Bringing Afghanistan's democrats out of the shadows

It is fitting that Terry Glavin begins his book Come from the Shadows: the Long and Lonely Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan with a quote from George Orwell — who once said it is not enough to oppose fascism; one must stand against totalitarianism in all its forms.

Orwell, a far-left anti-fascist who took a bullet in the throat while fighting Franco’s brutes during the Spanish Civil War, was angered by the inability of too many of his fellow leftists to counter dictatorial thuggery in those with whom they shared a common enemy. Stalinists got a free pass because, ostensibly, they opposed fascism; they didn’t deserve it.

Glavin, also of the left, is frustrated by the limits of his supposed comrades’ solidarity and internationalism. Afghanistan’s democrats — its students, human rights activists, women, socialists and secularists — should, by rights, be championed and supported by the western left. They are, after all, fighting for the same things liberals in Canada struggled for and earned over the last century. What’s more, they’re fighting for these rights against an explicitly fascistic strain of religious and ethnic extremism embodied in the Taliban.

Instead, much of the left over the last decade has preferred to rally against make-believe fascism and imperialism in the United States or Britain, rather than recognizing its real mutations in places like Baghdad, Tehran, and Kandahar. The NDP, for one, has distinguished itself only by the degree to which it has counseled abandoning those Afghans most deserving of our friendship. “Support our troops; bring ‘em home,” the party declared, aping an isolationism that Glavin rightly derides as “paleoconservative.”

This hardly matters now, though, as all of Afghanistan’s western allies will soon be bringing their troops home — leaving Afghanistan to negotiate some sort of deal with Pakistan, which backs many of the insurgent brigands still in the habit of bombing cultural centres and hanging children.

Glavin, a friend of mine, argues this is possible, in part, because of what Orwell described as “the sealing off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening.” The Afghanistan most of us are familiar with, a hopelessly violent and extremism-riddled backwater, is a distorted fragment, he says.

“If I do my job well, you will see that Afghanistan is a country whose people are more worthy of our sacrifices and solidarity than you might have imagined.”

Glavin does his job well. The best parts of Come from the Shadows involve his travels in the country, often in the company the Abdulrahim Parwani, a remarkable Afghan-Canadian man, well drawn in Glavin’s text. We meet democrats, partisans, activists and scholars. Some are powerful, some simply brave.

The book opens and closes with the students of Marefat High School, in the Daste Barchi slum of Kabul. In April 2009, they fought off a mob dispatched by a Khomeinist mosque whose members were furious because boys and girls at the school were studying together. The attackers threw rocks and sticks and demanded that the school’s principal, Aziz Royesh, be killed. Students barred the doors and stood their ground. The school remains open.

Glavin’s book is full of stories like this, from the sealed-off parts of Afghanistan. Blame for the obscuration that keeps so much of the country hidden can be cast widely, including among journalists. Glavin recalls speaking with a senior Canadian reporter who had been in Kandahar several times over a three-year period but had never interviewed an Afghan woman. I know of journalists whose bosses discouraged them from leaving Kandahar Airfield lest they miss a “ramp ceremony” for a fallen Canadian soldiers returning home.

I’m not sure that many of our diplomats see much more. Recently in Kabul I got a glimpse of the rules that govern travel for embassy staff. The security bubble is almost total. This is understandable, I suppose, but it’s also restricting. It means we don’t know the students at Marefat High School, and we’re less willing to fight for them. We should, and we must.


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