Homeland Alone

By Stan Persky | May 21, 2009

For the United States, and parts of the rest of the world, the day of infamy in the first decade of the 21st century was September 11, 2001 (or “9/11,” as it came to be known). That was the morning when four teams of an Islamist terrorist organization, al-Qaeda, based in distant Afghanistan, seized four U.S. commercial airplanes while in flight, crashing two of them into New York’s World Trade towers, another into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and one more, intended for a target in Washington, was crash-aborted in a Pennsylvania field, when passengers and crew resisted the hijackers.

The terrorist attacks and plane crashes caused the deaths of more than 3,000 civilians, the largest mass murder in contemporary American history. It also ignited a military response by the United States that included an attack upon Afghanistan’s Islamist Taliban regime, a so-far unsuccessful search for the crime’s ultimate perpetrator, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and an ongoing war in Afghanistan that has lasted for all of the decade. As well, it led to a subsequent, controversial invasion and occupation of Iraq in spring 2003, which continues to the present.

As the central political events of the beginning of the new century, 9/11 and the wars that followed it inspired a profusion of books, from popular accounts to academic treatises, many of them sharply critical of the political ideology and actions of U.S. President George W. Bush and his administration. Both the terrorist attacks and the subsequent wars were of course horrific and the justification for books about them, if any justification is needed, is found in our need to understand the specifics of such events. At the same time, it’s worth recalling that the wars of the previous decade in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and other parts of Africa were also horrific, as are all such human slaughters. So, while there is no claim, except a banal one, about the uniqueness of contemporary conflicts, the chilling chronicles that followed in their wake have the virtue of making us more aware of that horror in precise detail, and the reasons that lie behind both the terrorism and the subsequent wars.

In terms of writing, the events of the decade brought to prominence a remarkably competent and talented generation of reporters, feature writers, and essayists, especially journalists working at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker magazine. In this essay, I survey several of the important and, in many cases, prize-winning works that examine some of the major political themes of the period. In some instances, such as Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies (2004), the book itself became something of a political event. Works like Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars (2004) and Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower (2006) are investigative reconstructions of bodies of background information that were heretofore generally unavailable to the public. George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate (2005) and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City (2006) offer revealing portraits of the American occupation of Iraq, while Ann Jones’s Kabul in Winter (2006) provides an equally sharp eyewitness narrative about the situation in Afghanistan. Alli Allawi’s The Occupation of Iraq (2007) is a scholarly survey of events in that country by a former minister in Iraq’s post-war government, and Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War (2008) is a reporter’s first-hand account of his years on the battlefields. Almost needless to say, these represent only a fraction of the books that have been written about the belligerance of the decade, and many other worthy and similar works have not received their due here. However, this sampling should at least provide an entry point for readers who want to know more.

The title “Homeland Alone” of course plays on that of Home Alone (1990), an American comedy film about an 8-year-old boy, accidentally left behind while his family flies to France for Christmas, who has to defend his home against idiotic burglars. The vaguely patriotic-sounding term “homeland” was adopted by the American government shortly after 9/11, and a cabinet level agency for “homeland security” was created. Whether the American government was as negligent as the parental adults in the comedy film, or America’s antagonists as myopic as the household intruders, is but one of the issues that this discussion attempts to examine.

1. Smoking Guns

Like everyone else, excepting a few Washington, D.C. insiders, I’d never heard of former U.S. counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke until he stepped out of the shadows one Sunday evening in spring 2004 on the CBS TV news magazine, 60 Minutes.

The program is an old-fashioned investigative journalism show that seems to have been running ever since God evicted Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. 60 Minutes specialized in institutional muckraking that locates whistleblowers who embarrass nasty corporations and lying government departments. What’s more, it was one of the few TV public affairs programs at the time that had the budget to gets its facts straight and that, unlike its tabloid news competitors, suffered from neither attention deficit disorder nor faith-fuelled phobias. Whether debunking used-car scams or financial “Masters of the Universe,” 60 Minutes segments invariably ended with the miscreants refusing to appear on camera, and one of the program’s Methusalah-aged reporters standing before the locked Pearly Gates and duly announcing the equivalent of, “God declined 60 Minutes’ request for an interview.” I knew something was up when the program accorded the hitherto obscure Mr. Clarke better than half of its alloted hour.

