When I was wondering what to call my new book on the broader Middle East, I went to Homer’s bookshop in Istanbul to check out the many shelves full of competition. I soon decided I didn’t want my title to be heavy with dry theorification about Islam, democracy, politics, or terrorism. It also seemed a bit soft to join the romantic set, beckoning readers with images of Persian nights, caravans, deserts, marshes and mountains. But I didn’t want to go to the other extreme with gory high drama. In just recent years, the sanguinary sub-class alone has included dozens of titles like Holy Blood; the Blood of Lambs; the Blood of the Moon; Blood, Sweat and Steel; Blood and Oil in the Orient; and my favorite, The Land of Blood and Honey.
Middle East book titles have to struggle for attention: about 300 come out every year in the U.S. alone. I wanted something that conjured up multiple dimensions, like Stephen Glain’s Dreaming of Damascus (actually about the economics of the front-line Arab states), or Jonathan Randal’s After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? (about the Kurds). When I gave up on my first title idea — Mr. Q., I Love You — and settled on Dining with al-Qaeda, I was pleased that I’d featured the Q-word, but in an unexpected way that might draw in a reader seeking the back story. What better way to symbolize the human side of things than breaking bread together? Little did I realize that there’s nothing new under the sun, and that there were already volumes called Dining with Terrorists, The Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Tea with Hezbollah. They have now been joined by Tea with the Taliban: war reporting for beginners.
Actually it’s Thee met de Taliban, since it’s written in Dutch (De Geus, 2010) by Deedee Derksen. It’s fresh and topical, the fruit of Derksen’s past four years living and working in Afghanistan, mostly reporting for the Dutch left-leaning newspaper De Volkskrant. I was particularly interested to see that in some ways she shared my own confusion about the country, especially about the Taliban and women.
Derksen meets women who tell her that life was actually o.k. under the Taliban, and that things had gone downhill since they were driven from power. The bigger problem in women’s lives was violence and chaos. Schools for girls were all very well, but rights were not much use without honest courts to enforce them. As Derksen says: “I would hear from rural women that there was no change in their lives before or after the Taliban” and that, compared to deeper problems like unemployment and power cuts, “Western concerns with cultural matters just poured oil on the flames.”
Derksen’s mission to Afghanistan took flight when her new posting was announced at a public event, at which her Volkskrant editor was challenged about the lack of coverage of the ‘other side’ by Joris Luyendijk, an ex-journalist Dutch commentator known for his iconoclasm about Dutch coverage of Middle East news in his book Het Zijn Net Mensen, recently published in English as Hello Everybody. But she soon finds herself wrapped up in the expatriate whirl of Kabul.
“The crazy thing is that as a war correspondent in Afghanistan it’s not at all easy to get to the war,” she says, despite the fact, as she details, the Pentagon spends an annual $4.7 billion on public relations and employs 27,000 people to supply upbeat pictures and stories for the press corps. One of the Pentagons front-line media handlers digs up Derksen’s file in their computer, along with her picture and an evaluation of her reports. If a reporter is judged to be “negative”, this handler says, the Pentagon will cut him or her off.
She’s judged to be neutral and gets to see a terrifying part of the American side of the war in a distant mountain valley: “that’s it, people: bombs, grenades, and fear so pure that you begin believing in God on the spot”. But she’s frustrated that she can’t hear at first hand what Afghan villages think of what is being done in their name, and worries that maybe she’s giving a one-dimensional, Hollywood rewrite of what people already think the war is. She gets hooked on the idea of getting to the bottom of it all, and of not being like the Westerners in their “luxury jail” in Kabul, who speak about what Afghans think without ever speaking to Afghans. “The more often I went [to Kabul], the more often I wanted to go. It was a sort of gold rush fever.”
Panning for this gold was tough. Travel proved dangerous and the risk of kidnapping great. Afghan militants targeted Westerners, be they journalists, aid workers or diplomats. Reporting was a juggling act of managing fixers, telephone calls to Taliban commanders, swapping information with local journalists, opportunistic interviews in Kabul with provincial visitors, and occasional sorties into the countryside. Western soldiers appear as almost accidental actors. One Dutch lieutenant studied to be a hotelier and tells Derksen “and then I went and did this.” An American “Major B”, who only “lives in the world of Major B”, gives her bibles to study admits that he is busy trying to proselytize the Afghan population – and then advises her to read Tolkien, “an author at home in the Christian tradition”. She attends a painstakingly arranged town-hall meeting between the American troops and Afghans, at which the Americans rush away before listening to anybody. And, of course, editors all want it summed up in 700 words, with villain and victim clearly identified.
She admits that sometimes, the more she hears about the real Afghanistan war, the less she understands. Reporting one story, “every Mohammad says the other Mohammad is a murderer, which the said Mohammad admits, while pointing the finger straight back. At Mohammad.” There are tales of head-hacking cruelty by the Taliban, for sure, but she attacks the myth of any ideological divide between Taliban and non-Taliban, says non-Pashtuns do not necessarily rule out cooperating with the group and that the Karzai government is in a semi-permanent negotiation with them about its own survival. Above all, she notes that no Afghan faction is necessarily more ‘Islamic’ than another, all having shared in an upsurge in religious extremism and violence during the past decades of war.
Among ordinary Afghans, she finds farmers have little incentive to cultivate more than poppies for opium, since there are no refrigerated stores or roads to transport vegetables or other normal crops. During an attempt to track down the financing of an aid project, she finds that everyone believes a different sum of money is involved. Afghans feel Koran schools are preferable to no schools at all; yet ignorance means that young, poor, illiterate Afghans are susceptible to anything, from acting as suicide bombers to believing that American soldiers’ sunglasses mean they can see straight through you. She reaches one Afghan village to find its conservatism a façade, with everything for sale in secret, from whisky to opium to prostitutes, be they young or old, women or men. “All very hypocritical,” the phlegmatic local Afghan governor tells her.
