Getting Afghanistan Wrong

BY ANN MARLOWE

I Is For Infidel
By Kathy Gannon
PublicAffairs, 224 pages, $25

RICHARD Posner’s recent New York Times Book Review essay on media bias and the blogosphere was published as I finished Kathy Gannon’s book on Afghanistan.

The usually razor-sharp Posner is condescending about blogs. What he calls unfiltered media “get 12 million people to write rather than just stare passively at a screen… They allow people to blow off steam who might otherwise adopt more dangerous forms of self-expression.”

What, like writing books?

Posner ought to know better by now, and a book like “I is for Infidel” is a good reminder of the failings of the established press.

Veteran Associated Press reporter Kathy Gannon, one of those professional journalists Posner privileges, reported from Afghanistan for 18 years without managing to learn either Dari (Farsi) or Pashtu. Farsi is an Indo-European tongue no more grammatically complex than Italian, and I’ve met former Peace Corps volunteers who learned it fluently in two years back when the Peace Corps operated (very successfully) in Afghanistan. But then they liked and respected Afghans rather than seeing them as ideological fodder for attacks on America and American policy.

Gannon, like too many of those who “reported” on the war in Afghanistan for the mainstream media, is firmly in the latter camp. Perhaps she didn’t learn one of the Afghan languages because she just doesn’t like Afghans much, except for the Taliban, who “disarmed the warlords and made even the remotest roads secure.”

Gannon, a Canadian married to a Pakistani, musters all of her sympathy, and abandons all of her credulity, in the presence of anyone claiming to be a victim of an American attack gone astray. Gannon devotes several pages to an account of three equivocal bombing attacks in Taliban territory, and none to the human suffering caused by the Taliban.

A reader ignorant of Afghan history would assume that the U.S. Air Force had killed far more civilians than the Taliban did. “Hazaras who resisted were killed,” she casually remarks of the Taliban conquest of Afghanistan, although numerous writers have documented their horrific massacres of unarmed civilians in Bamiyan.

Gannon dubs Kandahar strongman Gul Agha Sherzai a “crook,” which he might be, but Gannon doesn’t mention that he’s also a pro-Western progressive, as is another one of the Afghans she loves to hate, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, who played a large role in defeating the Taliban. Gannon repeats a few dubious stories about Dostum. For the record, I dined at his table perhaps 10 times in May 2002 without hearing the “cruel” and “fearsome” American ally once raise his voice.

Gannon does go some way to puncturing illusions with her remarks on the mujahedeen commander often idealized by foreigners. She is correct that Ahmed Shah Massood was a radical Islamist who deserves much of the blame for the destruction of Kabul, and was probably spared a war-crimes tribunal by being blown up by a suicide bomber just before 9/11.

Gannon also emphasizes, as many Western reporters don’t, Pakistan’s deep complicity in abetting terrorism in Afghanistan and the way in which former hosts of al Qaeda have been allowed to resume their roles as politicians in Afghanistan today.

Gannon closes her book with a Moroccan acquaintance, a suicide bomber who has been seeking martyrdom since he first came to join the Afghan muhajedeen in 1989. She watches him show off his grenade, then comments that “The West has to take a critical look at itself” as she gives him the last words in her book: “I will fight against the United States and its allies.”

I think I’ll stick with the unfiltered media, Judge Posner.

Ann Marlowe is the author of “How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z.”

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