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The Savage War: A Canadian Reporter's Experience in Afghanistan

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MPs belonging to the House of Commons Special Committee on Afghanistan went to Kandahar halfway through 2010 like a group of wise men in cargo pants looking for a messiah. They wandered far and wide in search of something -- anything -- that would give this entire ruinous adventure some deep, satisfactory meaning. The transcripts made for insightful yet hilarious reading. The MPs were loaded up with metrics, briefings and binders full of qualitative analysis, perspective and qualification. There was no question the system was fabulous at writing reports and giving presentations, and a bunch of the MPs came away feeling like they'd really been to Afghanistan.

I could just see some of the guys on the close-protection detail burying their faces in their hands at some of the things that got said. The soldiers hated those travelling circuses almost as much as they'd despised having to cart journalists around in the beginning.

The Afghans didn't quite know what to make of visiting Western politicians either. Most of them just plastered a strange hypnotic smile on their face. When the freezing wore off, they'd jabber among themselves like angry geese. Liberal Foreign Affairs Critic Bob Rae drew the best reaction. After listening to one Afghan army kandak commander in Panjwaii, Rae apparently embraced the startled colonel and kissed him on both cheeks in traditional European fashion. It may have seemed like the culturally sensitive thing to do, but Afghan men are notoriously stoic and masculine. Colonel Muhameed Baris apparently thought he was being hit on, and his face took on a glassy, wide-eyed expression, according to some of the Canadian officers who couldn't stop laughing afterward. It was this trip that convinced Rae, a former NDP premier, to say that Canada needed to remain and help continue training the Afghan army.

One of the things that seemed to turn everybody off about staying was the sense that we were being fleeced by the Afghans. The stories about corruption -- police chiefs and government officials on the take -- had been repeated so often that they took on a life of their own. What was amusing to watch was the Afghan attitude, not only toward our barely disguised condescension but also toward the graft and clawing covetousness of their fellow citizens. Most would condemn payoffs and kickbacks. They'd harangue; they'd vilify -- at least until they got one of their own. The most toxic kind of corruption was the stuff that fuelled the insurgency, the bribes that let government officials look the other way as drugs and weapons coursed through the streets and back alleys. Day-to-day irritants, such as checkpoint police shakedowns and paying under-the-table service fees to bureaucrats, were not as lethal, but they stoked a sense of grievance that has written itself into the Afghan DNA. Other forms of corruption were more easily recognizable to those of us from the outside, like ballot-box stuffing and shady land deals. Yet what grated most on Afghan sensibilities was the high moral tone struck by many Western leaders. They only needed a half-hour of satellite television to tell them we were no better, perhaps just a little more polished and sophisticated about it. The undeniable aftertaste of hypocrisy barely registered with many of the diplomats, war profiteers and scoundrels, but the sense of injustice was driven home one winter-scorched day in late December when I arrived at the governor's palace.

Half a dozen men had blocked the brushed concrete path with a partially dissected tree and a spray of sawdust. The neatly clipped, dead brown grass crunched under our feet as we skirted the sidewalk on the way to meet Kandahar's mayor. Ghulam Hayder Hamidi met us at the doorway.

He embraced Khan, but when he saw me his face lit up as though we were old friends. He had a cold that day and clutched a tissue between his fingers while keeping a blanket firmly wrapped over his tweed sport coat. He gave me a hug and coughed on my shoulder.

"Come in. Come in, my friends," he said in clipped English. We stepped out of the marble foyer into his darkened office, where the shades were drawn tightly to guard against snipers.

Hamidi was slightly built, cheerful and grandfatherly, a man who'd spent three decades as an accountant in Arlington, Virginia. One of his daughters had moved back to Kandahar with him in 2007 to start a business; the other lived in Toronto and we had a fine conversation about the pleasant drives he'd taken from Virginia to Ontario. We'd met in passing over the years and his focused, precise manner had always made an impression. On that day, he was eager to talk about corruption.

The NATO summit in Lisbon had ended a week or so before and the mayor was still steamed. Stephen Harper had told the gathering the Afghan government didn't deserve a "dime" of direct foreign aid money until it cleaned up its act when it came to corruption. It was among the toughest statements I'd heard from the prime minister and was greeted with snorts of approval from other countries. Hamidi set down a medium-size file folder on the glass coffee table in front of us and opened it.

"Corruption?" the mayor said, his voice almost cracking.

"Your prime minister, President Obama and the prime minister of England are complaining that we didn't clean the corruption in Afghanistan [and] they will stop helping. Who is doing the corruption? You are doing the corruption."

He handed me a letter of complaint, written in Pashto and addressed to William Crosbie, the Canadian ambassador in Kabul. It suggested we were being taken to the cleaners by a few guileful Afghan companies that preyed upon the ignorance and fears of foreigners.

Near the end of Canada's involvement in Kandahar, the "good works" stampede was on, and it manifested itself in all sorts of weird ways. In spring 2010, Canadian civilians insisted Hamidi approve a contract with a Kabul-based consortium to install solar lights on the streets of Kandahar. It was the old bureaucratic reflex of spending the budget before the fiscal year ran out. The $1.9-million project looked promising on paper, but then again everything did. The mayor argued to have a Kandahar company do the work and was told the contractor was already arranged. By the time we spoke at the end of the year, the work was nowhere near completed and 40 per cent of the lights that had been installed were on the fritz. Hamidi flipped through the inspections reports and pointed a frustrated finger at each page. The contractor was so inept that workers drilled holes for light standards and left them unattended overnight. He clasped his hands together.

"They start making holes in the sidewalk, and we said, 'Pleeeeease don't make the holes because of the security, because they put bomb[s] in them,'" he said.

Only in Kandahar could you have this kind of comic opera, where the most benign of municipal projects somehow morphed into a lethal menace.

It spoke so loudly about how screwed up the place still was, even after all these years. Sure enough, the Taliban planted an explosive, which dutifully blew up outside the home of a municipal official.

"You see? You see what I deal with?"

It wasn't as though the Canadians were without good intentions. In fact, some days that was all we had. The Taliban had tried to take out Hamidi with a roadside bomb in March 2009 while Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon was visiting. The minister ordered the department to buy the mayor an armoured SUV. Officials presented him with brochures and options and Hamidi settled on a U.S. $95,000 base model. The next thing he knew, it had been upgraded to the U.S. $139,000 luxury model.

"We told them, we didn't need a luxury model, but they insisted," said the mayor, his hands fluttering in exasperation. "And it came with no warranty."

It was flown to Kandahar Airfield, where he picked it up. On the way into the city it broke down and had to be restarted.

"After three weeks, the car completely stopped, not to be started," he said. "When they called to the company in Kabul, which they purchased [it from], they told us security is not that good, we cannot come to Kandahar."

The contractor eventually sent mechanics to Kandahar and Hamidi waited weeks for the repairs. In the interim, he borrowed a friend's car. We talked more about some of the shady land deals that powerbrokers had cooked up and how the Afghan treasury, what little of it there was, was being raped. Although many liked to portray Hamidi as being in the pocket of the Karzais, he struck a fiercely independent tone that made me wonder how long he had left in this world.

"Are you ever afraid for your life?" I asked, sipping from a can of Red Bull while the mayor's assistant slipped him cold medication and bottled water. He thought for a moment.

"If it happens, it happens," he said. "I could go back to America, but I choose to be here. I will fight, fight corruption. This is my city. Kandahar is my city and I will die here."

Excerpted from The Savage War. Copyright (c) 2011 by Murray Brewster. Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd.

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