60 Minutes’ viewers quickly learned that Clarke was a civil servant with 30 years’ tenure who began his Washington career during the Richard Nixon era in the departments of defense and state, and went on to serve in the White House as presidential adviser on counter-terrorism to, successively, Presidents George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton and the then incumbent George W. Bush. In short, his non-partisan credentials were impeccable.

Clarke had only resigned from government service the previous spring, in 2003, just as U.S. troops were launching a punitive expedition into Iraq to overthrow the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, in the name of combatting the terrorist attacks on America of September 11, 2001. In the wake of his resignation, Clarke wrote Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (2004), one of the first important works of the decade to critique U.S. foreign policy. It would be followed by many other somewhat comparable books, and a surprising number of them, examining the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the institutions of U.S. security and their failure on 9/11, would prove to be not only of high journalistic competence, but the readable second draft, after the initial daily dispatches, of American history in the first decade of the 21st century. Their reassessment of conventional pieties about American values and actions provides one of the defining themes for writing in the decade.

Clarke’s book, which was to be released the following day, was the hook for his TV appearance. The point of 60 Minutes’ thumbnail career resume of Clarke was simply to establish that Clarke wasn’t a flake, a liberal in the belly of the neo-conservative beast, or a partisan fundamentalist of any sort. He’s probably best described as a non-party hawk, one of those Washington Jesuits obsessed with their specialty — in this case, counter-terrorism and crisis management. He was a sober Cold Warrior-type who didn’t flinch from recommending political assassinations to presidents or seeking authorization for the military to launch missiles at targets from Afghanistan to Sudan. He had comfortably rubbed shoulders over the years with the likes of Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and his own most recent former boss, National Security Adviser Condaleezza Rice, as well as with countless CIA and FBI “spooks.” Equally, he’d gotten on with Clinton, Al Gore, and Clinton’s security adviser, Sandy Berger — i.e., Clarke traveled well.  From the moment the beefy, mid-50ish, white-haired, blue-suited classic bureaucrat popped up on the tube, and began speaking in sentences — unlike some of his former employers — it was clear that this was a critic not to be brushed off lightly.

All of which made Clarke’s sweeping charges against the Bush administration the more remarkable. Clarke presented his case in a variety of venues — on 60 Minutes, in Against All Enemies, before the government’s 9/11 commission, and on every TV forum available to him. The brief composite version of Clarke’s claims went like this:

First, the George Bush administration, notwithstanding its post 9/11 “War on Terrorism,” had not paid a lot of attention to the threat of terrorism posed by Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization from January 2001, when the new president took office, to September 11, 2001, when more than the roof fell in. Furthermore, Clarke argued, Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice et al. didn’t make terrorism a priority despite a series of warnings from the previous Clinton administration, the CIA, and Clarke himself. There was even a prescient e-mail from Clarke to Rice months before the attack, imagining “hundreds of dead in the streets of America,” and asking, “What will you wish then that you had already done?” Within the bowels of the spy business, it was known that there were al-Qaeda agents resident in the U.S., that suspicious guys were at U.S. flight schools learning to maneuver but not land airplanes, and that the eavesdropping on international electronic chatter indicated something “very, very, very big” was about to happen, maybe even in the U.S. itself. Some hints of this near-negligent policy were already known. For instance, Washington Post editor Bob Woodward’s Bush at War (2003) reports in passing Bush’s concession that prior to 9/11 he was not “on point” on the al-Qaeda threat. But it was not until Clarke’s extensive from-the-horse’s-mouth revelations on 60 Minutes and in his book that anything like the behind-closed-doors side of the story of 9/11 and subsequent events was available.

Now, of course, even if all of the available intelligence had made it to the White House, and if the “principals,” as the top cabinet-level and agency people are known, had further “shaken the trees” and had their “hair on fire” (to use a couple of Clarke’s favourite metaphors), there was no claim being made (by Clarke or anyone else) that anything necessarily would have happened any differently. However, the Bush principals didn’t formally discuss terrorism until Sept. 4, 2001. If they had done something earlier and more urgently, maybe, just maybe… is about as far as Clarke allows himself to dream. Despite the administration’s subsequent self-congratulatory tone about its response to terrorism, Clarke makes a persuasive case that prior to 9/11, the Bush regime was negligent. Instead of terrorism, the early focus of Bush and his officials was on “Star Wars” missile defense schemes, and the dangers of China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and Iraq.

