Shaping the war in Afghanistan

How does the Canadian perspective of Afghanistan relate to reality?

Afghanistan was at the forefront of media coverage in August and September as the Taliban seized Kabul. Yet only three months later — with the country on the verge of collapse — we see few headlines devoted to the humanitarian crisis exacerbated by decades of foreign invasion.

In September 2020, I had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan. While I could not ignore the risks associated with an active war zone, I wanted to see the country for myself, beyond the death and destruction central to Canadian media coverage. When I arrived in Kabul, my western perspective was immediately challenged. As someone who grew up in Canada, I relied on the news to relay information from overseas. So, I asked myself, why was I so surprised to see bustling markets and colourful homes rather than buildings reduced to rubble? It made me think — what do we Canadians really know about Afghanistan?

Canadian media coverage of Afghanistan is focused almost entirely on politics and military developments, rarely depicting civilian life. In part, this kind of reporting is fuelled by the sources used by journalists and the stories that come out of them. In a meta analysis of news articles published during the intervention in the country, nearly half the stories cited military and government officials as primary sources, and over 40 per cent did not include a secondary source.

Overlooking Kabul, September 2020. KATHLEEN GANNON/THE CONCORDIAN

The Canadian military has a vested interest in selling its success to the Canadian people. The easiest way to do so is by framing the information given to the media in a way that justifies the military’s operations in Afghanistan. While journalists do fact-check and challenge officials, this preferred narrative remains key to coverage of the conflict.

One way to get close is through embeds — journalists attached to military units. The process is far from impartial, as any reports from within an embed must be signed off by commanding officers.

Naturally, no incriminating information would be allowed to leak. Graeme Smith, once a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan for The Globe and Mail, recounted how the military soon became concerned with spin, sending out supervisors to accompany the journalists. Given this element of censorship, embedded journalists seem to serve solely as a military mouthpiece.

The majority of stories reported from Afghanistan favoured a top-down outlook. The problem is that there needed to be a variety of information that went beyond the military and political elite, in order to challenge the propaganda that promoted Canada’s presence in Afghanistan.

With the declared “War on Terror,” perceptions of the Islamic world began to shift. Afghans were vilified and the country was referred to as a failed state. In 2001, the National Post published an article by Mark Steyn titled “What the Afghans need is colonizing.” Alienating Afghanistan served to bolster Canadians’ support for the war and the atrocities that awaited. Inciting fear among Canadians — perpetuated by the media — permitted the government to disregard Afghans’ safety in the name of our own security.

Canadian reporting about Afghanistan is often episodic. It recounts a specific incident, usually involving death tolls and insurgency attacks. Canadian media lacked the context necessary to provide readers with an in-depth understanding of a conflict dating back to the ‘80s.

At the peak of the conflict in the late 2000s, with millions of dollars being poured into the country, why was only one Canadian journalist stationed there full-time? Smith was the only permanent reporter through 2006 to 2009, spending most of his time in the southern Taliban stronghold Kandahar. There is a revolving door of journalists covering the war in Afghanistan, yet few have the longevity to truly understand its implications.

Politicians portray themselves to be the only sources of correct information, leaving Canadians with a misrepresented understanding of Afghanistan. Readers are forced to assume the responsibility of piecing together fragments of a much bigger story.

Despite best interests to accurately portray the conflict, the country has long been ostracized by both politicians and the media. An overwhelming majority of stories reported in the 2000s were rooted in negativity, focused on the volatility and chaos of Afghanistan. A small portion was considered neutral, the positive stories nearly negligible.

News coverage has to do with proximity. When compassion only extends so far, journalists must seek out ways to connect readers to Afghanistan. Any human interest pieces coming out of the country must connect back to Canada in some way — refugees landing in Toronto, a translator to the Canadian Forces — and, usually, mentions the military.

In the end, people are drawn to disaster. Suicide bombings and military advancements are far more likely to captivate readers than a feature on an Afghan school for young girls. But playing into shock value inevitably slants coverage. While focusing on violent incidents may increase engagement with Afghanistan, it reinforces the narrative that the country is no more than a dangerous terrorist den.

When media coverage strips away humanity, it further alienates Afghanistan and its people from the international community. The stories told from Afghanistan favoured the Canadian perspective, failing to paint the bigger picture — 13 years of war and bloodshed. The Taliban’s road to reclaiming Afghanistan was paved by foreign intervention and its failures. Now, Afghans are left to fend for themselves and Canada has already turned the page.


