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BOOK REVIEW: 'Killing the Cranes': Straight-Talk Reporting from Veteran Independent Journalist About Our 'Endless' War in Afghanistan
Tuesday, September 6, 2011 - 16:55 Reviewed by David M. KinchenI'm a disappointed idealist. I think of myself as a skeptic, a realist. I think the cynics are the people who left the gas tank on the Ford Pinto, companies that kill people and just cross them out because they can't afford to retool. That's a cynical position. But the saying goes, if you scratch a cynic, you find a disappointed idealist, and that's what's going on with me. Down deep and underneath, the flame still flickers. I wish for an idealist, utopic world but the realist in me says it's never gonna happen because of the way they've structured power and money and control and the hierarchies they've established. -- George Carlin (1937-2008) in a 2004 Salon interview
Afghanistan has become one great pretend game. -- Edward Girardet (Page 352)
* * *
As I was preparing to review Edward Girardet's "Killing the Cranes: A Reporter's Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan" (Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT, illustrations, timeline, index, 416 pages, $27.95), I stumbled on a news story by Greg Jaffe in The Washington Post with the provocative headline:
A decade after the 9/11 attacks, Americans live in an era of endless war
Today, radical religious ideologies, new technologies and cheap, powerful weapons have catapulted the world into “a period of persistent conflict,” according to the Pentagon’s last major assessment of global security. “No one should harbor the illusion that the developed world can win this conflict in the near future,” the document concludes.
By this logic, America’s wars are unending and any talk of peace is quixotic or naive. The new view of war and peace has brought about far-reaching changes in agencies such as the CIA, which is increasingly shifting its focus from gathering intelligence to targeting and killing terrorists. Within the military the shift has reshaped Army bases, spurred the creation of new commands and changed what it means to be a warrior.
On the home front, the new thinking has altered long-held views about the effectiveness of military power and the likelihood that peace will ever prevail.In the decades after Vietnam, the U.S. military was almost entirely focused on training for a big, unthinkable war with the Soviet Union. There were small conflicts, s
uch as Grenada,Panama and the Persian Gulf War, but the United States was largely at peace.
After the Soviet collapse and America’s swift Gulf War victory, the military bet that it would be able to use big weapons and vastly better technology to bludgeon enemies into a speedy surrender. It envisioned a future of quick, decisive and overwhelming victories. A decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has crushed the “smug certainties” of that earlier era, said Eliot Cohen, a military historian who served in the George W. Bush administration.
* * * I like to think of myself as a "disappointed idealist" in the Carlin mold. I think Girardet is one, too. He's been covering the country since just before the Soviet invasion in 1979 and is what I would call a "street reporter" -- one who breaks out of the herd at press conferences and does his own legwork. Judging by the descriptions of his travels throughout the country, as well as Pakistan, he's probably worn out dozens of pairs of Timberland boots! He's also known as the "man who met Osama Bin Laden" when Bin Laden was one of many "foreigners" who came to help the Afghans fight the Soviets and ended up incurring first the irritation and finally the wrath of the Afghan populace. More than a few Arabs and other "foreigners" were killed by Afghans, Girardet writes.
If you think our annual payments of around $3 billion apiece to Israel and Egypt are wrong -- as many people do -- how about the $2.8 billion a WEEK that Girardet says the United States alone was spending, as of early 2011, in Afghanistan (Page 353).
"According to NATO, the Afghan security forces will cost an estimated $6 billion annually to run (about half the country's current GDP and more than the United States gives to Israel and Egypt), and would almost certainly have to continue to rely on NATO aircraft and other support," he adds. This certainly reinforces Jaffe's "persistent conflict" and "endless" war position.
Girardet arrived in Afghanistan as a young foreign correspondent just three months before the Soviet invasion in 1979. Over the next decades, he trekked hundreds of miles across rugged mountains and deserts on clandestine journeys following Afghan guerrillas in battle as they smuggled French doctors into the country, and as they combated each other as well as invaders. He witnessed the world’s greatest refugee exodus, the bitter Battle for Kabul in the early 1990s, the rise of the Taliban, and, finally, the US-led Western military and recovery effort that began in 2001.
Girardet was and is a tireless reporter who personally interviewed and had tea -- in the traditional Afghan manner -- with everybody who counted in the war-torn country. In a book that reads like a thriller, he writes of meeting Ahmed Shah Massoud, the famed “Lion of Panjshir” assassinated by al Qaeda two days before 9/11; Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Islamic extremist massively supported by the Americans during the 1980s only to become one of today’s most ruthless anti-Western insurgents, and of course, Osama bin Laden.
Girardet writes that he tried to avoid the official press conferences held by American and NATO — the Afghan equivalent of the "Five O'Clock Follies" of the Vietnam War era. His reporting shows a tribal country devastated by the harshest form of fundamentalist Islam that introduced sharia law to a country that previously had been much more tolerant. Women suffered the most as the Taliban took power, he writes -- even the female doctors of NGOs like Doctors Without Borders (MSF in its French acronym).
What's the solution to the Afghanistan conundrum: What is to be done? in the immortal words of Lenin (in his 1902 political pamphlet of the same name where Lenin discussed the future of what became the Bolshevik revolution.)
"Above all...the international community needs to eliminate the use of mercenaries and private armies," Girardet writes (Page 385). "Donors should avoid giving contracts to organizations not willing to work without armed security."
Girardet also believes that establishing a strong central government may not be the best policy in Afghanistan: "Most Afghans seem to want a united country, but not with a powerful center than will suppress local and regional identities," he writes. He quotes Lee Kassenberg of CARE International: "In a country as diverse as Afghanistan, no matter what you do, the tribe -- or your community -- comes first."
If you read only one book on Afghanistan, "Killing the Cranes" should be the one. I only hope the leaders of our country, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department, as well as President Obama, have read and digested the book and will follow the sensible advice of Girardet.
About the Author
Edward Girardet is a journalist, writer and producer who has reported widely from humanitarian and conflict zones in Africa, Asia and elsewhere since the late 1970s. As a foreign correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, and The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour based in Paris, he first began covering Afghanistan several months prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979. He has worked on numerous television current affairs and documentary segments on subjects ranging from the war in Angola to lost tribes in Western New Guinea and environmental issues in Africa for major European and North American broadcasters. Girardet is afounding director of the Institute for Media and Global Governance in Geneva, Switzerland. He is also editor of Crosslines Essential Media Ltd (UK).Girardet has written widely for major publications such as National Geographic Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, International Herald Tribune, Financial Times and other media on humanitarian, media and conflict issues. He has also written and edited several books, notably Afghanistan - The Soviet War (1985), Somalia, Rwanda and Beyond (1996), Populations in Danger (1996), and The CROSSLINES Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan (1998, 2004 and 2006). Girardet lives with his family in Cessy, France near the Swiss border with Geneva.
Publisher's website: www.chelseagreen.com