It’s the latter country that’s important to Clarke’s argument. The Bush administration was obsessed with Iraq to the point of distraction, is Clarke’s second major claim in Against All Enemies. He offers unprecedented evidentiary support for his charge that it was determined to find a pretext for war with Saddam Hussein (more about this momentarily).

Finally and more broadly, Clarke argues that the war in Iraq was disastrous for the war on terrorism, diverting military and fiscal resources from the hunt for al-Qaeda to the adventurism of “regime change” in Iraq. Worse, it spawned the growth of terrorist recruitment and organization rather than diminishing it.

Against All Enemies begins in the style of such international thriller fiction writers as Tom Clancy, with an eyewitness account of what happened inside the evacuated White House on September 11. The pop prose notwithstanding, it’s a pretty riveting tale, and Clarke is the guy to tell the story, since he was, for all practical purposes, running the government of the United States from the West Wing of the White House that morning, while the president (or POTUS as he’s acronymically called in government-speak) was in a kindergarten in Florida, and Vice-President Cheney and NSA Rice were stashed in an East Wing emergency bunker.

Once the initial steps to secure the U.S. had been taken, talk immediately turned to the response, which would obviously involve going after al-Qaeda, based in Afghanistan, and the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban government there that harboured the terrorist organization. Yet, that wasn’t the only target on the minds of U.S. leaders in the hours right after 9/11. Clarke was incredulous to discover that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld “was talking about broadening the objectives of our response and ‘getting Iraq,'” an initiative he and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz had pushed prior to 9/11. An astonished Clarke likened the idea to “invading Mexico after the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor.” But Rumsfeld didn’t drop the notion. Instead, according to Clarke, the defense secretary “complained that there were no decent targets for bombing in Afghanistan and that we should consider bombing Iraq, which, he said, had better targets. At first I thought Rumsfeld was joking. But he was serious and the President did not reject out of hand the idea of attacking Iraq.” This was on Sept. 12, 2001, a year-and-a-half before the Iraq war was launched.

If there is any doubt about this preoccupation, the most dramatic anecdote in Clarke’s book (which he also related on 60 Minutes) was his encounter with Bush on the evening of Sept. 12.  “He grabbed a few of us and closed the door to the conference room. ‘Look,’ he told us… ‘See if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way…’ I was once again taken aback, incredulous, and it showed. ‘But, Mr. President, al-Qaeda did this.'” Bush, however, was not to be put off, and insisted on checking the Saddam connection. Clarke replied: “‘Absolutely, we will look… again… But, you know, we have looked several times for state sponsorship of al-Qaeda and not found any real linkages to Iraq. Iraq plays a little, as does Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, Yemen.’ ‘Look into Iraq, Saddam,’ the President said testily and left us.”

The exchange is worth repeating not only for its glimpse into the Bush administration’s thinking but also because it had an immediate role in the extraordinary counterattack on Clarke that the White House was to launch in the wake of Clarke’s shocking revelations. The first hint came the night of Clarke’s appearance on 60 Minutes. Since it’s standard practice for such programs to provide a semblance of “balance” by allowing for rebuttals to sensational accusations, 60 Minutes looked for a White House respondent to Clarke’s allegations. The best it could scare up on short notice was one of Condaleezza Rice’s minions. Confronted by the story of Bush’s order to Clarke to find an Iraq connection, Rice’s staffer told 60 Minutes reporter Lesley Stahl, “We have no record of that conversation in the White House.” The implication was unsubtlely obvious: maybe Mr. Clarke is fibbing.

The veteran reporter cast a very cold eye on the messenger, and said words to the effect, Young man, perhaps you’ve never heard of 60 Minutes, but we have a substantial budget to do fact-checking, and we have two sources to substantiate Mr. Clarke’s story of his conversation with the president and one of them is an eyewitness. The sub-text of her thrust was: Do you think we’re so dumb as to let Clarke make a sensational claim like that without checking it? There was a nanosecond of silence in the perpetual white noise of television as the camera watched Rice’s subordinate swallow his tongue before his brain clicked onto the inner digital mechanism that produces the requisite bureaucratic babble. The next day the White House allowed that perhaps such a conversation had taken place. The day after that, it was conceded that the President had asked Clarke to check for an Iraq connection in the interest of canvassing all options.