Photos by Kathleen Gannon


Concordia student trapped in Afghanistan, forced to delay studies

Due to the Taliban takeover in August, one Afghan student is unable to leave the country

Arzou*, a 19-year-old Afghan student, was set to begin her first year at Concordia this fall studying political science and economics. However, following the Taliban’s military invasion of Kabul, the nation’s capital, Arzou could not flee Afghanistan and had to set her university education aside.

Since May 2021, the terrorist group has made military advancements in over 200 districts of Afghanistan and took full control of Kabul on Aug. 15. This conquest put an end to the 20-year war between the Taliban and the United States, as the former President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, escaped the country and the U.S.-backed government collapsed.

The Kabul airport became the last source of hope for both Afghan citizens and foreign nationals, who desperately tried to escape the country before the airport was shut down. In an exclusive interview with The Concordian, Arzou shared her memories of the day she will never forget.

“Everyone was rushing to the airport, including those without a passport or a visa. The traffic was incredibly bad. I saw with my own eyes how the Taliban was celebrating on the streets and preventing civilians from reaching the airport. […] They were being very violent towards everyone, even the women and children.”

On Aug. 27, over 100 civilians and U.S. service members were killed in a suicide bombing outside the airport, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility. Earlier that month, locals were also seen holding onto a U.S. Air Force plane during take-off as panic erupted on the runway.

As of now, there are no passenger flights to the outside world from the Kabul airport, making it a dead end for Afghans who are trying to escape. Due to the Taliban’s iron grip on the airstrip, only domestic and humanitarian aid flights are currently permitted.

“It was the reason that I couldn’t attend Concordia this fall, sadly. I was very excited to start a new chapter of my life,” said Arzou.

The student explained that her rights are at serious risk in Afghanistan, as the Taliban announced it would only grant women rights “within the limits of Islam,” based on the group’s own interpretation of Islamic law.

At Kabul University, female students were told they are no longer allowed to leave their residence without a male guardian. Meanwhile, women’s beauty salons in the capital have been vandalized with spray paint, in order to cover the models’ faces on storefronts.

“Women are forced to wear the chadari, which covers the woman’s entire body from head to toe with a slight opening in the eye region — something I would call a prison cell,” said Arzou.

She added, “I don’t want my many years of education to go to waste. I don’t even want to believe that the Taliban had taken control of my homeland — I remember all the stories from my parents who went through similar terror in Kabul 20 years ago.”

On Sept. 7, one week after the last American troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan, the Taliban announced its new government — led by Mohammad Hasan Akhund, a former influential figure in the Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001.

The new, all-male government has already disbanded the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and instead founded the Ministry for Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice to enforce Islamic law. These actions have crossed the “fundamental red line” outlined by the UN Human Rights Council at the Geneva emergency meeting:

“[This line] will be the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls, and respect for their rights to liberty, freedom of movement, education, self-expression and employment, guided by international human rights norms,” stated UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet on Aug. 24.

The current state of Afghanistan has left Arzou angry not only at the Taliban regime, but also at the United States for its past actions. For instance, in an effort to negotiate peace talks between the former Afghan government and the Taliban, the Trump administration agreed to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners in 2020.

“[This controversial decision] helped the Taliban start this extreme violence. The U.S. literally exploited our land and used our natural resources, and now left the country in this state,” Arzou exclaimed.

Nevertheless, Afghan women are actively protesting against the Taliban regime on the streets of Kabul, in pursuit of freedom, equality, and fair representation in the government. Despite the Taliban’s use of metal batons and whips against the demonstrators, such protests show no signs of slowing down.

“They aren’t the same women they were 20 years ago,” Arzou explained, “and we just won’t give up on our goals. I am hopeful that one day, I’ll also contribute to rebuilding my country.”

If circumstances allow, Arzou hopes to begin her studies at Concordia University in the winter semester of 2022.

*to protect the subject’s identity, we are using her preferred pseudonym.


Graphic by Madeline Schmidt.


