Come From the Shadows: The Long and Lonely Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan, by Terry Glavin, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, 2011, 244 pp. HB $29.95
Sometimes a book requires putting it and its author under a microscope, particularly when the contents of the book are revelatory. That’s the case with Terry Glavin’s Come From the Shadows, published in the fall of 2011. If what Glavin has to say about Afghanistan and the effects of the NATO force that ousted the Taliban is correct, then virtually everything we’ve heard from the Canadian government and the mass media in the last five years is a misrepresentation.
The idea that the war in Afghanistan is fundamentally different than the Iraq war was widely accepted a few years ago. The Iraq war was a unilateral imperialist misadventure conducted by an ill-prepared and possibly corrupt presidency on behalf of, well, the Haliburton Corporation—or, if you’re being generous, on behalf of some poorly thought-out ideas about American-style democracy. The Afghanistan war—or rather, mission, was a NATO project carried out by 40 countries backing a U.N. resolution, and it was aimed at overthrowing an ultra-violent and deeply misogynist regime of Islamic fundamentalists who were harboring the international terrorist organization that perpetrated the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in September 2001, and to then rebuild democratic institutions within the country.
The central hub of what Glavin has to say is that the Afghanistan mission has been substantially successful in its goals, and that this is neither being reported in the mass media nor are governments acting as if it is. Here’s his view of it, in a nutshell (from Open Book):
When the clouds parted after September 11 and the world looked back down on Afghanistan, it was a country utterly destroyed by barbarism and war. Just to look at the basic infrastructure of the place, it was worse than Europe after VE Day in 1945. It was worse than Somalia, its people were more brutalized than North Koreans and it was as poor as the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Women were slaves. A quarter of the population was living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries or wandering the world homeless. There was no currency, nothing even resembling a police force, and the people had been reduced to eating rats and grass. The place was run by a multinational joint venture in sadism called the Taliban and al Qaida had the run of the place.
The distance the Afghan people have traveled over the past decade is absolutely staggering. The GDP has tripled, the economy is growing faster than anywhere else in South Asia. Afghanistan has a freer press than any country in Central Asia, a dozen universities, millions of girls in school and on and on.
There’s considerable reason to trust Glavin on this. He’s been to Afghanistan a number of times since 2008, and he’s among the very few journalists to go there unembedded, which means that he didn’t see the country from the protection of an armoured NATO vehicle, and didn’t get his information sitting around inside a NATO base briefing room reading military and Karzai government press releases. He traveled the country with an Afghani-Canadian named Abdulrahim Parwani, and, characteristically, he didn’t spend much time talking to the Official Suspects. He talked to people on the ground, and at eye-level.
There’s also considerable evidence suggest we can trust Glavin as a writer and investigative journalist. His credentials are impeccable. He’s written a number of books on native issues, notably Death Feast in Dimlahamid (1990) and Nemiah: the Unconquered Country, (1992) and several more on B.C.’s Fisheries, along with several brilliant volumes of essays on environmental and local rights (This Ragged Place (1996) and Waiting for the Macaws (2006). All of his books have been remarkably free of conventional political or environmental wisdom, likely due to his career-long habit of basing his judgments on eye-to-eye conversation with whoever happens to be closest to the consequences. He also writes well enough to have had B.C.’s Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence conferred on him in 2009, along with a raft of other awards. He’s what I call an Orwell leftist, which is to say, not tied to any political or environmental faction, openly skeptical of ideology, and loyal only to whoever or whatever is getting screwed.
Come From the Shadows is a very angry book, and Glavin is an angry man. Several things are making him angry. The prime source derives from his fear that NATO, and maybe particularly Canada, are about to abandon the people they went into Afghanistan to liberate: those elements of Afghani society that support democracy, and women, the latter of whom were the Taliban’s biggest victims, and are likely to become so again should the country be abandoned to the Taliban once again—or, for that matter, the Karzai government. He’s also angry that the most vociferous pressure to get out of Afghanistan is coming from precisely the elements of Western societies that claim to have progressive political and social values. In Canada those are the social democrats, whether they’re in the NDP, the Liberals, or further to the left.