The connection (or absence of one) between Iraq and 9/11 mattered for two reasons. First, the suggestion that there was a link between the two was one of several pretexts, all of them false as it turned out, concocted by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Second, the administration succeeded in getting more than half the American public at one point, according to polls, to believe that Saddam Hussein had something to do with the terrorist attacks on America. As long as we’re looking at manufactured gullibility, it should also be noted that more than half the international Muslim population, according to polls, came to believe that the 9/11 attacks were a Jewish plot, which only tells us that inculcating pure ignorance is not limited by national boundaries or cultures.

From the moment I first saw and heard Clarke on 60 Minutes, I had the sense, This is the smoking gun. In all of his subsequent appearances, Clarke was credible, consistent, unflappable. We had become accustomed to getting a lot of “spin” and not much substance from public rhetoric. This was unnervingly different. There might be some argument with the interpretation, but the facts weren’t in dispute. For people who had seen the Watergate hearings in the 1970s, or the Iran-Contra scandal hearings in the mid-80s, Clarke’s story, told over several days, in a variety of oral and printed forms, had much of that weight. But in a country that prides itself on gun ownership, perhaps smoking guns, especially metaphoric ones, are no longer surprising.

Clarke’s Against All Enemies was published in spring 2004, in the midst of Bush’s 2004 presidential re-election campaign, and it might be thought that the revelation that the Iraq invasion was more of an ideological concoction than a matter of national security would have some effect on that campaign. As it turned out, it didn’t.

But it was enough of a danger to mobilize the Bush White House. For about four or five days after the publication of Against All Enemies, not very much governing took place in the United States. That’s because practically every major government official in the Bush administration had taken to the media hustings to denounce Dick Clarke. Vice-President Cheney said Clarke was “out of the loop,” a curious charge considering that when the last of the four terrorist-seized planes — the one that crashed in Pennsylvania — was still aloft and possibly aimed at the White House, it was Clarke and his team who were manning the fort while Cheney was in the bunker. That’s about as in the loop as you can get, one would think. And then there were Rumsfeld, Rice, and a legion of White House communications coordinators appearing on every available media outlet to denounce the former counter-terrorism adviser as money-grubbing, disloyal, disgruntled, self-seeking, two-faced, and whatever other epithets they could hurl.

While Clarke’s charges were not foundation-shaking in the long run, they were sufficient to require the White House to retreat and offer up Rice — who would be promoted to Secretary of State during the second George W. Bush administration — for unprecedented, under-oath, public testimony before the 9/11 commission. The weekend before testifying, she had been on 60 Minutes explaining the infallible principle that prevented advisers to the president from testifying before congressionally-mandated committees. However, within 48 hours, Bush was forced to relent in the wave of “what have you got to hide?” public pressure. Rice’s testimony then led to the further unprecedented declassification of a Presidential Daily Briefing document, the PDB of Aug. 6, 2001 headed “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside U.S.,” which had elicited little response from the Bush administration. Although all the president’s men and his warrior princess (as Rice was sometimes known) declared that the PDB didn’t mean anything, not really, they couldn’t repair the slight crack in Humpty Dumpty’s credibility.

Although Against All Enemies had become a political event in its own right, there’s still the question of whether Clarke’s book is worth reading. Given Clarke’s extensive media exposure, it was possible to ask, as did one slightly overhip review in the New York Observer, “What’s left to say, after all, about Richard Clarke’s book?”

As it turns out, there’s quite a bit more to Clarke’s text than the stuff of media lead stories. After his breathless thriller of an opening chapter, Clarke settles down to review terrorism and counter-terrorism knowledge over four administrations. Some of it is potted history, but since most of the public hadn’t heard of something called al-Qaeda until Sept. 12, 2001 — I remember being rather startled by how quickly the U.S. government was able to post the names and photos of all the hijackers, as if it already knew quite a bit about all of this — the review of everything from the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan at the end of the 1980s to the foiling of a millennium terrorist plot in 2000 is useful.

