In Edward Girardet's fine new book, Killing the Cranes (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011), there is this damning sentence: "Simply put, it was the U.S. backing for the Islamic extremists in the 1980s that helped produce the current military quagmire in Afghanistan."
I first met Ed Girardet in 1987, in Peshawar, Pakistan, the frontier town that served as the staging area for jihad and the nerve center for journalists covering the Afghan-Soviet conflict. By then Ed had been reporting on Afghanistan for almost a decade, mostly for the Christian Science Monitor, since just days after Soviet tanks rolled into Kabul in late December, 1979. The Monitor in those days was highly respected for its coverage of world news, and Ed became their most highly regarded foreign correspondent. By 1987 Ed had been everywhere and interviewed everyone of importance in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and understood better than perhaps any journalist the socio-political dynamics, the cultures and character, the treacheries and shifting alliances, and the tactics and strategies of the players in this latest manifestation of the Great Game. Ed's intrepid reporting led him into adventures that rivaled those of the legendary 19th century explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton, and were no less illuminating of their time and place. The adventures include two dangerous encounters with Osama bin Laden, replete with personal death threats ("If I see you again I will kill you," said bin Laden) and a tense muzzle-to-muzzle standoff between bin Laden's Arab jihadis and Ed's Afghan cohort.
In early September of 2001, Ed and his friend and translator Mohammed Shuaib arrived in the northern Afghanistan mountain town of Khoja, hoping for an interview with the charismatic commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the United Front forces that had held at bay the Soviets, the vicious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the Taliban in the seemingly endless struggle for control of Afghanistan. There were other foreign journalists in Khoja hoping to see Massoud, and they all shared a guest house in the dusty little town, waiting for the weather to settle so that Massoud's helicopter could fly in. Among the group were two young Arabs who vaguely claimed to be working for a Middle East news service and who mostly kept to themselves, in contrast to the collegiality of the other reporters. After waiting for several days, with the dust storms showing no sign of abating, Ed reluctantly left Khoja on September 7 and headed back to France, where his wife, Lori, had threatened dire consequences if Ed didn't return in time for her birthday. On September 10, in Islamabad, as he waited for a taxi to take him to the airport for a flight to London, he heard via the BBC that the two mysterious Arab "journalists" had exploded a bomb hidden in their video camera, gravely wounding Massoud, who had finally arrived in Khoja and was sitting for an interview. The Arabs had been al Qaeda suicide bombers. A day later, at home in France, Lori awakened Ed with the news of planes flying into the World Trade Center towers.
In my conversations with President Hamid Karzai I asked him more than once if he thought the assassination of Massoud was linked to the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., and he quickly brushed off the idea. But Ed Girardet pulls apart the threads that form the tangled web of alliances among al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Pakistan's powerful ISI, the Interservices Intelligence Agency, and follows their twists and turns to the deadly spiders at the web's heart. It seems certain the events were connected, and looking back on my conversations with Karzai I wonder if there was some secret knowledge hidden behind those quick denials.
As thrilling as Ed's journalistic exploits are for the reader, they illustrate a sad history of failures in Afghanistan, which has served as a sort of third rail of West Asian geopolitics - grasp it and you get badly burned. Ed Girardet's three decades of reporting have afforded him, and his readers, the big-picture view of Afghanistan that exposes the ignorance and blundering that led to today's mess. In the 1980s, when the American objective was to turn Afghanistan into "the U.S.S.R.'s Vietnam," Presidents Reagan and Bush One, Ed writes, ignored "repeated warnings that support for Islamic extremists would only create monsters." And the CIA, guided in no small measure by Pakistan's treacherous ISI, supported the most virulently anti-Western resistance group, led by the murderous Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who continues to bedevil Afghanistan as an ally of the Taliban and al Qaeda. Furthermore, Ed cites former diplomats and intelligence agents who paint a picture of the CIA's "utter incompetence" in dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Finally, the Bush Two administration, after invading Afghanistan to rout bin Laden and the Taliban, proceeded to saddle the country with a large centralized government and an army of occupation, both totally antithetical to the Afghans and at enormous cost to the U.S. in blood and treasure.
The name of the book - Killing the Cranes -- is poignant. On a cool March night in 2004, Ed had dinner with Masood Khalili at his western Kabul home, which had been built by his father, a noted Afghan poet. Khalili had been at the side of Ahmed Shah Massoud on September 9, 2001 when the al Qaeda suicide bombers assassinated Massoud; Khalili had been severely injured and still carries fragments of shrapnel from the blast. After dinner, Khalili and Ed were walking in the garden under a starlit sky. Khalili recalled how years ago in the early spring he would stand in that same garden at night and hear the sounds of migrating Siberian cranes as they flew overhead. Now there was only silence. Khalili sadly shook his head and asked, "Have we even killed all the cranes?"
Afghanistan has a way of seizing Westerners by the heart in spite of all, and Ed Girardet is not immune to its mystique; he still hopes for an Afghanistan where his many Afghan friends can one day live in peace. His book is a great journalist's contribution to that vision, offering a thorough understanding of past failure as a guide to future success.