Stories from Kandahar, the Afghan province Canada left behind

Open Canada, Jul. 21, 2016

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When the Canadian forces first came to Afghanistan in 2001, Haji Torjan was running a small hotel on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. He had observed the events in New York that fall with casual indifference; he was content with the simple life he had built for himself, and thought that he would live out the balance of it without much interruption. But when an old friend, Gul Agha Sherzai, enlisted his help in pushing out the Taliban, Haji Torjan surprised himself by saying yes.

In post-Taliban Kandahar, Haji Torjan became the head security officer for the Provincial Reconstruction Team of the Canadian military. He was in charge of managing the comings and goings at Camp Nathan Smith. In practice, this meant that he controlled access to, at its peak, a $280 million-a-year fund that the Canadian PRT administered. Villagers asking for wells, schools, culverts and bridges all had to go through Haji Torjan.

Haji Torjan and Sherzai, who became the first governor of Kandahar after the fall of the Taliban, were men who represented a wider pattern of how NATO conducted itself in Afghanistan. Instead of building state institutions, the international community often propped up strongmen who leveraged their relationships with foreign troops to eliminate business competition or settle personal scores. In this manner, men like Haji Torjan or Sherzai continued to consolidate their influence; they grew to be rich and powerful.

At his spacious house in Spin Boldak in southern Kandahar — 15 years after the Canadian war effort began — Haji Torjan showed me photos of himself with famous foreigners who had passed through the province. The photos were of Haji Torjan greeting former Canadian foreign minister Pierre Pettigrew, former top Canadian general Daniel Menard, and then-top U.S. commander David Petraeus. He counted them as his friends, and was pleased with how his life had turned out. “We don’t know why the Canadians came,” Haji Torjan said. “But if they come again, I will be very happy.”

“The military didn’t want the war they ended up fighting. They wanted a paler, softer, lighter, more diluted version of the reality.”

The longest military engagement in Canadian history, the war in Afghanistan cost taxpayers as much as $22 billion, according to one estimate. And yet, to many who participated in it, it remains unclear what the war accomplished, or what the endeavour was even for.

“We didn’t understand what we were doing, or what we were going into,” a former Canadian official who worked in Kandahar told me. “The military didn’t want the war they ended up fighting. They wanted a paler, softer, lighter, more diluted version of the reality.”

The one known justification for going to war, according to the official, was to be a good neighbour to the U.S. “It was a post-911 cheerleading idea of going to war,” he told me. There was also a sense that “we had to do more on the War on Terror” because “we hadn’t gone to Iraq, we had said no to missile defence, and so we should say yes to something.” The Canadian military, led by General Rick Hillier, had wanted to play a more prominent role, and Kandahar emerged as a candidate. “It was attractive because it was violent,” the official said.

In the early days of the war, Ottawa couched its objectives in grand terms: defending national security interests, highlighting Canadian leadership in the world, and helping Afghanistan rebuild. In the intervening years, these goals were pared down to: repairing a dam, opening 50 schools, and assisting the United Nations with polio vaccinations. The last rotation of Canadian troops, in 2014, had even more modest ambitions of training the Afghan armed forces and getting all personnel and equipment safely back to Canada. In March of that year, the last of the Canadian troops returned home – to little fanfare.

What the Canadians left behind

In 2005, General Hillier called the Taliban “detestable murderers and scumbags,” and this set the tone of the combat operations. In September 2006, the Canadian-led offensive, Operation Medusa, fought out in the districts of Panjwai and Zheray in Kandahar, saw an intense battle that culminated in NATO’s first victory in the province since the invasion. During the operation, over 1,000 Taliban were reportedly killed, four Canadian soldiers lost their lives, and many more civilians died. (At the time, NATO said it had cleared the area of civilians by dropping leaflets and relaying warnings through the local radio station. However, Guardian reporter Declan Walsh found that 17 people had died in the attack, and the public hospital had registered 24 injuries. Another 15,000 families were displaced as a result of the fighting.)

Today, Panjwai district centre is a short strip of bread nailed to wooden beams, meat hanging on hooks, stalls selling seasonal fruit: mangoes from Pakistan and oblong cantaloupes from nearby fields. Here, Haji Mahmood, a tribal elder, explained how 450 labourers built the paved road that connects Panjwai to neighbouring Zheray over 19 months. Route Summit, as the combat road was called, was built in an effort to stabilize the area — an effort that claimed the lives of eight Canadian soldiers.