After several months of research of my own occasioned by Glavin’s contentions, I agree with him more or less completely that it would be immoral for NATO to abandon the Afghanistan mission, even though it is becoming increasingly plain that as a military exercise it is unwinnable, and that as a social development exercise it is unlikely to be decisively successful. The choices aren’t attractive: if the West walks away, the Taliban are likely to regain power, and even if they don’t, the profoundly corrupt Karzai regime isn’t about to offer transformative democracy and will be nearly as oppressive to women as the Taliban have been. But if we’re not prepared to watch a bunch of crazed fundamentalists oppress every woman in the country and quite likely massacre the best and most vocal of them, we can’t walk away. None of the options open to the West, therefore, are attractive. We walk away, enable human rights atrocity and quite possibly a massacre of people who hold values that are central to Western democracy, or we continue on with a war of attrition we have no way of winning, at least in a foreseeable horizon, and NATO personnel, possibly Canadian, are going continue to get killed. The moral choices for Canadians are as complicated as the political and philosophical ones. If we leave, a lot of women will be plunged into a degree of misery and oppression few Canadians can imagine let alone live with. If we stay, some Canadians might die.
Thus there are two questions Glavin poses with this book: How and where has the Afghanistan mission been successful, and who are we if we abandon it?
I’ve come to agree that Glavin’s answers to the first question are correct, although the way he has presented his arguments and structured the book leaves him vulnerable to anyone disposed to disagree with him, and sometimes needlessly aggravates those disposed to agree with him.
Glavin locates the enemies of progressive democracy in Afghanistan in several different quarters. One is Iranian Shia clerics trying to impose their brand of theocratic fundamentalism on Afghani Shias and Sunnis alike. A second is global media presenting a picture of the country that is nearly always distorted, sometimes by political ideologies, sometimes by market ideology, sometimes by real politik issues that are inadequately understood, and sometimes by the simple laziness of those reporting on the situation. A third enemy, and the one at which he directs most of his anger, are the first world social democrats and progressive liberals who have, in clamouring for unilateral withdrawl from all of what they regard as Western imperialist enterprises, played into the hands of the Iran-based clerics and the Taliban.
What Glavin can’t admit is that the country is indeed an irresolvable morass in which the dark elements are unusually oblique to one another and even to the progressive and bright elements. Were he to admit this, he would give comfort to his enemies. Thus he tries to connect them all with the books weakest cipher, calling the morass “Absurdistan”. Absurd it may be, but it is a pretty lethal strain of absurdity, and tying the various elements together convincingly is often impossible, failing most often when they bifurcate into the particularity of a given situation. And he is, occasionally, betrayed by his anger at the first world progressives who, given that they range from Noam Chomsky with his Oedipal hatred of anything American to Jack Layton angling for a larger share of Canadian voters at election time without a serious idea between his ears, are very hard to hold together as a unified group with common intentions. That said, Glavin’s identification of the left’s obsession with Western imperialism as the chief source of all evils and the first to be attacked, and for profoundly that obsession has wandered from the original values of social democracy, is well taken.
One of the services he does provide, and very early in the book, is to undermine the view that Afghanistan has always been a choking thicket of backward and crazed fundamentalists and misogynists for whom counterinsurgency is a permanent condition. He makes it clear that the country had been relatively peaceful for more than fifty years prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979, and that the current morass is the result of that, the rise of radical Islamicism, and the West’s generally ill-planned interventions. When the Taliban took over the country in 1996 there were women working in a wide variety of professions, and women were no more—or less—oppressed than elsewhere in the Middle East.
Glavin’s long-standing instinct that truth is best found at close range or face to face serves him well in his depiction of the complexity and range of Afghani progressives, and his account of his travels within the country are convincing and frequently moving. It’s where I bought into the book; I was convinced that the Afghanis aren’t any damned different than we are, and that the Glavin’s wider argument—that abandoning Afghanistan will be an inexcusable betrayal of crucial Western values—is valid and essential.
