The real lessons of Afghanistan?
So, what are you actually doing over there?
That was the question I received most frequently from family and friends during my deployment to Afghanistan with the Canadian Forces. Not surprisingly, people were curious to know how a soldier – in my case an intelligence officer – put in the hours while serving at the Kandahar Air Field.
An old friend from Queen’s was especially amused when I told him that I spent most of my time editing, usually in the wee hours of the morning. My official title was Night Battle Captain of the Kandahar Intelligence Fusion Centre (KIFC). My job was to supervise a half-dozen intelligence analysts – Americans, Brits, and Canadians – on the overnight shift. They were responsible for producing a daily morning briefing on their respective area of our Regional Command South, an area encompassing six provinces in southern and central Afghanistan. This area is the hotbed of the Pashtun insurgency and is one of the most violent and volatile regions in the country. So, our reporting was usually interesting, and we often had to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances on the ground. As I was responsible for checking the quality of my analysts’ reporting, I spent long hours poring over their work, editing it for accuracy, clarity, and style.
The reason my old friend found my fate so ironically amusing is that it reminded him of our time at Queen’s and my defining experience of working for The Queen’s Journal. During my time as News Editor (1996-97) and as an Assistant News Editor (1995-96) – pardon me if this sounds familiar – I spent long hours reviewing the work of my reporters, editing it for accuracy, clarity, and style, often in the wee hours of the morning. So, it did seem to be a funny coincidence that some 15 years later, my job as a professional soldier in a war zone could be so similar to my role as a volunteer editor of a student newspaper in the sheltered world of academia.
However, the more I think about it, the more I realize this may not have been so strange or coincidental after all. The job of a military intelligence officer and that of a journalist are not so different. Both jobs obviously involve gathering information. They also require a curious mindset and demand a rigorous analysis of facts. Most importantly, effective professionals in both fields must have sound judgement about what is truly relevant and important. So, had my life come full circle?
I have no time for pacifists who believe our country, our values, and our civilization are not worth defending. Individuals and countries have two choices when attacked: fight back or submit.
Certainly in a way it had. But I think my life came full circle in an even more fundamental way. It wasn’t just because I was using critical skills that I’d honed as a student journalist, albeit in a more demanding environment. Even more importantly, my time in Afghanistan led me to rediscover the journalist in me, and it reaffirmed the importance of the liberal arts ethos I absorbed at Queen’s, but that I thought I needed to put aside while serving in the military.
I enlisted in the Canadian Forces in 2002, less than a year after the now infamous September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The mindset I had at the time was a simpler one, and one that was widely shared in society: western civilization had been attacked, and we had to fight back.
That wasn’t wrong. I have no time for pacifists who believe our country, our values, and our civilization are not worth defending. Individuals and countries have two choices when attacked: fight back or submit. And any society that would choose the latter is not worth living in. As we all know, we are facing a shadowy terrorist organization, Al-Qaeda, whose raison d’etre is to attack the West, kill our people and oppose our democratic values of freedom and human rights. Fighting back was the only honourable option; we did it, and we must continue to do it. We have hunted Al-Qaeda’s leaders and operatives. We have obliterated their training camps in the Afghan desert, which the Taliban regime had sheltered. We have attacked Al-Qaeda’s influence and networks everywhere in the world, and we have achieved considerable success. Finally, we have also taught people in Afghanistan and the Taliban the hard lesson: If you support those who attack us, you will be punished, too. I’m proud of how we’ve fought back, too. I’m proud to serve in the military of a country that helped fight this battle.
In the Spring of 2003, I wrote a reflective piece for the Review in which I talked about how joining the Canadian Forces had opened my mind to the value of the military model. My experiences at Queen’s, and especially at The Queen’s Journal, in many ways had been the quintessential ones of a young person at a liberal arts college. I had strongly believed in and had practised, self-expression, and scepticism toward “The Establishment”, and had engaged in a free-spirited, student lifestyle.
However, some years later, after completing my basic training with the Canadian Navy, I wrote about how I’d also come to appreciate the military values of traditional wisdom, authority, and, perhaps most importantly, order and discipline. Although I still believed in our core Western values of liberty and individuality, I no longer felt like the irreverent student journalist of my youth. I’d become a soldier, duty to my country was now my first priority. Dissent and critical reflection still had their place in Canadian society, certainly, in universities and the media, but not, I thought, in the military. Like my society immediately after 9/11, I wasn’t in a mood to question; I was in a mood to fight. And, at that time, fighting back was what I felt both my society and I needed to do.
That was then; this is now.
Almost a decade has passed since the 9/11 attacks. Our militaries are no longer principally fighting to dislodge Al-Qaeda’s foothold in Central Asia. We are now fighting a localized insurgency in southern Afghanistan while attempting to build a viable modern state that’s capable of continuing this struggle after we leave. This is a different kind of mission and one whose importance to our country’s core interests we can legitimately question. Debating the effectiveness and wisdom of our altered Afghan mission – which has now become an exercise in so-called “nation-building” – is a valid and important discussion in which I strongly encourage our society to engage. Our universities and our media have critical roles to play in such a public debate.