Driving on the road, Haji Mahmood pointed out vestiges of Canadian presence in the region: abandoned cement barriers and Hescos, the beige bags used as temporary walls, cut open, spilling sand. Farmers were out to harvest wheat. Where there used to be fighting, now grapes grew. “When the Canadians were here, there were many insurgents. Now it is safe,” Haji Mahmood told me.

At a former Canadian military base, Major Tooryalai of the Afghan National Army said the same. Life as an Afghan soldier was much better, he said, now that the Canadians were no longer here. He did not know it by the coalition name, Operation Medusa, but called the event by the local name, the battle for Pashmul. The fighting in these areas, he told me, has never reached similar heights since. He has never lost so many men as he had before. For this, he is grateful.

Niaz Hosseini was another victim of Route Summit. Hosseini, who goes by the sobriquet Junior, had been working as an interpreter for the Canadian forces for a year when, during a routine drive from Panjwai to Zheray, a station wagon he was riding in was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Hosseini didn’t know it then, but that year, 2006, was the turning point in Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan, when the war began to turn ugly. In that year alone, the Canadian mission lost 36 lives, including diplomat Glyn Berry.

Immediately following the blast, Hosseini was flown to the hospital at Kandahar Airfield where he remained unconscious for over a month. When he awoke, he saw that both of his legs had been amputated. The Canadian military allowed him to return to work. They built pathways and bathrooms that were wheelchair accessible. But when he inquired about long-term compensation, he was told that the contract he signed at the beginning of the tour absolved him of any such rights. He didn’t complain, because “I was just happy to have a job.”

Later, in 2010, Hosseini, like hundreds of other interpreters who worked with the Canadians, applied to immigrate to Canada. A year later, while he was still waiting to hear back on his application, he was told that his contract was terminated. His visa application had been cancelled, he was told, because of his alleged links with the Taliban. Hosseini told me that this was impossible; his father was the former police chief of Helmand province, and the rest of his family has always been staunchly pro-government. Hosseini even reached out last year to Harjit Sajjan, who had just been named Canada’s defence minister, on LinkedIn, asking for help. “Know that I have not forgotten your sacrifice,” Sajjan wrote back, but did not offer any further guidance.

“We were treated like mercenaries. They paid us and didn’t care if we got killed,” Hosseini told me when we met this past spring. In response to a media inquiry about Hosseini’s case, a Citizenship Canada spokesperson wrote that they would be reopening the file, “as it appears he was not provided adequate opportunity to address concerns the visa officer had about some information in his application.” Hosseini is still awaiting instructions.

Unfulfilled promises

Later in the war, in order to draw attention from the heavy casualties that the Canadian forces incurred in 2006 and the detainee scandal of 2007, which implicated Canadian troops in torture allegations, the Canadian government shifted its focus to development. The pivot was “largely communication driven,” to “create a narrative of progress and to offset the military narrative, to show that the Canadian operation wasn’t only about fighting, but also about building stuff,” the former official told me.

The signature projects were: a $50-million rehabilitation of the irrigation system flowing from Dahla dam; the construction of 50 schools, costing $10 million; and polio vaccinations. In all, they totalled $1.9-billion, and these efforts were meant to raise Canada’s international profile.

Instead, the number of polio cases went from 25 in 2010 to 80 identified cases in 2011. The schools were meant to benefit 9,000 students, but a 2014 La Presse investigation found many of the schools in disarray. The task of completing the dam, intended to reach 80 percent of Kandahar residents and double crop yield by cleaning up the reservoir’s built up silt, was given over to the U.S. military. The programme was scheduled to be completed by summer 2015, but has since been abandoned.

On a recent June morning, police stationed at a check post nearest the dam were busy erecting a shelter from the heat. The foliage gave the shack a summer smell. Here, tribal elder Abdul Zaher explained how the Canadians came with promise of increasing the capacity for the dam, but “they just made a small building, built a tunnel, and did nothing else.” The dam is still not enough to cover all the districts, as was promised. It services just one district, where farmers continue to grow grapes, pomegranates, wheat and corn, as they had before. Farmers from other districts still struggle with the problem of drought, the elder said.

Zaher hurriedly finished his tea and took leave. Like many tribal elders in the region, Zaher was also a local police commander. Him and his 56 men were wanted on the frontlines; a clearance operation to open the highway connecting Kandahar to neighbouring Uruzgan province was ongoing. There were rumours that U.S. special forces were assisting in the effort to wrest control of the road. The Afghan security forces, despite $100 million in annual funding from Canada alone, still did not have monopoly on the use of power.

