very hard but for this you need a hundred years. You can’t do it in five years or 10. You know, you have to educate the children, all these children, to change the country’s mentality. It’s impossible. It’s impossible. You don’t have enough power to do it. You know, the people are really good but they believe in what they have and they have a particular mentality, and to exchange it, it’s not enough 10 years, 20 years.”

From Sekret’s perspective, the two main problems are that Afghans simply do not trust foreigners or outsiders of any sort and that, on a military level, Pakistan is again now, as it did during the Russian conflict, playing a pivotal role in the conflict by allowing itself to become a de facto base for enemy leadership and logistics. Unless the enemy can be isolated from their supplies and funding, said Sekret, the war simply will not end and the situation will degenerate into the same problem Russia faced in 1989.

“You can see what happened when Russia left–it was not better. If we had stayed, also not better.”

Though Sekret’s pessimism is surely grounded in his experience–and the overall Soviet experience–in Afghanistan, he does raise some interesting points, mainly the question of whether the NATO coalition has enough strength and endurance to make lasting changes to the society and culture of a country like Afghanistan. While Canadian commanders are betting yes, and though their bet may seem like a good one, only time will provide a definite answer.

Dr. Safi Ahmad Ahadyar is a 24-year-old Tajik who has lived in Kabul his entire life. He is not only highly educated but also deeply westernized. He drives a Toyota Corolla, wears the latest clothes and talks eagerly about how to find and marry a Canadian girl. Also, because he is a Tajik he is, by rights at least, a natural opponent of the Pashtun-based Taliban. By these basic criteria, you might predict that he would be sympathetic to Canada’s aims in his country. But he is not. His perspective on Canada’s mission is deeply mistrustful, almost conspiratorial. It is in fact this mistrust, especially of foreign military forces, that tends to define Ahadyar’s entire view of the world. One way or another, he has come to believe that Canada and NATO are simply proxies in America’s imperialistic attempt to control Afghanistan. He sees no difference between U.S. forces and those from any other country, including Canada. He trusts none of them. “I trust only my own country to be independent. Just, we want to be stable. If NATO wants to help Afghanistan they have to pave the ground for education. They should try to invite the people to not fight. It is no need for the military people to bring guns and more guns, bombs and aircraft in here. Everybody is tired of these things,” said Ahadyar during an interview with Legion Magazine in Kabul, where he also worked as a translator for the magazine.

“If they want to really help Afghans they should try to develop the education, try to develop the economy, try to discover some resources like petrol and gas that the Afghans can use. That is the way for them to help us. It is not the way to send the military to patrol all the time. Afghans do not like foreigners–they are strange people. And if they are military? They never like them. I am sure that Afghans are tired of fighting, otherwise they would never allow any military to be here.”

While clearly the Canadians and their allies are making some advances in reconstructing Afghanistan–everything from opening schools to developing the economy–none of it is happening fast enough or widely enough to win Ahadyar’s faith. In fact, he is so skeptical about NATO’s intentions that he believes the effort to secure the country from the Taliban is being intentionally mishandled.

“Yes, but here is the point. Who are the Taliban? Who is here to support Taliban nowadays? How can they fight against the central government, against the coalition force and against the national army? How can they keep fighting with no help? How can America not knock them out of two or three more provinces?”

Like many Afghans, Ahadyar is also deeply suspicious of Pakistan’s intentions for his country, and while he knows that the Taliban are relying heavily on the shelter that Pakistan provides, he does not understand why this is allowed to continue. “Why is America allowing Pakistan to help them? If they know, why are they not preventing it? If they don’t prevent it, what are they doing? If they know that Pakistan is helping the Taliban, why are they not invading Pakistan?”

And it is certainly a product of this mistrust of foreigners that Ahadyar claims he would not mind if the Taliban returned to power and that life under the Taliban was hardly worse than it is now. “Under the Taliban and now it is the same for me. These things I see now, they are just changes of the moment. With the Taliban just we could not see women around the bazaars or we could not see women going to school and things. Just right now we see the women. And nothing else. Just foreigners added on it and the situation is the same as Taliban.

“At the time of Taliban also it was safer than this time,” he believes. “There was no bombing, nothing else. Just there was some rockets from the northern Alliance. And there (were) no suiciders, no stealing, no killing. If you left something on the street when you came back it was in the same place, nobody could touch it.”

It must be noted that Ahadyar’s version of history is quite different than what we know of the Taliban, which is that while the Taliban did increase general security in Afghanistan during their reign, they did so using brutal tactics which ignored human rights and adhered to a very skewed concept of justice. In any case, however, a Taliban return to power is still not Ahadyar’s favoured solution. While surely he wants foreign militaries out of Afghanistan, he would prefer if they could maybe create a lasting peace before they go.

“I’m not saying that everyone should take out their military from here right now and that there should be fighting here, because then I know there will be no development here.

“Just we want the United Nations, if in reality they want to help Afghanistan, they should invite all the leaders of Afghanistan and they should pave the grounds for them to have the same unity and to have the same brotherhood with each other and stop fighting. They should talk to all sides. With the Pashtun, the Tajiks, the Hazara, the Uzbeks. They should bring them all to the same table. They should talk with them, discuss with them. And divide the power for all. When all are in agreement, they won’t fight with each other. We will have good unity and they will have good security.”

And so what if NATO and the international community can’t manage to secure this lasting peace? Ahadyar is not keen to predict when or if a more general uprising will occur, but he does claim that many of his friends and relatives are growing increasingly unhappy with the situation. But how long will it be?

“That’s a very difficult question. Just, we will see what will happen in the future. As I’m thinking, those people who have experience of fighting, they are tired, and the new generations like me we have no experience of fighting, so how can we start it up? Just right now we should sit and see if our leaders will start it.”

While Ahadyar’s prejudices are clear, they are also instructive. He is paying attention to the situation, and yet he still has a deep misunderstanding about the role and nature of the Canadian mission. And while many other Afghans are certainly more supportive of Canada’s objectives, Ahadyar is perhaps representative in that he is defined by his mistrust, a mistrust which no amount of education or information has yet been able to pierce.

But he also shares something very illuminating. He knows, almost at an instinctive level, that a military solution to the problem in Afghanistan is unlikely to be workable. The only victory in Afghanistan will be inherently political–when the government of Afghanistan is accepted by all Afghans as the ruling authority. Colonel Fred Lewis, deputy commander of Task Force Afghanistan, echoes Ahadyar’s focus on a political solution when he speaks about the three pillars of Canada’s mission, which are security, good governance and reconstruction development. Good governance for Lewis means, literally, democracy–rule by the people, and, as he says, progress is being made. “What I’ve seen on good governance, so far, is I have seen the example of (Kandahar’s Provincial) governor taking responsibility and managing the reconstruction and development of this area. That’s something. We are seeing various committees and the like at the provincial level start to function. They are being caused to work, to do things for their people. So, I think that is a pretty neat thing.

“Also, two-thirds of the districts in this province now have these things called District Development Committees, which are responsible for defining what kind of projects are needed in their districts, prioritizing them. Is that good governance? That’s democracy–the people telling you what they want. That is huge. For a country that has been completely broken since 1979–and has a whole generation of people that have no idea what democracy is–that is huge.”

And while surely the most violent enemies of the government will probably not consent to the democratic power-sharing arrangement Ahadyar envisages and Lewis is working towards, perhaps some will. It is in this sense that the vision of diplomatic conflict resolution in Afghanistan–bring everybody to the table and help them find agreement–is not only hopeful, it may well be the best hope.

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