However, I have also concluded that, even in my more narrowly-defined role as a soldier, there’s still a need for me to think critically, independently, and freely. And many of the questions I need to ask, even as a loyal soldier, can also be asked – and should also be asked – by the society I serve.
It has often been said that militaries try to re-fight the previous war. That is, they assume, often wrongly, that the methods of their last successful engagement will also work in the latest conflict. Military intelligence has been guilty of this same fallacy in Afghanistan.
The war in Afghanistan is not a conventional conflict. It is a counter-insurgency operation. The goal in conventional warfare is simply to defeat the enemy. In the case of a war against global terrorism and its supporters, this means doing the things we began immediately after 9/11, that is, fighting terrorists and smashing their supporting networks. But the goal in a counter-insurgency campaign is more complicated. Get the enemy to stop fighting.
Accordingly, the role of military intelligence in a conventional war is simpler, though not necessarily easier: Find out how the enemy is attacking us so we can use this knowledge to disarm and defeat him.
The role of military intelligence in counter-insurgency is similarly more complicated: Find out why the enemy is fighting us so we can use this knowledge to ultimately persuade him to stop.
It has often been said that militaries try to re-fight the previous war. That is, they assume, often wrongly, that the methods of their last successful engagement will also work in the latest conflict. Military intelligence has been guilty of this same fallacy in Afghanistan. Western militaries have devoted many resources to trying to kill “bad guys,” disarm explosives, and disrupt insurgent staging grounds.
The problem is that they have not devoted sufficient resources to understanding the people of Afghanistan by looking at such things as local economics, agriculture, development, demographics, politics, environment, and infrastructure. This was the conclusion of U.S. Major-General Michael Flynn, Chief of all Allied military intelligence in Afghanistan, who published a critical examination of his own military intelligence apparatus. (Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan, published January 2010, available at: http://cnas.org/node/3924)
Most notably, Flynn’s paper actually prescribed that military intelligence personnel should conduct themselves as journalists do. If they are to wage an effective counter-insurgency campaign, soldiers will have to learn to understand the people of Afghanistan, embed themselves at the grassroots level, ask poignant questions and report this information without fear or favour.
For me, this represented a stunning vindication of my pre-military career and prompted the realization that liberal arts values apply to soldiers just as much as they apply to journalists. I became a journalist to ask why. I became a soldier to fight evil. It never occurred to me that these proverbial diverging roads would meet. But they did – and perhaps that’s really not so surprising.
For me, and for this age, defending Western civilization against evil means protecting the values of the Enlightenment – reason, liberty, and individual rights – against what The Economist magazine away back in 1843 termed, “an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” Granted, Al-Qaeda isn’t timid, but it is cowardly, and it certainly represents unprogressive ignorance.
My real lesson from my experience in Afghanistan is that there is always a need to think critically, independently, and freely in anything you do – from obvious examples such as journalism to not-so-obvious examples like serving your country in war. I urge my fellow Queen’s alumni to take up this challenge. Doing so will bring the value of your liberal arts education to whatever you do. Even more fundamentally, it will also help advance, however incrementally, the values of our civilization and help create a world in which ignorance and cowardice do not prevail. To this end, as alumni we must also do our part to ensure that Queen’s remains a bastion of reason, liberty, and critical thought.
It is a tragic contradiction that the word Taliban is the plural form of Talib, which comes from the Arabic word for “one who is seeking knowledge.”
Do not allow any form of repression – whether it be political correctness, corporate greed, big government, religious extremism, radical ideologies, or anything else – to extinguish this vital spark. We need a university that teaches our future citizens – journalists and intelligence officers and everyone else – to ask why.
It is a tragic contradiction that the word Taliban is the plural form of Talib, which comes from the Arabic word for “one who is seeking knowledge.” This, of course, represents a linguistic perversion of Orwellian proportions. Ironically, the Afghan Taliban militia originated among students who had been educated in Pakistani madrassas, religious schools that often impart a narrow, radicalized version of Islam. However, these so-called students were not seekers of knowledge because they already believed they had found the ultimate truth and were prepared to impose it upon their society by murderous force. Rather than being critical thinkers whose inquiry would advance freedom of thought, they became blind followers of a worldview that aims to extinguish any freedom of thought.
The Taliban are, in fact, the very antithesis of true knowledge seekers. However, their incongruous name actually does the world a favour, as it illustrates their fundamental weakness, namely that any group as close-minded as the Taliban will ultimately be repelled and undermined by critical thinking. It is their greatest fear, and it is our best weapon.
And so, thanks to the twisted meanings of an Arabic word, my life lesson from Afghanistan can be summed up in six words: Fight the Taliban, be a Talib.
Lt(N) Scott Kemp, Artsci’02, MPA’05, is a former News Editor of The Queen’s Journal and has served as an officer in the Canadian Naval Reserve since 2002. He is now an intelligence analyst in Ottawa for the Canadian Department of National Defence.
FOR ANOTHER VIEW OF CANADA'S ROLE IN AFGHANISTAN, please see "Afghanistan and Us" by Prof. Emeritis (History) Robert Malcolmson. . .