The book Obama needed to read

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS - Mark Hart­ford

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.”

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