Nowhere had the limits of state control been more apparent than at Sarpoza prison, where the Canadian government spent $5 million to no discernable end. One afternoon, chief warden Colonel Farooq pointed out the add-ons that the Canadians introduced: new watch towers, mosques, an entrance gate. He was glad of these additions, but shook his head when I asked whether the justice system had improved.

The previous warden, General Ghulam Dastagir Mayar, had been accused of collaborating with the Taliban during the great prison escape of 2011. Since then, he had been held in custody; his case was still pending. Despite the nearly $10 million Canada spent on judiciary reform, Mayar continued to languish in a prison he once helped guard. “If you are in jail in Afghanistan, that most certainly means you are not guilty,” a prominent Kandahar elder later told me. “The higher the crime, the lower the penalty. The lower the crime, the higher the penalty.”

“In Afghanistan, if you steal a bicycle, you end up in jail. If you steal an airplane, you can live with impunity,”

Rangina Hamidi, who has been running a business that sells handmade items, recalled the Canadians as being naram, kinder or sweeter, but also “clueless.” After diplomat Glyn Barry was killed, Hamidi recalls speaking to an outraged Canadian soldier who angrily pointed to his shoulder insignia and asked her, “Can’t they see the flag?”

“He kept saying, we are not Americans. We are Canadians.” The soldier, she told me, expected an illiterate Afghan villager to tell a Canadian flag from an American one. “It proved to me that the Canadians at the time didn’t know where they were, what they were doing, and who they were dealing with.”

Indeed, “international-backed programmes aimed at improving governance in Afghanistan,” researcher Ashley Jackson wrote in a 2015 paper, “have failed because they fundamentally misunderstand the country’s social and political orders.”

The Afghanistan that could have been

Today, Kandahar city is among the safest in the country. This is in large part thanks to General Abdul Raziq, whose reign of terror has inspired a certain brand of fear of the law. Residents say the city is the safest it’s ever been – but that security extends only to certain members of certain tribes. For others, the tragedies never stopped. Though insurgent attacks are rare in Kandahar, the city has seen a spate of targeted killings. On average, one prominent women’s rights figure has been assassinated every year since the death of rights advocate Safia Ama Jan in 2006.

The most recent to be gunned down was Laila Intizar, a student at Kandahar Institute of Modern Studies. The school, which gives practical training for young girls and women, is run by Ehsanullah Ehsan. The 43-year-old’s face is lined from the stress of running a girls’ school in deeply conservative Kandahar for over a decade.

At its height, the school had over 800 students who were taught English by teachers in Canada using a video feed. This, along with courses that teach students how to send emails and navigate the internet, prepared them for a career in some of the most coveted posts in Afghanistan: working for international NGOs or the UN. Most of the women working in Kandahar are graduates of the institute.

The girls are the daughters of mayors, shopkeepers, goldsmiths, taxi drivers, and men who sell bibelots in pushcarts. For some, this is a continuation of their class privilege; for others, the school is the thing that has changed their lives.

But since the former Canadian International Development Agency cut its funding in 2012, the school has been subsisting on sporadic donations, often made online. The girls still harbour dreams of being astronauts, journalists and computer scientists, but now they attend a school with strained resources. Teachers, who have not been paid for three months, have had to take on second or third jobs, which interfere with their classes. The computers have been packed up and put into storage.

Five months ago, Ehsan had to introduce fees, which resulted in the student number plummeting to 250. The fee of just $10 has been the final straw for families who already consider education an unnecessary burden.

After the tour of the school, Ehsan and his family took me out for a drive. They were amazed that a foreign woman, meant to be empowered, did not know how to drive. They had unilaterally decided it was time I learn. Unsure and nervous, I sat behind the wheel and eased my foot onto the accelerator. In a nearby stream, boys swam while girls washed clothes. As we drove through the city in the dying light of the day, Ehsan told me that he had been spending more time in Kabul in the past four months. He fled, he told me, after an administrator at the school was shot dead while driving home at night. Assassinations in Kandahar were never investigated, so no one ever knew if the deaths were the result of tribal rivalries, ideological ones, or some other animus.

I made a right turn on to an unpaved road. Ehsan guessed that he had lost about 30 close friends to targeted killings in the past 15 years. He listed off their names as I drove on the service road, which seemed to end in a quarry. I made my first U-turn. “If a fraction of the money that was spent on war was spent on education,” Ehsan said, “We would have had a different Afghanistan.”

The sun was setting behind the craggy hills that surrounded Kandahar city. I turned on the headlights and drove us home.

Read at OpenCanada.org.