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Afghanistan mission from the perspective of journalist on the ground


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Few weeks ago I went to a presentation by Murray Brewster on Canadian mission in Afghanistan.

Murray Brewster is Canadian journalist with Canadian Press who covered from the ground the Canadian mission in Afghanistan from the time Canadian went into the Kandahar province till they left.


He heavily criticized the whole mission and here are his points, I have added some explanations

  • Lack of intelligence – there was very little attempts made to disentangle the whole situation in Afghanistan, all violence was blamed on Taliban while in reality a lot of came from warlords, drug lords and different tribes settling disputes with each other. Until, US started the surge there was no attempt to understand the alliances and animosities between tribes, warlords, drug lords or other groups operating in the region.

There seemed to be also lack of local knowledge. Examples:

Outstretched hand with palm towards the person means stop for westerners in Afghanistan it means come to me. Now imagine what happened at checkpoints before this was known,

Anybody approaching a military convoy would be shot at according to the rules of engagement, the reason was of course possibility of suicide bomber just walking up to the convoy and blowing up (my thinking for the rule of engagement) but of course people tried to approach convoys ( I think possibly to beg from the troops) so sign were put up in Pastun saying do not approach. The problem is that 65% of Kandahar residents are illiterate

  • Aid groups quit Kandahar due to risk of being killed however they refused to let Canadian soldiers deliver aid because they did not want to be associated with military, the result was that Afghanis that could have received aid got nothing.
  • Throughout the mission there were surveys done on the streets of Kandahar to find out what Afghanis wanted the most. The listed the following as top 3: 1. jobs, 2. electricity, 3 security.

There was a huge problem with unemployment and therefore a lot joined Taliban because they were unemployed. Also foreign aid money did not result in jobs for Afghanis but ended up in hands of foreign contractors who brought their own labour

Before the invasion Kandahar had electricity 24h a day after the invasion 2 hours a day. The dam that provided electricity was in neighbouring province. It was build by US in 1950s and Americans decided to refurbish it. The problem was that Taliban understood the significance of the dam and kept it under constant attack

The Canadian contribution was Polio vaccines and attempts to build schools for children. They also build a dam for agricultural reasons in attempt to stop Afghani farmers from growing poppies. So Canadians followed their priorities that they saw as important – education and health care. Those are important topics for Canadians but were lower on the list for Afghanis.

  • Canadians also constantly gave Afghanis lectures about corruption and women rights. The problem was that the lectures were not listed to. Afghanis lived in practical world full of corruption around them.

As for women rights well that was the topic that went against centuries of tradition and they were not going to listen to Canadians. Actually in their view burka is not a sign of oppression but rather sign of modesty just like longer skirts in western world. And it is western world that is objectifying women by making them parade half naked.

(My thoughts) Overall it seems that policy was guided by idealism originating from Canada rather then from the facts on the ground. (End of my thoughts)

  • Overall he also mentioned that the each NATO member did its own thing and there was no united plan for development
  • He mentioned that justifying intervention in Afghanistan was also hard. Anti-Al-Qaida reason dried up in 2002 when it was defeated. Canadians did not feel threatened by terrorists even after Toronto 18 were discovered. And the idea of helping Afghanis to build their country was later used but also not all the way. When the mission in Afghanistan ended Prime Minister of Canada Steven Harper announced that thanks to Canadian efforts Afghanistan no longer a spring board for the terrorists. The problem with that statement was pointed out 3 days later by governor of Kandahar, he pointed out that Al Qaida has re-established itself in south of the province.
  • Currently he sees that political power in Afghanistan would be held by the army. It is numerous and well paid even though quality wise it is not very good. When I asked him about it being like Pakistan, he said that was what he was trying to say.
  • I asked him abut possible industries developing in Afghanistan. He pointed out to its mineral wealth (just a note I found in my research, the mineral wealth was discovered by Soviet geologists in late 1960s, I would like to point out that since then there was a unending stream of companies who went to mine it). His projecting for the mineral wealth was that it would be developed once people stop shooting at each other in Afghanistan. He gave it 75 years.


Overall it seemed that western idealism that was causing a lot of problems for the Afghanistan mission, whether it was addressing wrong priorities or the idealism of aid groups not to be mixed with military.


What do you think?

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I am working in China, being a Romanian national. So I know from home that western idealism does not match the realities on the ground, and that natives mis-understand and re-atribute meanings to the concepts the west brings is so the whole "modernisation" becomes a mockery of the "western-style" good enough to annoy the westerners and to make the native "nouveau-riche" boast in front of their poorer countrymen.


So after 2 years in China I can say that each culture adopts "westernity" its own way. And they adopt the elements they can relate to. Chinese are crazy about Christmas right now. Because it involves shopping and thus showing off how rich you are. Materialism is good in China, you show you are prosperous, nothing wrong with that. Chinese shot beer. Or they simply pour it into mugs and leave it on the table, and by the time you get to it, there's no more acid, or it's all warm. Most public-related employees wear suits. The problem is that they're sewn by "western" body proportions so the chinese look quite ridiculous in them. Everyone has an iPhone, iPad, and they keep upgrading to the new versions in order not to be perceived as "poor", even if they live in dorms or flat share. The whole IMAGE of western life IS THERE but it has nothing of the meaning it has in the place it originated from. And few people understand this. The natives filled the image with their own meaning.


And a head-on invation of a very isolationist and traditional society, also analphabet, will oppose people who are sent there (soldiers) instead of volonteers willing to understand the natives) to natives who struggle to adopt an alien culture that make no sense for them. The whole approach is a disaster. You cannot make a traditional and analphabet population bend your way just because you have Coca-Cola and Snickers chocolate bars. Or just because you have better technology. Vietnam showed this. Afghanistan in the '80s showed this. It's not the fault of the people on the ground that the west sent there, but of the people who planned it. 


Imagine someone coming into your house and telling you every day how to live. How to make your toast. How to talk to your wife. What to wear. Drink coffee instead of tea. Eat BigMac instead of kebap. Start celebrating Christmas and international New Year. Wear jeans and sneakers. While the natives might adopt these items, they will still do it their own way. And even if "modernity" come crashing down, people adapt in generations, not in a few years.

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