She shows again and again how the chief ingredient of the Afghanistan war is village feuds, sometimes magnified by Western arms and support into province-wide conflicts that are mistakenly interpreted as being struggles about the fate of the Kabul regime. She finds that storied gunfights between American troops and the “Taliban” can also be described more simply as clashes between the Americans and “armed men who hate the Americans”, fueled in part by a high rate of civilian Afghan casualties rarely admitted to by the Pentagon press machine. Between Afghans, the role of victim and killer has switched so often that everyone is performing in both roles, all waiting for their chance of a sign of weakness to “hold the other’s head under the water.”
Derksen’s strongest criticism is of the Western governments, who ignored Afghanistan for too long and still give it far less support for reconstruction than other post-conflict situations. (In East Timor, she says there was one international peacekeeper for every 65 people; the figure is one for every 5,380 in Afghanistan). The US is blamed for storming in like cowboys in 2001, shooting for al-Qaeda and hiring anyone who would help, however corrupt. “The US and other NATO countries pretend that there is a properly functioning government, but there isn’t”, she quotes a disillusioned American aid worker as saying. “It’s a band of criminals who are raping the country. We pretend that we’re not responsible, but we are.”
Looking at the four-year Dutch misadventure trying and failing to bring peace and development to the province of Uruzgan, she asks whether The Hague had ever thought through what it meant to take their mission into a place where the US was arming and supporting a regional faction that was clearly oppressing many local people – and on whose support the Dutch also relied for their lifeline of convoy-borne supplies. Or was The Hague in fact fully aware of the situation, sending in its troops simply to be a good U.S. ally, and never mind about the fate of the Afghans? The whole disaster, she reckons, was a bad piece of theater that could only be called “War For the Wrong People Against the Wrong People.”
I read much of Tea with the Taliban on a transatlantic flight, and on arrival in the U.S. I did some occasional testing of its findings. Indeed, judging by my straw poll of experiences and conversations over a week, America still seemed to be both aware of and disconnected from the Afghan reality. Shawn, my driver from the airport to a lecture at Amherst College in Massachusetts, knew a thing or two. His best friend was serving on the Afghan side of the Pakistan border, and had just been back home to tell of his experiences. The poor friend was apparently strung out as taut as the trip-wire of an IED, drinking heavily as he told of his ‘seven confirmed kills’, of being administered military drugs to stay awake on night duties, and, in a telling irony, of being unable to see as much from his base watchtower with state of the art night-sight equipment as his Afghan army companion could see with his bare eyes. On top of that, as Derksen often points out, he was utterly sealed off from the Afghan civilian population.
On the first morning of my visit, the hotel’s complimentary copy of USA Today had just one page of foreign news. Half of it was a story called “Afghan villagers stronger against Taliban” (here). The US general in charge of a province, perhaps in charge of Shawn’s friend, was claiming that a new strategy aimed at making Afghan villages defend themselves was working. This was an interesting claim, given that Derksen shows in her book that it is precisely in the villages that the Afghan war starts and Western influence ends. And, illustrating another of Derksen’s complaints, there wasn’t a single Afghan voice in the piece, let alone a quote from the Taliban, or any sign that the reporter had been able to go to an Afghan village to check out if indeed its inhabitants felt stronger. Instead the report was just assertions by the military, accompanied by a few vague ‘to be sure’ paragraphs, which, if taken seriously, would actually contradict the military claims, and, indeed, the whole point of writing the story. As International Crisis Group says in its new report on Afghanistan: “An alluring narrative of a successful counter-insurgency campaign has begun to take shape, but the storyline does not match facts on the ground.” Or, as a recent call by some of the best writers on and aid workers in Afghanistan put it, “the military campaign is suppressing, locally and temporarily, the symptoms of the disease, but fails to offer a cure.” The only verified new fact in that USA Today report appeared to be the obituary notice naming two more young American soldiers in their early 20s killed by an IED in Kandahar.
(The coverage is not all like this, of course. Much more to the point was another piece done around the same time for National Public Radio’s intrepid Quil Lawrence (here). Jumping from helicopters perilously perched on cliff-edges, Quil laconically reveals the mindlessness of the war and how little communication there is even within the various U.S. groups trying to get a grip on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border – let alone between the Americans and the Afghans themselves.)
My other conversations in America did not encourage me to believe that much was about to change. Amherst, I was told by the generous professorial hosts of my visit for an evening lecture about Turkey’s new strategic choices, is one of the top liberal arts colleges in the United States, with 8000 candidates for 400 places every year. Yet not a single student showed up for a brown-bag lunch organized to discuss journalism and the Middle East. In Washington DC, a highly placed former US official informed me that there was no chance of the US leaving Afghanistan in 2014, as is being publicly suggested. Yet the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not even feature in the recent mid-term election campaign.
If anger about these expensive and damaging conflicts was being expressed anywhere, it was in worsening sentiment blaming all Muslims for the trouble. The Moroccan immigrant who drove me away from Amherst was sanguine about his personal safety, but said that the real enemy was ignorance, the problem that writers like Derksen and I are trying to combat with books about Middle Eastern realities on the ground. “I came to the U.S. to be a guide to the Moroccan pavilion at Disney world, and that’s the kind of place where you really find out how little people know about what goes on outside America,” he said. “One person looked at me and asked if in Morocco we lived in the trees.”