World music review: Asia

7he Myriads (Russia): If you think space disco is a kind of theme party thrown by Russian cosmonauts, then you’re missing out on quite possibly one of the most enjoyable new hybrid genres, and the dual-continental band positioned squarely at its forefront. 7he Myriads, formed by Vitalic Teterin and Alexey Krjuk in 2007, are more than just an electronic group. Adding Yunusov Ilgiz to the band, the Ekaterinburg (Asia) natives draw upon disco, funk, deep house, rock and electro, while combining live instrumentation with electronic staples like the ever-trusty laptop and MIDI keyboard. Now based in St. Petersburg (Europe), the intergalactic rock threesome released their debut album ∞ in 2010 and an EP, Running Man, soon after. Although they haven’t released another album since, they’re constantly updating their SoundCloud online where you can stream almost 30 tracks for free.

The Raghu Dixit Project (India): Combining traditional Indian vocal styles and instrumentation with unconventional musical styles including funky basslines, reggae rhythms and crisp, clean electric guitar, the Project is more than just a name—it’s an “open-house” for musicians and artists to come together and express their craft, regardless of genre, style or nationality. While the majority of his music is inspired by Shishunala Sharif, a saint from Karnataka, India famous for his poetry, Raghupathy Dixit’s lyrics, which are mostly in his native tongue, speak to the masses and deal with everyday experiences and emotions. The self-taught composer and musician believes Indian folk music is not a genre, but a state of mind. “We’re all untrained musicians,” said Dixit on his website, “and singing a song, because it’s innate, is a basic instinct.” The RDP’s debut self-titled album, available to stream online, includes eight full-length tracks that were composed over the past 12 years. The quintet that currently makes up the Project also has a new album in the works.

Morphy (Singapore): This collective, represented by vocalist and guitarist Lilia Yip and supported by Eugene Wong on synth and bass, lead guitarist Alexius Cai and Chua Yingtze on percussion, is not for those who enjoy mainstream folk music. The ambient, electronic, folk-pop band melds genres and risks melding your mind with their psychedelic ambient potpourri of sound. Stepping beyond electronica, the band uses traditional instruments from all areas of the world, including the wooden folk flute, and the African thumb piano, also known as the mbira. Their seemingly rule-free composition stems from their open approach to their music, inviting musicians from all corners of the globe to contribute to their sound. Their first album Pink Ashes (2004) set the pace for what was to come in their 2010 release Just Like Breathing, which featured U.K. guitarist Timothy Lloyd. Their presence in the scene, however, is reminiscent of their music—rather ambient—so if you want to hear them, you’re going to have to do some digging.

Kabul Dreams (Afghanistan): Here in the Western world, the music market is oversaturated with rock bands trying to make it big. Afghanistan’s first rock ‘n’ roll band, Kabul Dreams, is only three years old. They have become somewhat of a novelty on a global scale, purely due to the fact that they’re the first ever in their country, but don’t let that stop you from giving them a listen. While their sound ranges from generic to melodic, they do have talent and a whole lot of gusto. As the self-proclaimed voice of Kabul youth, their ciphers deal with post-Taliban messages of peace, unity and love. Groovy. Although the trio lived outside Afghanistan during Taliban rule—singer Sulyman Qardash in neighbouring Uzbekistan, bass guitarist Siddique Ahmed in Pakistan, and drummer Mujtaba Habibi in Iran—they moved back to Afghanistan once the Taliban was removed from power. What’s interesting about these three Afghan boys is that they come from different areas of the country, so they all speak a different native language. Instead of trying to work with that, they decided to sing in English.

Niraj Chag (England via India): This British musician of Indian descent has spent his life in London. His family’s strong ties to their heritage and homeland inspired him to create what BBC Radio 1 host DJ Nihal calls “some of the most beautiful British-Asian music ever created.” Chag composes in multiple languages, including six different languages on his debut album Along the Dusty Road (2006), after which he was awarded the “Best Underground Act” award at the U.K. Asian Music Awards. His next release, The Lost Souls in 2009, drove home this fusion artist’s talent, blending major South Asian styles with Hindi and by combining over 50 vocal layers on one track alone. The songs themselves are relaxed; it’s the type of music you can picture yourself listening to while smoking fragrant Mu‘assel from an ornate hookah in some tucked-away lounge amongst the crowded streets of New Delhi.

