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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

I is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror in Afghanistan

Reviewed: April 20, 2010
By: Kathy Gannon
Publisher: Public Affairs in Papers
186 pages, $15.50

If Kathy Gannon is correct in her reporting of events, and she’d had nearly 20 years to get her facts straight by the time this book came out in 2005, the mess in which we are currently wallowing in Afghanistan is largely due to actions taken and alliances forged by Western governments from late 1980s to the present day.

While Gannon was born in Timmins and spent the first part of her journalism career at various Canadian newspapers, her long term goal was to become a foreign correspondent and it was Afghanistan she chose to move to in 1986. She lives today in Pakistan, perhaps because it is safer there though, given the things she has to say about the government of that country, one might wonder if it is.

Gannon arrived on the scene some two years before the Soviet withdrawal from the country and the beginning of the civil war (1989-92) staged by the competing factions of warlords, many of whom now hold positions in the Western sanctioned government. Things were so bad that the unifying influence of the Taliban was welcomed when they first took over the country in 1992.

Gannon provides a history of the Taliban which is sharply different from the standard view. They set out to restore order, she says, and if they had not fallen under the sway of outsiders, largely Islamist Arabs and members of the Pakistani military, they might not have become the fanatics the are known as today.

The first four chapters of the book trace the growth of this movement and show how what she calls the Moderate Taliban were eventually driven from the group by more extreme views, and how Mullah Omar was transformed from a simple man wanting peace in the countryside to an ideologue and a tyrant.

Over time the Taliban became dominated by the graduates of the Islamic schools, the Pakistani madrasahs, which teach an extreme form of Islam and by followers of the Wahhabi sect, which is dominant in Saudi Arabia. This transformation was accelerated by the indifference with which the country was treated by the West after the Soviets were driven out.

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the US and Nato forces have generally aligned themselves with members of what used to be the Northern Alliance, and Gannon says these warlords have systematically used the foreign forces to do their dirty work for them, settling old scores and naming as Taliban and Al-Qa'ida supporters those they wish to have destroyed. They are playing their own game, and it has to do with nothing more than consolidating their own individual power centers. The welfare and modernization of the nation is not their goal.

“Afghanistan’s tragedy is that to the world’s powers, it has never really mattered - or has not mattered for long. It has never been valued for itself.

“One of the greatest mistakes the United States made in both Afghanistan and Pakistan was to believe that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ That philosophy has had consequences that might be thought hilarious. were they not so catastrophic.”

Kathy Gannon was the Associated Press correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan from 1986-2005; she is currently the Iran bureau chief designate. She was the 2002 recipient of the International Women's Media Foundation Courage in Journalism award and the recipient of the Edward R. Murrow fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations during 2003-2004. Her work has been published in Foreign Affairs and the New Yorker.

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