Which brings us to the argument Glavin has with the First World left, which is an issue nearly as prominent in the book as Afghanistan, and over which Glavin’s anger is nearly as great. The problem is that it isn’t nearly as focused an argument, and, maybe because the documentation isn’t nose-to-nose, more patchy and less successful. The core of it appears in Chapter Five, “If Ever a Country Deserved Rape”, which is a partial quote from an ill-considered 1980 diatribe about Afghanistan from Alexander Cockburn, who should have known better. The first half of Glavin’s chapter is a thoroughly successful rant about the assinities of current leftist politics, focused most acutely on Noam Chomsky and the left’s shift to Chomsky’s strain of anti-imperialism in which all evils are ascribed to the United States and everyone else, however loony or murderous, gets a pass. Chomsky has gotten away with this sort of intellectual malfeasance again and again. He supported the genocidal Khmer Rouge for nearly three years while they were exterminating a quarter of Cambodia’s citizens, and he did much the same with the Taliban in the early days of the Afghanistan mission. Each time he eluded culpability with counter-barrage of ludicrous procedural rationalizations and the half-truths of which he is a master. Glavin nails him about as thoroughly as ever seen it done, and it is no small accomplishment.
And within the rant there are several brilliant analytical parcels, including this passage:
“Out of the ashes of the twentieth-century’s great anti-fascist struggles there arose a standard: human rights are universal rights. Many peoples, one humanity. All people, one. From the age of flags, this was the one banner still flying. But by the 1990s, in the newly comfortable districts of Europe and North America, the solemn internationalist obligations that arose from that standard had been “problematized” by identity politics, counterculture exhibitionism and post-colonial “theory”. Instead of rising to the challenge of universal emancipation, the West’s formerly Marxist left retreated almost wholly into the nihilistic morass that usually goes by the name of “cultural relativism.” Borrowed from anthropology, the politics of cultural relativism is a jumble of white guilt, identity politics and a weird insistence on a kind of equivalence among cultures and their various claims to truth.
“If you can’t criticize or even properly comprehend “other” cultures by applying universal criteria, you will hardly be allowed to offer so much as a low opinion of fascist cultures that celebrate the public stoning of women or religious belief systems that nurture the death cults of suicide bombers. But you don’t need to trouble yourself with any of that anyway, because to qualify for membership in the latter-day left, Nick Cohen writes, it had come to this: ‘All you must be is against your own government, and against America.’”
The difficulty Glavin faces is that the left in the 21st century is utterly without cohesion, either of values or practical intentions. Thus he has to encompass Noam Chomsky’s monofocus on American imperialism and Jack Layton, who was little more than a parliamentary opportunist with some occasionally decent sentiments. There are simply too many factions within the left that deserve a mulligan to get to, and I think he gets distracted by the sheer numbers as the chapter progresses, and doesn’t draw it together.
Instead he goes back to nose-to-nose encounters—interesting enough—and concludes the book with a complicated and not entirely successful plea for us to see Afghanistan as our era’s Spanish civil war, which the Western democracies and the organized left fumbled so badly in the 1930s that the Second World War became inevitable. I’m tempted by the analogy, but I don’t think the lens is big or sharp enough. I don’t think history is going to repeat itself the same way, and I’m not completely convinced that what we’re facing is the re-emergence of a newly malevolent fascism. What seems to be evolving, both in Islam and in the West, might actually be more intractable and harder to combat.
That said, I think it is more appropriate to point to the urgency of what Glavin has taken on, and to the courage and resourcefulness with which he’s done so than to get snotty about where it fails. This is an important book by a gifted and decent writer, and what it has to say is as important as anything I’ve encountered in a book in a long time. Everyone should buy and read this book. And we should be grateful that we have writers like Terry Glavin to put such crucial issues in front us.
2500 words, April 6, 2012