The book Obama needed to read
Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan is a book that anyone who had to deal with Afghanistan should have read, particularly second-term US President Barack Obama. Some may not have liked what author Edward Girardet had to say, but a better understanding of Afghanistan might have helped to prevent Western involvement from becoming an even bigger fiasco.
As US author Sebastian Junger (Perfect Storm, War) writes: “Ed Girardet has accumulated more experience in Afghanistan than almost anyone else in the press corps, and the result is a truly remarkable book about a completely misunderstood country. Killing the Cranes may well be the most gripping and thorough account ever written about our numerous missteps and lost opportunities; it reads like a great novel but informs like the best kind of magazine journalism. Both his writing and reporting are absolutely superb.”
A former Paris-based foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour now living in Geneva, Girardet provides a narrative that few can offer. Killing the Cranes is a highly readable perspective mixed with Indiana Jones-style adventure and critical observation that covers the period from three months before the Soviet invasion in 1979 to 2011.
As some readers have noted on Amazon and other literary sites, Killing the Cranes is by far one of the best books on Afghanistan today, mainly because so much of it relies on personal experience, including trekking hundreds of miles by foot and by horse through the Hindu Kush mountains or across desert landscapes. As one said: “It is exhausting just reading about Girardet’s journeys because he takes you there with him as he crosses one mountain pass after another or observes a full Soviet offensive playing out in the valley below.” Girardet also manages to slip in haunting observations about the destruction of the countryside, including most of the country’s forests, by so many years of war, but also glimpses of Ibex, wolves and other wildlife as he travels across what he describes as one of the most astounding landscapes in the world.
Girardet met many of the key players who have influenced Afghanisan, the
region and even the world such as renowned northern guerrilla leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, urban guerrilla commander Abdul Haq, Afghan Islamic extremist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Pushtun militant Jallaludin Haqqani of the Haqqani Network, and Saudi militant Osama bin Ladin. As a journalist, Girardet always made a point of travelling to different parts of the country and with different groups (Baluch, Pushtun, Tajik, Hazara…) to ensure that he had a broader sense of what was going on in the country, particularly during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s.
Even more exhausting, Girardet was present in the early 1990s during the Battle for Kabul, which killed 50,000 people, as well as during the Taliban period. He also narrowly escaped being killed by two al Qaeda suicide bombers in September 2001, when he’d gone up to northern Afghanistan to see Massoud, but then had to leave to return in time for his wife’s birthday. The two al Qaeda assassins killed Massoud on September 9, two days before 9/11.
While some readers maintain that Girardet spends too much time taking you through the past 30-odd years, such a reaction is one reason why the United States, Britain and other NATO countries have failed so terribly in Afghanistan. They couldn’t be bothered to inform themselves properly about what happened before 9/11. As Girardet points out, the current war did not begin in 2001 and that anyone trying to understand Afghanistan needs to understand the past.
Massive US and other Western support for Afghan extremists, including foreign Islamic legionnaires such as bin Ladin, during the Soviet war as well as the CIA’s reliance on Pakistan’s devious military Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) organisation are also reasons why the whole international mission is in such a quagmire. As the book poignantly argues, Washington helped create the very monsters now fighting NATO and Afghan government forces.
At the same time, the author paints a deeply compassionate picture of ordinary Afghans he meets: refugees, teachers, civil servants, fighters, farmers, shopkeepers and many others. Unlike many of those now working in Afghanistan behind their high-walled compounds in what he calls the “great pretend game,” Girardet spent much of his time with these ‘ordinary’ people by drinking innumerable cups of tea, listening to their stories, sleeping in their homes or meeting them along mountain trails. They’re the ones who have been left out of the recovery process, he argues, because the West preferred to work with criminal warlords and corrupt former jihadists as part of its “quick fix” approach for resolving the Afghan situation.
Girardet takes to task US insistence on imposing its vision of what Afghanistan should be, but then undermining the whole process with one mistake after another, including the jailing of innocent Afghans at detention centres in Guantanamo, Bagram and Kabul. It also brought in armed mercenaries who have no accountability and have insulted countless Afghans by their crudeness. As a result, the current security situation is the worst it’s been for years.
Girardet does not hold back on his criticism of the arrogance and incompetence of those governments, notably the George W. Bush and Tony Blair administrations that intervened in Afghanistan in response to their own agendas, not those of the Afghans. The same goes for the Pakistanis, Chinese, Iranians, Russians, Indians and others who remain key regional players focusing on their own specific interests and subverting the chances of Afghanistan finding peace.
Billions of dollars have been wasted over the past decade in Afghanistan, maintains Girardet. Not only has this led to a highly corrupt government in Kabul but an even more corrupt and misguided international community which is spending over 60 percent of its support on security which is achieving little. The corruption is horrendous among major US private contractors with close ties to Washington. Most spend the bulk of their funds on hefty overheads, payoffs to the Taliban and highly remunerated consultants who know little about Afghanistan, and don’t care. As soon as the project is finished, they’re gone. In the end, they probably destabilise the whole process more than the insurgents.
As one international aid worker said, while even major NGOs such as Care or the Swedish Committee can’t manage projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars, they at least work with local communities and are in Afghanistan for the long haul.
Girardet the narrator spends much time providing the sort of select detail that helps understand what is going on in Afghanistan and why. While his focus in several chapters on the Hyena (Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) and the Lion (Massoud) may come across as biased, he explains that these two individuals had become necessary gauges for determining events in Afghanistan. With Hekmatyar’s militants fighting NATO forces and bombing innocent civilians, but also heavily infiltrating the government with his people, Massoud remains, even in death, a highly influential figure. Afghans realize this, but a lot of foreigners working in the country do not.
Despite Girardet’s unbridled criticism, he remains optimistic and does offer solutions. Control of Afghanistan should be taken out of the hands of the American and NATO generals who have been given an impossible task anyway. There is and never was a military option. The international community needs to get back to the basics and focus on what Girardet refers to as intelligent development and investment. Pakistan, Iran and others need to be pressured into stopping their meddling in Afghanistan. But above all, Afghans need to assume their own responsibilities, which is what the title Killing the Cranes refers to. But to find out exactly why, you’ve got to read the book.
“It is exhausting just reading about Girardet’s journeys because he takes you there with him as he crosses one mountain pass after another or observes a full Soviet offensive playing out in the valley below.”