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Issue Date:  February 10, 2006

By Kathy Gannon
Public Affairs, 177 pages, $25
A whirlwind history of Afghanistan

How misguided U.S. policy keeps a country in turmoil

Reviewed by DENNIS CODAY

This slim volume is a great read. It takes the reader for an on-the-ground tour of Afghanistan guided by a Canadian who worked for 18 years as the Associated Press correspondent there. At times Kathy Gannon was the only Western journalist in the country.

Ms. Gannon takes the reader into the shambles of the bombproof bunker of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, just after he fled it. We huddle with her and an Afghani woman with children inside a concrete-block apartment building as mujahedeen rockets tear Kabul apart. We sit with Ms. Gannon in a small taxi choking on road dust as she negotiates her way past a roadblock on the way to the Taliban stronghold Surmad. Ms. Gannon introduces us to ordinary citizens as well as the instigators of the warfare, banditry and brutality that Afghanis have lived with since the Soviet invasion in 1979.

It is a roller coaster of a tour. As Ms. Gannon recounts the story of a country with no laws, readers will remember the ambivalence we all felt during the Taliban years: relief that this independent band of devout religious Muslims established order and defeated the warlords who terrorized the nation. Satisfaction that the Taliban did what no other power in the world had -- eradicated opium poppy production. Dismay at their treatment of women. Discouragement at their increasingly brutal rule and social control. Disbelief at their destruction of Buddha statues at Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

Ms. Gannon’s time in Afghanistan stretches from pre-Taliban days to the installation of President Hamid Karzai, and that gives the book its richness in information and insight.

Ms. Gannon knows the players on all sides. She can and does name names and make connections. She describes how Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, Ahmed Shah Massoud and Abdul Rashid Dostum “collided disastrously” in the mujahedeen government they took part in. They may have routed the communists but once their common enemy was gone, they turned on themselves. Ms. Gannon provides details of assassinations, rapes and wholesale slaughter.

Rasul Sayyaf counted Osama bin Laden and bin Laden’s lieutenant Aymen al-Zawahiri as friends. Dostum was a communist general but switched sides. “His viciousness was legendary in Afghanistan,” Ms. Gannon writes. Yet they, and others like them, found places in President Hamid Karzai’s government with U.S. backing.

She was at the installation of the mujahedeen government in April 1992. She writes: “I thought at the time: ‘Now here is the biggest collection of mass murderers you’ll ever get in one place.’ When I look around Kabul today, I see many of those same faces.”

Rasul Sayyaf, Ahmed Shah Massoud and others like them built their power bases in criminal fiefdoms using U.S. money (sometimes funneled through Pakistan). It was these men who built the jihadi training camps and invited global jihadists -- al-Qaeda among them -- to Afghanistan. Ms. Gannon reminds us that when these men fought as our surrogates, we called them freedom fighters. Later when the communists were defeated and we couldn’t countenance their tactics, we called them warlords. We welcomed their defeat by the devout Taliban. After 9/11 we welcomed them back as allies only because they were not Taliban.

It was the brutal rule of warlords that first made the Taliban popular among Afghanis. With warlords now back in power -- again with U.S. support -- Afghanistan is reverting to its pre-Taliban chaos. Ms. Gannon says that while Kabul and a few urban centers with civil institutions display a democratic veneer, the countryside is again in the hands of bandits. And once again the Taliban is rising.

Most revelatory is Chapter 8, “The Hidden Face of Pakistan’s Military.” Ms. Gannon traces the 50-year history of the military in Pakistan, how it used fundamentalist Islam and jihad to build a power base at home and as a defense against archenemy India. Two Pakistani military autocrats used global politics to play U.S. policymakers for their own advantage. In the 1980s, Gen. Zia-ul Haq started Pakistan down the nuclear path, which put him at odds with the whole world. He exploited Pakistani military and intelligence ties to the anticommunist mujahedeen in Afghanistan so that the United States would end economic sanctions against his country and ease Pakistan back into the world community. Similarly, Gen. Pervez Musharraf -- all but a pariah after he seized power from a democratically elected government in 1999 -- became the United States’ best friend when he offered up the same military and intelligence assets in the fallout of 9/11.

When the United States ordered Gen. Musharraf to force Omar, the Taliban leader, to give up bin Laden, Gen. Musharraf sent Pakistani intelligence chief Gen. Mahmood Ahmed to deliver the message. Ms. Gannon writes: “A hawk with pan-Islamic visions, [Ahmed] had been a staunch supporter of jihadis from Pakistan and elsewhere.” Ms. Gannon talked with people present at the Omar-Ahmed meeting. They say the Pakistani general urged Omar to resist the United States. Later, her sources say, Gen. Ahmed supplied Omar with information about U.S. plans and moves. These are our allies.

One can see how the U.S. mission in Afghanistan was a model for Iraq: Overwhelming technology and armaments quickly defeated and unseated settled governments, but there were too few troops on the ground to stabilize the situation, and the consequence in both countries has been a descent into chaos.

Ms. Gannon shows how U.S. policy toward Afghanistan has been at best clumsy and myopic and at worst morally indictable.

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is dcoday@ncronline.org.

National Catholic Reporter, February 10, 2006

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