The Longest War – 20 years of the "War on Terror"Afghanistan: Emran Feroz' chronology of a disaster
Emran Feroz' book is a reckoning: angry, indignant and factual. In this frequently less than sober non-fiction book, the author deliberately includes his personal family history and his experiences of trips to Afghanistan. This blend of objective facts and subjective biographical experience opens up the corridor of his treatise, which reads briskly, is informative, but is also in places pointedly provocative, stimulating both reflection and contradiction.
In five chapters on 200 pages, the author paints a picture that he at various points repeatedly describes as "dystopian" and that leaves little room for optimism about the future. The intra-Afghan rifts appear to run too deep, with too many criminal, ideologically blinded and religiously fanatical actors trying to assert their interests in a great and brutal game of power. From his point of view, the country's population is bearing the brunt of the suffering.
Here, the readership is primarily given the perspective of the rural Pashtun population from the east and south, who live at the centre of the "War on Terror" and have suffered particularly from bombardments and raids that often resulted in arbitrary arrests and torture. These are also the areas where the Taliban enjoy the most support, recruiting much of their militia from amongst the locals. The author's attachment to the people of this area and his sympathies for the rural population are obvious and he often points out the stark contrast between urban and rural areas.
Feroz kicks off with a historical outline of the conflict events of recent decades and the resulting fragmented Afghan society, shaped by war. He addresses the period of the monarchy, the republic, the invasion of the Soviet Union and the subsequent war between the Mujahideen factions and the Kabul government and the Red Army troops supporting them.
He finds strong words of condemnation for the Soviet invasion and the communist government of Afghanistan, in particular, and clearly identifies the crimes committed against the civilian population between 1979 and 1989. For their stance on the role of the Soviet Union and the communist government, he accuses left-wing analysts of "racism, orientalism and anti-Muslim resentment" (p. 78). At this point, one of Feroz' key concerns becomes clear: he sees the brutal actions of the Red Army and its allies in Kabul as a major factor in the rise of the Islamists.
Taliban war crimes: briefly dealt with
Besides explicitly criticising Afghanistan's communist actors, Feroz also takes a stand against the war criminals of the Mujahideen years, many of whom returned to power after the fall of the Taliban and used it to expand their influence and enrich themselves. The author gives examples of the atrocities committed. In particular, Feroz describes the massacre of Taliban fighters by troops of the notorious General Abdulrashid Dostum in December 2001 vividly and in detail (pp. 41-42).
By contrast, however, only fleeting reference – amounting to a single sentence – is made to the 1998 massacre committed by the Taliban in Mazar-e Sharif against the city' s Hazara population (p. 44). And although Feroz does occasionally point out that the Taliban have also committed crimes, specific acts are not named and eyewitnesses are not mentioned, unlike the war crimes committed by other parties to the civil war or by Western states.
An appropriate emphasis, showing that the author has grappled with the atrocities of the Taliban, would be warranted here. The rise of the Taliban militia – using the founding legend of the alleged kidnapping of two girls and their liberation by Mullah Omar and his disciples – is only dealt with very briefly (p. 40).
The Taliban movement is described as one "symptom" of a "larger existing problem", but no background information about the movement is included, nor is there a description of the relationship between the Taliban and the U.S. government at the time, which was dealt with in detail by the Pakistani journalist Ahmad Rashid. A supplementary chapter on the genesis and rise of the Taliban and their network would certainly be desirable and appropriate – possibly in a subsequent edition.
Anger over the "War on Terror" and its crimes
The book unfolds its strength particularly in the third and fourth chapters, in which the outrageous and often unpunished human rights violations over the course of the "War on Terror" are vividly described. The author's anger at these crimes becomes palpable, bringing a certain authenticity to the written word and drawing the reader into the emotionality of the victims and their suffering.
It is an achievement that is difficult to overstate. Nevertheless, due to the author's emotional closeness to his subject, formulations are sometimes chosen or conclusions drawn that are certainly debatable.
Take, for example, Feroz' assertion, with reference to the air strike on stranded tankers ordered by German colonel Georg Klein, which is believed to have killed up to 100 civilians, that when it comes to "war crimes" the "judiciary acts in the interests of politics" (p. 89).
Elsewhere, he writes that the United Nations provided "flimsy justification" for the "unlawful" intervention in Afghanistan (p. 50).
A more judicious turn of phrase (e.g. "controversial under international law") and, above all, references backed up by sources would certainly have been more conducive to the author's intention of underpinning his own position. On the other hand, his provocative arguments do encourage contradiction and debate.
Gloomy and accusatory
The author's personal experience and his encounters with the victims of the "War on Terror" war may explain the aforementioned and other exaggerations. Bearing in mind that these people have little or no lobby in Europe or the USA, it is all the more understandable when Feroz resorts to rhetorical stylistic devices that resonate with indignation over the victims' suffering.
It should be noted, however, that the victims of the crimes perpetrated by Taliban militias would have been equally deserving of appropriate mention in the book. Yet only occasional reference is made to the Taliban's crimes before and after 2001 and their civilian victims (cf. p. 198).
Feroz's book is bleak and accusatory. He complains that "in the West" the image of Afghanistan and its diversity is insufficiently differentiated, and that Orientalist and racist stereotypes shape the image of Afghans in the West. The author has every right to hold this view, but it would have been even more convincing, had he himself not repeatedly described the various NATO member states as a monolithic block of the "West" ("Western journalists", "Western war reporting", "kleptocracy installed by the West", "the Western reappraisal of the Afghanistan war", etc.). More differentiation in this instance would also have served the book well.
Equally questionable is the portrayal of the women's and human rights activist Fawzia Koofi as a corrupt member of a criminal family deeply involved in the drug trade. Feroz refers to an article by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). In 2021, Koofi was awarded the Anna Politkovskaya Prize, having survived an assassination attempt a year earlier.
In Afghanistan's male-dominated political scene, women like Koofi have had to fight hard for their position, being repeatedly called upon to stand their ground. In the years after 2001, Koofi was considered one of the most important female political voices in the country. It is therefore surprising that she, of all people, is singled out as an example of corruption and criminality – as is the vehemence with which Feroz defends the as-yet-unproven accusations.
Does a non-fiction book always have to be factual or neutral? Certainly not. Placing emphasis, introducing emotionality and sharpening formulations are stylistic devices of artistic freedom. But there needs to be a degree of transparency for the reader to be able to follow the author's assessment or to classify the people mentioned in the book. This is often, but unfortunately not always, the case.
When dealing with Abdel Kadir Mohmand (pp. 190-193), for instance, who is described in detail, there is no indication that he is now an avowed Taliban supporter. Equally, in the case of Feroz's uncle Waheed Mohzda, it would have been appropriate to classify his long-standing connection to Islamist persons and groups and, for example, to explain to the reader his rather close connection to the preacher and theorist of modern jihad, Abdullah Azzam.
Overall, despite the aforementioned points of criticism, Feroz's book is largely a successful and thoroughly recommendable account of the tragedy of Afghanistan and the past 20 years of the "War on Terror". It reminds us that bringing peace to a war-torn country can rarely, if ever, be achieved through further conflict and violent action, which only serves to brutalise the people even more. In this respect, the book is a timely and welcome contribution to the debate; its substantive usefulness outweighs the points of criticism already mentioned.
© Qantara.de 2021
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