Gannon was an AP correspondent in Afghanistan from 1986-2005. I knew this would be a tough book when I saw the "Cast of Characters:" Rashid Dostum, Mohammed Farim, Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, etc. I seem to need to pronounce words to remember them and I'm struggling with some of these.
But the story is compelling. In 1986 Gannon found a member of the radical mujahedeen group, Hezb-e-Islami, to help her get into Afghanistan from Pakistan. This involved walking for several days (well, nights really) through the mountains. She was carefully walking in the footsteps of the mujahed ahead of her, terrified, when the mujahed next to her was killed by the explosion of a mine.
The account of the confusion and violence following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union is vivid. The description of the men who struggled for power and the support they got from the U.S. through the nineties doesn't sound a bit like what I was hearing and reading in the news. That would be because I wasn't seeing much at all about Afghanistan in the news. As Gannon writes,
After the Soviet Union withdrew, the world's interest in Afghanistan flagged. When the Najibullah government didn't collapse, the international community did not have the wherewithal to deal with Afghanistan, plot its future, find sustainable leaders. World events quickly overshadowed Afghanistan. By the end of 1989, just months after the Soviet withdrawal, the Berlin Wall came crashing down, Reagan declared communism defeated, and the Soviet Union began to disintegrate. Afghanistan was yesterday's war. The wider world had done the most dangerous of things. It had stuffed this tiny country with massive amounts of weapons, including the precious Stingers, had turned over the countryside to the volatile discordant mix of mujahedeen factions, and then had walked away.It's hard to get a grip on this incredibly foreign story. I'm looking for good guys and bad guys. But they're all bad guys.
But knowing the history of the early 1990s is essential because so many of the survivors of that era have recently been returned to power. Some have even been transformed into heroes. But among the Afghan mujahedeen leadership, there were no heroes.
Reviews at Foreign Affairs, Boston Globe.