Eli Walks (Japan): Producer extraordinaire Jeff Lufkin has long had his hands in Japan’s thriving popular music scene—it’s a family affair. Both of his sisters are established musicians; Olivia is a fairly successful J-pop songstress, while Caroline is a vocalist for indie rock’s Mice Parade. Lufkin had an early affinity for heavy metal, but after his sisters introduced him to electronica à la Kraftwerk and Massive Attack, he searched for a method that would allow him to meld the two, and found it in club music. Lufkin worked as a producer, guitarist and composer in Japan, but moved to L.A. and birthed the moniker Eli Walks, as he studied sound design, engineering, and mastered Ableton Live at the California Institute of the Arts. His 2012 debut, Parallel, is delicate yet abrasive, overlapping atmospheric dance music. This is music to fill your ears; it works equally as an isolation soundtrack/solo travel companion or setting for a chill, alternative dance floor. He will make his Fuji Rock Festival debut this summer alongside the likes of Radiohead and the Stone Roses.

BoA (South Korea): K-pop girl groups have steadily grown in popularity, breaking into Western and Japanese music markets on the heels of BoA (Beat of Angel), or Kwon Boa, the reigning “Queen of Korean Pop Music.” BoA’s dance electropop first hooked South Korea in 2000 after she caught agents’ eyes while accompanying her older brother to a talent search. In 2002, she became the first South Korean musician to break Japan since the World War II entertainment trade embargo, opening the doors for girl groups like the Wonder Girls and 2NE1. BoA secured a fan base in the U.S. with the 2009 release of her self-titled English debut album and after spending much of 2010 touring the states and promoting her single “Eat You Up.” The pop starlet is it still maintaining her presence in Japan and South Korea, but is also set to make her Hollywood debut in the dance flick COBU 3D, so brace yourself for a K-pop invasion.

Modern Dog (Thailand): As the victors of the Coke Music Contest in 1992, college mates Modern Dog were instantly thrust into a world of bright lights and flashing cameras to sell over 500,000 copies of their debut album. Their introduction to the Thai music market may seem near effortless, but their sound was over a century in the making. For years, Thailand borrowed music from its neighbours India and China, resting at a crossroads of traditional Greek and Roman trade routes. But Thailand’s popular music format, known as “string,” wasn’t developed without the influence of American R&B, shipped overseas courtesy of American and Australian soldiers serving in Vietnam. Modern Dog broke through the sticky sweet boundaries characteristic of string and brought heavier, American influenced experimental rock featuring English and Thai lyrics. With That Song (2004), produced by Tony Doogan (Mogwai, Belle and Sebastian), and a 2006 U.S. tour, they tried to break into the Western world, but failed to gain much steam. Still hailed as the leader of Thailand’s indie rock music scene, Modern Dog paved the way for alternative rock’s presence in popular Thai music and have sold over two million albums to date.

Hedgehog (China): Despite China’s well-documented, swelling population, it has never been considered a major producer or consumer of popular music. Due to state restrictions, cantopop and mandopop commercialized love ballads pollute the radio waves, for an alternative hasn’t yet broken into the mainstream. Inspired by Western bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit, a black/thrash metal scene developed among youth in the ‘90s, and heavy rock music has now grown in popularity in Beijing and Shanghai. Beijing’s Hedgehog was born out of those same punk/grunge roots, and they developed a fan base playing shows underground in 2005. Fans now flock to their shows to see Atom, the petite yet aggressive female percussionist, peeking through a mop of hair, behind a towering drum kit. The guitarist, Zo, sings most lyrics in Mandarin and English, and they recently recruited a new bassist, Xiao Nan, for their 2011 U.S. tour with Californian synth pop collective Xiu Xiu. Hedgehog recorded their upcoming 2012 release, Sun Fun Gun, in New York with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s John Grew and Russell Simins, and the album’s first single is now available for free download on Bandcamp.

Hiromi Uehara (Japan): Hiromi Uehara is known as one of the world’s most talented, game-changing musicians for her ability to bring raw, emotional rock to the piano—a relatively peaceful instrument. She began playing the piano at six years old, joined the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra at 14, and has now broken into the more mainstream alternative Western market. Hiromi first worked as a jingle writer in Japan, but travelled to the United States to attend Boston’s Berklee College of Music to study jazz piano. Since the release of her debut album, Another Mind (2003), she has travelled the world, developing a reputation for her inventive, high-energy fusion of classical and hard rocking jazz. With the Hiromi Trio Project, she will bring her latest release, Voice (2011), to this summer’s Fuji Rock Festival and both Montreal’s and Toronto’s jazz festivals.

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