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Bruce Rolston
Bruce Rolston.

“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.

I 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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  1. 6 Responses to “ “This Is a Generational Struggle” ”

  2. george says:

    "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"

    - Its totally different when one is living it, one assumes.

    "No one I have met over the age of 25 in this country believes their future holds anything more than their past did. "

    - Par for the course. Change takes time and one would assume, that those holding power have to have incentive to allow change to happen?

    "Those not so jaded and battered down are all still too young to have the influence the Afghans need."

    - As long as they remain unjaded, that is actually a good sign. Change takes time.

    "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"

    - Sadly, not much people could do, even if they were not indifferent.

  3. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Though one surmises that he may still be in the grip of culture shock, Capt. Bruce Rolston is correct in his assessment of the current struggle in Afghanistan as being "generational." It is refreshing to get an honest report on an enormously complicated situation. Canada has spent more blood and wealth in the struggle than any country other than the U.S. Our military resources are stretched to the limit, and under present conditions of engagement we can expect nothing but a continuing gradual attrition of our forces. It is time to review our strategies.

    In my view, Afghanistan is only a part of a much larger struggle in which the foundations of Western culture are at stake. If it is not critical to the success of the larger struggle, Afghanistan should be abandoned to its fate, cruel as that may be. If it is critical, then we must win in Afghanistan at all costs. It is clear that we are not winning with our current deployment. It seems doubtful that we will win with "more of the same." It is indeed time for the West to review its strategies.

    F. H. Kim Krenz
    MSc 1942
    Lakefield, Ontario

  4. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Thank you for Captain Bruce Rolston's letter from Afghanistan. His personal observations and analysis of the situation there are incredibly frank, dark, and disturbing. And his conclusion is universal. Compelling reading.

    Greg Terakita
    BA 1985, MEd 1989

  5. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I am writing to let you know how much I appreciate the new U of T Magazine. I read it with pleasure and a sense of worthy work done by graduates.

    In particular, the piece by Captain Bruce Rolston motivated me to write. In so brief a passage his heart is laid bare before us; no fudging the melancholy state of affairs. So gratifying it is to hear someone who knows from experience and tells it as he sees it. Ignorance is, I agree, the root both there and here.

    I have just finished the book, Three Cups of Tea, about the mountaineer who strove to get schools built in the hill villages of Northern Pakistan. I think the author of that book, Greg Mortenson, and Bruce Rolston would have a good conversation if they were to meet.

    Thanks for the magazine. Thanks for intelligent military men.

    Beverley de Villiers (nee Simmers)
    BA 1952 UC
    Surrey, B.C.

  6. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Rory Stewart's The Places in Between should be required reading for all politicians, military generals, foreign service personnel, NGOs and UN employees. A British diplomat, Stewart walked across Afghanistan in 2002. His is the only accurate, in-depth view of the country that I've read. According to Stewart, most Afghanis could not care less about such lofty Western ideas as human rights, freedom, a liberal education and democracy.

    In his view, Afghani women are never going to obtaining equal rights. Western ideas about the country are based on Kabul, which is not representative of the countryside. Stewart points out that most people who work with NGOs are parachuted in for a year or two, cannot speak local dialects, and restrict themselves to driving SUVs in the secure areas.

    He further points out that when the colonial power of Britain ruled India for more than 200 years, some British people spent a lifetime in India and developed an intimate knowledge of the country and its culture. Stewart is not an apologist for colonial rule - far from it - but at least the Brits left an infrastructure that still operates in India today. What will be left when we leave Afghanistan?

    I say the sooner we leave the better. Our soldiers are dying for nothing.

    Elliot Fine
    BA 1970, BEd 1972

  7. Did DOD+NYT+Reuters+AP Fabricate Panjwai Victims, Or Were 21 Killed? » DebatingChambers says:

    [...] out and then put back in alongside the Western troops never let the Americans in on the joke. - Bruce Rolston – who helped advise the Afghan National Army as a captain with the Canadian military’s [...]