Afghan correspondent talks war on campus

By Christopher Blatch

We’re like the little boy with his finger in the dyke . . . we are holding Kandahar and that is why it hasn’t fallen,” journalist Matthew Fisher said in a lecture to a room full of students and faculty Sept. 21. “To keep the Taliban at bay in an area the size of New Brunswick with 750 guys is a great achievement.”

Fisher explained what he’s seen from the battlefields of Afghanistan as part of the centre for Military and Strategic Studies free lecture series.

Fisher, a reporter attached to a mechanized Canadian battle group, recently returned from Afghanistan. He has also been to Iraq, the only Canadian journalist to be embedded with an American combat unit.

Fisher traveled from Kuwait to Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division, which was involved in three battles, including a firefight in which about 300 Iraqis were killed.

He spent seven weeks in Afghanistan with the Canadian Battle Group and covered the mine strike that killed two Canadians. During his career, Fisher has worked in 153 countries and covered 29 wars and conflicts.

Fisher told the audience, “When a soldier holds his sergeant in his arms as he dies, but he goes on to fight and support the mission, we don’t hear anything about it . . . but when a soldier dies who’s said he didn’t support the mission it ends up being covered in every country in the Commonwealth.” According to Fisher, “The media won’t cover stories that aren’t controversial”.

Fisher said war coverage is not properly explaining the situation to the Canadian public.

“There’s no more blue helmet crap. It would be nice if there could be, but it doesn’t exist anymore,” said Fisher.

“We should be under no illusions that we can fundamentally change them . . . they want us there, but they don’t want us to stay forever.”

Fisher went on to explain that Canadian Forces are involved in battles, not just rebuilding. The basic approach of the CF is to create an “oil spot” — a safe area where people can live normal lives and the enemy can’t go — and let that spot spread gradually. “We [Canadians are] the first to do this . . . clear, hold and build: classic [counter-insurgency].

“Either you do it for the long haul or you leave,” said Fisher, comparing the mission to Canadians stopping their advance on Juno beach.

“If you want to talk about an imperialist approach, talk about going in and telling people you’re there to help them, but you choose to leave at your own convenience,” said Fisher in regards to the Canadian Parliaments decision to end the Afghan Mission in 2011.

Fisher told the audience that the Afghan conflict goes way beyond just affecting local people, but is a global endeavour.

“More than half the guys they face are Pakistani,” said Fisher. “They speak Urdu now, not just Pashtun, which means they are recruiting from outside the tribal areas.”

Fisher stated that Canadian Forces are killing many militants but every day “thousands are arriving from the Saudi funded Wahabi Madrasas.”

Recent media coverage of whether or not there was support for the war among CF members and their families also came up in the presentation.

Joan Dixon, mother of a U of C student who joined the King’s Own Calgary Regiment and is currently training for deployment overseas, said Albertans seem to be more supportive of the mission and the sacrifice of the soldiers.

“I have friends from other parts of Canada asking ‘Why are you letting your son go?’ but here they are more supportive of his choice, said Dixon.

“When people tell me they don’t support the war, but don’t know what’s going on, it bothers me,” said audience member Rebecca Taylor. “People need to at least go out and inform themselves on what’s happening . . . it’s alright if you disagree for the right reasons.”

“This isn’t like the Second World War, there aren’t physical goals and achievements,” said Fisher. “It’s a question of success, not victory.”

She suggested that as the mission changes we have to change our perspective on what the goal of modern warfare looks like from the home front.

“The coverage that Kandahar is about to fall is gross hyperbole,” Fisher said. “The view of many Canadian soldiers, which they have not been allowed to express publicly, is that the war in Afghanistan is far from being lost.”

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