A fascinating memoir, filled with captivating vignettes — including a front-line encounter with Osama Bin Laden, who threatened to kill Mr. Girardet if he saw him again, and staying in the same guest house as the two suicide bombers who killed moderate resistance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud just before 9/11 — and concluding with a sobering and clear-eyed analysis of the myriad mistakes made by America and her partners in the most recent of Afghanistan’s wars.
Without getting bogged down with dates or battles, Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan by Edward Girardet (@edgirardet) provides an excellent overview of the history of that nation over the past thirty-plus years from the perspective of a reporter who witnessed much of that history being made. I’ve read a few books about Afghanistan, but still learned quite a bit from this book.
Fresh from journalism school and excited by the prospect of becoming a war correspondent, Mr. Girardet leaves Paris for Afghanistan where a “small war is brewing,” arriving just before the Soviet Union invades the country to help prop up the Communist regime in power. Basing himself in nearby Pakistan, the author makes numerous trips “inside” with various factions of the mujahideen fighting the Soviets and the various client government troops.
Mr. Girardet and Afghanistan remained linked for the next thirty-plus years, as the author witnesses the brutality and ultimate failure of the Soviet occupation followed by civil war as various mujahideen groups and political parties fought for control. Rising from this self-inflicted chaos, the Taliban swept through the nation by promising the return of order to a war-weary population. Despite the misgivings of many Afghanis, Osama Bin Laden and other foreign fighters traveled to Afghanistan to take part in the war against the Soviets, and later found the country an ideal base of operations, leading to the military involvement of America after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The cast of characters is lengthy and complex, but the author does an admirable job describing the multitude of players involved, including the different mujadideen groups and commanders, political parties, various nations’ government agencies, humanitarian groups and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The traditions and lives of ordinary Afghanis are also described, as is the rugged beauty of their nation.
A common theme throughout the narrative is the multitude mistakes and missed opportunities of America in its dealings with Afghanistan. We ignored the country before the Soviet invasion and only got involved after out of a vindictive desire for the USSR to suffer its own Vietnam. For much of the time we allowed Pakistan to effectively determine our policy, including deciding which resistance groups received military aid and funding, despite ample evidence of the perfidy of both the Pakistanis and the mujahideen groups we backed at their behest.
Afghanistan has not been truly at peace for more than three decades, but after 9/11 our hunt for Bin Laden and Al Qaeda inaugurated a devastating period of instability too much like that after the Soviet invasion of 1979. All this despite the efforts of innumerable aid groups and NGOs; billions has been spent willy-nilly in the nation, much of it siphoned off through corruption and inefficiency. It is telling that a man as experienced with the nation as the author strongly feels groups wanting to help Afghanistan should spend less, not more; the idea being five dollars wisely spent on coordinated projects that directly benefit the population is more useful than twenty dollars tossed away on a photo-op-worthy vanity project.
In an epilogue which I believe is worth the price of the book all by itself, the author believes there was a different path available:
Western arrogance and ignorance coupled with mixed and often contradictory agendas led from one mistake to another, many completely foreseeable and avoidable. Furthermore, these foreign players increasingly allowed their generals, who saw everything in military terms, to run the show. It would have proven far more effective to implement longer-term policies enabling capable diplomats and aid specialists to prioritize recovery-oriented solutions, which is what the country needed. The West could have saved itself— and ordinary Afghans— a new war. Those who have argued that there was no other choice failed to understand Afghanistan.
— Girardet, Edward (2011-08-01). Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan (p. 382). Chelsea Green Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Frankly, I admire the author’s passion and certainly can’t argue with his reasoning; the proof is in the news reports coming from Afghanistan. After reading Killing the Cranes I have no doubt that with a modicum of forethought the world would see a very different Afghanistan today. But, as my mother always said, hindsight’s twenty-twenty; the truth is I don’t think it realistic to have expected anything else.
In the immediate post-9/11 world, “dead or alive” and “you’re either with us or against us” summed up US policy and — let’s be honest — the population was hungry for revenge. We wanted to hunt down Bin Laden and his ilk, wherever they were. Many of them happened to be in Afghanistan, so that’s where we went. The idea that we wanted to restore democracy to that war-torn nation makes it sound better for the history books.
Were that it wasn’t so. America’s involvement in Afghanistan over the past three decades serves as a snapshot reminder that the history of US foreign policy is too often one of arrogance, ignorance, short-sightedness and the abandonment of principles to self-interest. Viewed in that light, Killing the Cranes is a cautionary tale that should be mandatory reading for everyone in or aspiring to positions where foreign policy is made or implemented. For everyone else, the book provides an excellent overview of Afghanistan and its people, and what they’ve gone through since 1979.