Afghanistan: A long-term project; Author Peter Pigott explains why Canadian soldiers have been sent to Afghanistan, and provides a multi-faceted account of what they are doing there

Montreal Gazette
Saturday, March 31, 2007
LEVON SEVUNTS

CANADA IN AFGHANISTAN: THE WAR SO FAR
By Peter Pigott
Dundurn Press, 240 pages, $35

It’s a rare newscast or newspaper edition in Canada that doesn’t have a story from Afghanistan these days.

Yet almost five years after Canada sent its soldiers there, many Canadians remain surprisingly ignorant about the history of that country and the reasons for Canada’s involvement.

That ignorance also permeates the upper echelons of Canadian politics, academia, media and government agencies.

Peter Pigott’s Canada in Afghanistan: The War So Far is an attempt to fill that huge void of knowledge. And it’s a telling sign in itself that explaining the war in Afghanistan has fallen not to an academic or a journalist with years of experience in the country and knowledge of its languages, history and customs – Canada hardly has any – but to a prolific author known for his work on aviation history.

Pigott explains Afghanistan’s bloody history and the complicated ethnic and tribal make-up that drives so much of its politics in a way that allows the reader to appreciate the complexity without drowning in too much detail.

But the book is not without factual mistakes. At one point, for example, Pigott describes Pashtuns (also referred to as Pashtos, Pathans, Pakhtoons), the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, as Dari-speakers. Dari, a dialect of Persian, is one of Afghanistan’s two official languages. Pashto, the other official language, is related, but totally distinct. While for many Pashtuns, especially in Kabul, Dari is the lingua franca of the bazaar – or arts and letters, in case of the elites – most Pashtuns speak only Pashto.

Such mistakes notwithstanding, Canada in Afghanistan is a significant book: it’s the first I’m aware of that looks at the behind-the-scenes process that led Canada to get involved in Afghanistan. Pigott traces the origins of Canada’s decision to go to war in Afghanistan from the rubble of the World Trade Centre, to Jean Chretien’s need to placate the Bush administration after refusing to join “the coalition of the willing” in Iraq, to a desire by Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier for Canadian Forces to play a more prominent international role and remake the military’s image at home.

Weapons and aviation enthusiasts will find an interesting discussion of hardware used by the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, from the “soft-skinned” Iltis jeep to its blast-resistant South African cousin, the RG-31 Nyala; from the venerable Hercules C-130 transport planes, to the Sperwer spy drones. This is Pigott’s forte. But for some readers, all this “guy talk” of Nyala’s V-shaped monocoque hull or Coyote’s high-tech surveillance suit could be a bit overwhelming.

Pigott also does an excellent job discussing the insurgency and presenting a part of the military’s mission that rarely gets enough press amid almost daily news of bombings and suicide attacks. Pigott, who had been embedded with the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar, got a front-row view of the PRT’s work and the immense challenges it faces and overcomes on a daily basis. Canadians know even less about the Strategic Advisory Team in Kabul, made up of Canadian soldiers who, without much fanfare, have been playing a crucial role in shaping Afghanistan’s national development strategies, which the author also describes.

What Pigott’s book lacks are the voices of Afghans, friendly or hostile. It’s a view of Afghanistan and Canada’s role in it as seen through Canadian eyes. This is a key weakness of not just this book, but also much of the Canadian reporting from Afghanistan. We simply don’t know how our intentions and actions are perceived by Afghans.

To be fair, this weakness is the result of insecurity in southern Afghanistan, not journalistic laziness. It has become too dangerous for a Western reporter to wander the streets of Kandahar, speaking to shopkeepers and taxi drivers.

Despite the mounting insurgency in the southeast, Pigott is convinced that the tide can still be turned, that Afghanistan is not a lost cause. It’s just a very long-term project, he argues. And cutting and running now is not an option.

“Or have Canadians so quickly forgotten what happened in Afghanistan the last time the world turned a blind eye, when the Taliban ruled, when Al Qaeda was embraced, and the seeds of 9/11 were sown?” Pigott asks, in conclusion.

Levon Sevunts is a Montreal writer who reported from Afghanistan for The Gazette in the fall of 2001.

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