Graeme Smith was a journalist in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2011, writing primarily for The Globe & Mail, Canada’s major national newspaper. This book is his look back at his trips to Afghanistan, his experiences, and his changing opinions.
When Smith arrives in Afghanistan for the first time in September 2005, it is a place of optimism. Heavy with international and military presence, Afghanistan seems to be on the cusp of big change and many foreign workers believe that things will only get better for the country and its people. We follow Smith over the next few years as he (and others) come to realize this is not the case. Smith follows along with the military (not just Canadian but British and American too) but also makes an effort to interview locals, politicians, and fighters on both sides. There is a broad spectrum of experiences and opinions on display here. The book is not a memoir but neither is it a piece of pure reporting. Smith and his own reactions are fully on display and we see him evolve and adapt as the country changes around him. There’s no denying that simply being a foreigner means that his experience will be different from a local citizen but he does present a broad array of characters, even working to collect interviews from those involved with or connected to the Taliban. (He does this with the aid of a more neutral party who conducts the interviews themselves.)
Perhaps the most powerful section is when Smith details his investigations into prisons. Insurgents are captured, often by foreign troops, and then handed over to local authorities and police. There is a myriad of evidence that these men are then tortured in prison and held without trial or charge. Smith does a fantastic job of laying out where the responsibilities of a government and military like Canada’s lies. How can we as a nation condemn torture but then place human beings into a situation where they are likely being tortured?
There is also the question of whether we should have been there at all? Was this truly a situation that warranted international involvement or was it a tribal conflict that the West became involved with for their own interests? Can you force another country to adopt a lifestyle that the people themselves might not want? These are big questions and Smith doesn’t attempt to offer cut and dry solutions for them. He lays out the things he has witnessed, sometimes with his own opinions quietly lurking behind them, sometimes not. Overall, the book is a snapshot of Afghanistan, as Smith experienced it, in those years. Already, I’m sure, the situation has changed quite a lot and will continue to change. I think the strength of a book like this lies in helping the average Canadian become more informed about what our country is doing internationally, what it stands for, and what we want it to stand for.