The military is actually financing, and in some cases approving, books covering the Afghan war. As David Pugliese points out in this review, a new book titled “Kandahar Tour: The Turning Point in Canada’s Afghan Mission” by academics from my own Alma Mater, the University of New Brunswick, paints an unwarranted optimistic view of the war – a view that few outside the DND-funded academic community would agree with. – Steve
Ominous events overtake authors’ bullish view of Afghan mission
Outdated optimism; The book’s message: Canada’s contribution in Kandahar is a solid success
Review by David Pugliese
Published in the Ottawa Citizen
Kandahar Tour: The Turning Point in Canada’s Afghan Mission
By Lee Windsor, David Charters and Brent Wilson
John Wiley & Sons, $36.95
Kandahar Tour is a book that government officials and those in the Canadian Forces will firmly embrace.
With research financed in part by the Defence Department, the book echoes many of the arguments used by politicians and officials from Foreign Affairs, the Canadian International Development Agency, the Privy Council Office and DND as they try to promote the Afghan mission to the public.
The authors of Kandahar Tour argue that while the mission is difficult, it has been successful as Afghans are seeing a difference in their daily lives because of the security and aid provided by Canadian troops and government representatives. They argue that Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan is a continuation of our nation’s traditional role on the world stage.
They also claim that the news media have largely ignored the good work done by Canada’s diplomats, aid workers and the military’s Provincial Reconstruction Team, among others.
“For many, including those who have served in a series of rotations (though not for the Canadian media) the future looks guardedly promising,” authors Lee Windsor, David Charters and Brent Wilson write about Afghanistan.
All three are on the faculty of the University of New Brunswick’s Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society. The Gregg Centre’s mission is “to be the Canadian centre for the academic study of war” and “a major contributor to informed public debate.” Windsor is its deputy director. Charters was a co-founder of UNB’s Centre for Conflict Studies, the predecessor of the Gregg Centre and has served on the federal government’s Advisory Council on National Security. Wilson is executive editor of the Journal of Conflict Studies.
Kandahar Tour bases its optimism almost entirely on a period from February to August 2007 as it follows a Canadian task force on its deployment to Afghanistan.
The book recounts how Canadian military units triumph over the Taliban as superior firepower and skills decimate insurgents in almost every battle. Aid is delivered and Afghans are happier for it. Canadian diplomats are successful in almost every venture they take on in the war-torn country.
During the Canadian task force’s time in Afghanistan the Taliban presence dropped dramatically in size and influence throughout Kandahar, according to the authors. Taliban recruiting failed, reconstruction proceeded comparatively unmolested and Corrections Canada and the RCMP reformed Kandahar’s justice system, they say.
The book’s message: Canada’s contribution in Kandahar is a solid success.
But recent developments in Afghanistan clearly show the drawbacks of basing such a positive viewpoint, if it ever was warranted in the first place, on a tour that happened more than a year ago.
The situation has deteriorated to the point where U.S. Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, is suggesting that violence in Kandahar and the eastern region of the country will only get worse in the coming months. “In large parts of Afghanistan, we don’t see progress,” he acknowledged in a September interview.
A number of top Afghan officials have been murdered by insurgent hit teams in Kandahar over the past few weeks.
In the summer the Taliban carried out a spectacular raid on the Kandahar prison, freeing hundreds of their comrades.
The Taliban have seized control of some of the main highways leading into Kabul and have established a parallel government in a province just 40 kilometres from the Afghan capital.
“The security situation is bad,” Arif Lalani, Canada’s former envoy to Afghanistan, said in September. “The Taliban, I think, is stronger this summer than they have been in my recent recollection.”
That same month, Nipa Banerjee, who served as Canada’s head of aid in Kabul for three years, wrote that the security situation was at its worst since 2001.
“Social and economic advances made from 2001 to 2005 appear to have halted,” she wrote. “There is an absence of concrete evidence of aid activities positively impacting on common Afghans’ lives.”
All this is quite a departure from the rosy picture portrayed in Kandahar Tour.
Although the book is not an official Government of Canada publication, some readers might consider it as such. Lee Windsor is featured in a series of videos and print articles from 2007 on the Government of Canada’s website promoting the Afghan mission. His message on that website is similar to that presented in the book.
In addition, Windsor’s research for Kandahar Tour was paid for by a Defence Department grant. The book itself was vetted by Canadian Forces Brig.-Gen. Ian Poulter, which the authors say was done with the view to eliminate any breaches of operational security. According to the authors, neither the DND funding nor the vetting affected the final product.
Equally interesting are the authors’ claims that the good work being done by Foreign Affairs, CIDA, Corrections Canada, the RCMP and the military’s Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) are being largely ignored by the news media. They also suggest the media have ignored the contributions of private aid groups, such as Canadian Drew Gilmour’s Development Works, which operates in Kandahar.
However, even a cursory examination of media coverage of the period covered by Kandahar Tour undercuts such claims. In fact, the PRT was profiled a number of times on both radio and television. The National Post published a large feature highlighting CIDA’s efforts to inoculate kids in Afghanistan against polio. Canwest newspapers ran articles with headlines such as “Canadians Work to Improve Afghan Prisons,” “Canadians Help Afghan Girls,” “Afghan Leader Praises Canadian Efforts to Rebuild District” and “Harper Shines Spotlight on Aid Work.”
Other Canadian newspapers featured similar articles. Even Drew Gilmour’s Development Works, supposedly ignored by the news media, was the subject of a profile on CTV News during this period. Of course, this brief list doesn’t include the hundreds of articles or broadcasts detailing Canadian aid projects produced by the media outside the period covered by Kandahar Tour.
Strangely, however, the authors neglect to focus on the one key factor that did limit aid projects from gaining even more favourable media coverage — the fact that CIDA and Foreign Affairs officials almost always refused to give interviews to journalists about such projects.
It wasn’t until later in 2008, after the Manley report outlined the failure of government officials to communicate the Afghan mission to Canadians, that the situation improved somewhat. But even today there are government-imposed limits on media interviews in regards to Afghan mission aid programs.
However, the theme that the news media are undercutting the Afghan mission — as opposed to what some observers say is the failure of international policies and rampant corruption of the Karzai government — is one that is being increasingly embraced by Canadian military officers, government officials, some defence analysts and those Canadians who are unreservedly behind the mission.
They will definitely enjoy this book, while others will view Kandahar Tour as bordering on federal government propaganda.
David Pugliese is the Citizen’s senior writer on military issues.