University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Spring 2009

“This Is a Generational Struggle”

Captain Bruce Rolston wonders how long Afghanistan’s calm facade will remain after peacekeepers leave

My morning journey by SUV takes me out the gate of Kandahar Air Field and over to the nearby Afghan National Army base, “Camp Hero.” On the way, I travel by Syed Pacha school, built for the children of Afghan soldiers by foreign well-wishers. It is painted a beautiful two-tone blue, the brightest and cheeriest sight for miles.

Bruce RolstonI soon find out that the school’s second floor is uninhabitable; the contractor put no rebar in the concrete, and the whole edifice will be lucky to avoid a major collapse during my short six months in Afghanistan. The plumbing in the washrooms goes nowhere, and there is no provision for electrical power. Locals try to organize some form of instruction on the first floor, although there is no realistic prospect of the school getting an actual teacher. But I’ve got to admit: it’s a great paint job.

In Afghanistan, we visitors tend to focus on the facades we’ve created. Even those Canadians who see right through Potemkinesque school-painting stories can still be gulled by tenuous fables about how the Afghan armed forces are rapidly improving under our tutelage. I know I sure was, before I got here. But the end state is so much farther away than getting the school’s light switches working.

This is a generational struggle, where the enemies are the pervasive ignorance, opportunism and despair that come with more than 30 years of strife. I work with the Afghan army, where few soldiers can read or write more than their names. My closest Afghan colleague, a 55-year-old major, is one of the most educated officers in his 3,000-man brigade. And yet he’s never read a military history book, has never heard of Napoleon and can’t name a single war movie he has ever seen. He never saw the point, really: his entire life experience has been circumscribed by war in a way I can still barely comprehend.

He’s not alone: no one I have met over the age of 25 in this country believes their future holds anything more than their past did. Indiscriminate killing and civil war is their normalcy, and their only surprise is that war hasn’t returned here to Kandahar sooner. And so, the only time or place they trust is the here and now. Any aspirations for permanence – like putting rebar in the walls instead of hocking the NGO-supplied steel for cash – seem pure folly.

Those not so jaded and battered down are all still too young to have the influence the Afghans need. The last few years of relative peace have been formative for Afghanistan’s soldiers and future leaders. But, assuming young leaders come forward, they are still two decades away from being in a social position to do anything about their country’s situation. Were Western forces to leave here today, it would take at most a single bout of fighting for that prospect to vanish.

Canada is leaving regardless, in 2011, we are told. I fear when we do go, we will find we had all the lasting impact of a flash flood on this reddish desert – the kind that occasionally comes through here in the winter months, shifting the unexploded ordnance around to new and surprising places.

When I was a younger man, I visited the United Nations building in New York. I’d read so much about it as a child, and believed this global institution was our future. But when I arrived in New York I saw a building that was falling apart around me, with broken headphones and switches in the General Assembly, dripping water, peeling paint. It was one of the great disappointments of my life. Walking around Kandahar Air Field today, with the cracked remnants of 1950s architecture everywhere, I feel the same foreboding: a suspicion that this place, Afghanistan, is the normal state of humanity. That all our magnificent accomplishments – all we enjoy in our own country and hope to pass on to our descendants – may itself only be a pretty school front that will not outlast our collective indifference.

Bruce Rolston (BA 1995 VIC) is currently serving as a captain with the Canadian military’s Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. He is on leave as a manager with University Advancement at U of T.

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