Reviewed By Zubeida Mustafa
THE Taliban are back in the news. After their rout by the Americans in the wake of 9/11, it was widely believed that they would eventually be totally crushed. But that has not happened, the vehemence of the war on terror notwithstanding. Many find this intriguing. To understand the phenomenon of the resurgence of the Taliban one must read Kathy Gannon’s book, I is for Infidel. Hardly a heavy academic book, it can be deceptively light reading like the numerous travel accounts of journalists who visit troubled lands and then write about them.
Unlike these, I is for Infidel has a story to tell. It is the story of the rise of the Taliban, how they became what they were and why they refuse to die. Gannon has a light and racy style that makes the book easy to read. But when the last page has been turned, the reader is compelled to sit back and ponder the significance of the events recalled by the author, mostly in the form of a narration.
She appropriately sums up the situation in Afghanistan in these words, “So much has changed, yet so little has changed”. She recounts how the United States created the Mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union when it invaded Afghanistan. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the US also abandoned the Afghans who were left to the mercy of the warlords who waged a vicious civil war among themselves, ravaging the country in the process. For four years, Najibullah, the communist president and a protege of the Russians, held on in Kabul. His regime fell in 1992. Gulbadin Hekmatyar, who became the prime minister, next, could not enter Kabul until 1996, so strong was the resistance from his rivals.
In the anarchy of the early ’90s, the Taliban rose to power under the leadership of Mullah Omar, who was no more than a simple rustic preacher from a mosque in the Kandahar region. The Taliban captured the imagination of the war-weary Afghans by imposing a semblance of law and order in the country. They removed the checkpoints on the major roads and swept across the country to seize Kabul in September 1996 by resorting to brutalities of the worst kind and taking shelter behind a severe and austere interpretation of Islam.
Meanwhile in 1996, Osama bin Laden who had taken refuge in Sudan was desperately looking for another sanctuary, Khartoum being under pressure from Washington to expel its “guest”. At this time the Afghan leaders — mainly the non-Pashtuns from the Northern Alliance — held a meeting in one of the remote tribal areas of Pakistan where they accused the West of waging a war against Islam. Here it was decided to invite Osama to Afghanistan and attack the United States. The story is pretty well known, though the account of the meeting coming from an insider who was present gives hitherto undisclosed details.
Gannon’s account disputes the traditionally held view about the genesis of the Taliban and their forging of links with Al Qaeda. According to her, this group was not spawned by the ISI but after it had been born, it was co-opted by Pakistan’s intelligence which detected in it its potential of serving as Islamabad’s ally in Afghanistan. With a clever input of cash, political acumen, psychological manipulation and the infiltration of its men into the Taliban ranks, the ISI succeeded in insidiously gaining control of the group and making it a force to be reckoned with. By ensuring the Taliban’s isolation, the ISI made certain the group’s total dependence on Islamabad for its very existence.
Again it was Osama who invited the Taliban to join hands with him and not the other way around as is commonly believed. It was the ISI which forced the foreign fighters on the Taliban who did not have much of a choice given their isolation.
I is for Infidel is an insightful account of betrayals, the switching of sides (vide the records of Faheem, Sayyaf and Rabbani), treachery and lack of conscience which made Afghanistan what it is today — a land characterised by bitter infighting between the tribal chiefs, absence of humanism and compassion in the leadership and a devastated society. The author paints vignettes of incidents that capture vividly the suffering of the people.
Two charges levelled implicitly by Gannon provide the clue to the Afghan mystery. One is that if the UN and the world community had attempted to engage with the Taliban when they emerged on the scene, they would not have been isolated as they were. By giving them the “all or nothing” option, the international community did not allow them to negotiate their way out of the impasse they found themselves in. With only the Al Qaeda and ISI supporting them, the Taliban had to follow their bidding.
The second observation that emerges from the anecdotal account in the book concerns Pakistan’s role in the war on terror. It is an ambiguous one of “playing both sides of the fence; saying one thing but doing another, closing militant training camps in one area and reopening them in another”. After 9/11 Pakistan sent its hawkish pan-Islamic head of ISI to Kandahar. He urged Mullah Omar to resist the US and, thus, ensured its annihilation. The Jamaat-i-Islami has played an active role in sheltering the Taliban and the Al Qaeda men.
The author writes about her meeting in Peshawar with an extremist Taliban leader of the breakaway Jaish-i-Muslimeen believed to have taken three UN workers hostage in 2004. While a massive manhunt was taking place in Afghanistan for the kidnapper, he was roaming free in Pakistan using the ISI’s vehicles.
Another mistake the Americans made was of only using their air force while relying on the troops of the Northern Alliance for ground support. Again no effort was made to engage with the Pakhtoons which only widened the ethnic divide in the country. The Northern Alliance militia used their privileged position to settle old scores and had many people, including children, massacred in vengeance.
All this has led to the resurgence of the Taliban and the renewed fighting we see today is a result of that. The contradictions in Pakistan’s policy make it unlikely that the war on terror will be won in the near future.
This is a book that is informative and instructive. Kathy Gannon has made use of her personal contacts in Afghanistan, intimate knowledge of that country and her journalistic skill to good effect to produce a book that should be widely read. Having reported from Afghanistan for 18 years, where she went in 1986 as a correspondent for the Associated Press, Gannon certainly understands the country and its people with a measure of empathy.
Her focus is on Afghanistan but that does not justify the poorly researched and carelessly written chapter on Pakistan. Many of the inaccuracies are seemingly minor — Jinnah died two years after Pakistan was created, elections were held in 1975, Pakistan initially joined Cento, Benazir Bhutto was elected in 1990 and Nawaz Sharif was from East Punjab — but they detract from the otherwise high standard of Gannon’s writing.
I is for Infidel — From Holy War to Holy Terror: 18 Years Inside Afghanistan
By Kathy Gannon
Public Affairs/Perseus Books Group, 250 West 57th Street,
Suite 1321, New York NY 10107, USA.