Clarke also offers some thoughtful assessments of persons and administrations. He’s critical of George W. Bush’s inability to get sufficiently interested in terrorism before the fact, but gives generally high marks to Bill Clinton, “who identified terrorism as the major post-Cold War threat and acted to improve our counter-terrorism capabilities, and who (little known to the public) quelled anti-American terrorism by Iraq and Iran and defeated an al-Qaeda attempt to dominate Bosnia,” despite being bogged down in trailer-park to Oval Office sex shenanigans. It’s clear that Clarke is rather fond of the brainy Clinton, who tended to stay up until 2 in the morning reading everything from briefing reports to Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Tom Clancy thrillers, all while watching the government news channel on TV. About Bush, Clarke is politely measured, saying it was “clear that the critique of him as a dumb, lazy rich kid was somewhat off the mark. When he focused, he asked the kind of questions that revealed a results-oriented mind, but he looked for the simple solution, the bumper sticker description of the problem.”

In the end, the reason to read Clarke, despite the media saturation and even though Against All Enemies is hardly deathless prose, is to get a sustained sense of the story and the issues it raises. About the only ideological disposition required is an acceptance of the notion, Yes, Virginia, there really are terrorists out there. And the story is, as Clarke puts it, “how, even after the attacks, America did not eliminate the al-Qaeda movement, which morphed into a distributed and elusive threat; how instead we launched the counter-productive Iraq fiasco; how the Bush administration politicized counter-terrorism as a way of ensuring electoral victories; how critical homeland security vulnerabilities remain; and how little is being done to address the ideological challenge from terrorists distorting Islam into a new ideology of hate.” Clarke even has the savvy to devote a thought or two to the protection of civil liberties in the midst of excessive “Patriot Act” security measures. Though much of Clarke’s story has in subsequent years simply assumed its place in American political history, many of the issues that he was among the first to address, remain relevant to the present day.

2. Who Were Those Guys?

While Richard Clarke presents much of the inside-the-White-House version of the momentous events at the beginning of the decade, the question of who the 9/11 terrorists and their sponsors were is addressed in two notable books. Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004), and Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda’s Road to 9/11 (2006) provide complex background stories, unknown to the general public until their publication. What’s remarkable about both books — each won the Pulitzer Prize for its respective year of publication — is that Coll and Wright are able to piece together coherent narratives of the shadowy realm of would-be religious revolutionaries and institutional spies that exists behind the mundane scenery of everyday life. What’s more, they do so while maintaining a high level of page-turning prose, even as they slog through innumerable interviews with secret agents of every political stripe. That they fashion plausible stories out of what must have looked like a scrambled jigsaw puzzle is no small achievement.

Coll focuses on the secret history of CIA involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 1980 to the millennium, while Wright probes the ideological roots of the various Islamist movements and the developments that eventuated in the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda. Both books, somewhat overlapping in their content, offer an in-depth survey of Islamic proponents and anti-American antagonists.

The answer to the colloquial question, “Who were those guys?” quickly extends beyond the identification of Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian-born leader of the 19-man terrorist team and the hijacker pilot of American Airlines flight 11 that struck the World Trade Centre on September 11. Both Coll’s and Wright’s books provide an extensive roster of “principal characters.” The dramatis personnae of Coll’s story range from Osama bin Laden, his ideological mentor Ayman al-Zawahiri, and their adjutants in the al-Qaeda organization, to the diverse Afghanistan warlords and mujahedin leaders during that country’s more than twenty-year-long anti-colonial and civil wars, especially the two most prominent mujahedin commanders, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his chief rival, Ahmed Shah Massoud. Equally important, the principal characters in Coll’s tale of “ghosts” include a wide range of clandestine personnel from the American, Pakistani and Saudi Arabian intelligence agencies and their variably attentive political masters.

Coll’s Ghost Wars begins with a harrowing, little-known tale of the November 1979 riot by 15,000 mostly Islamic students at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, that came within a hair’s breadth of causing the deaths of some 150 American personnel. Coll’s gripping minute-by-minute reconstruction of the situation inside a burning embassy during the riot and his account of the failure of Pakistani authorities to intervene establishes the stakes and sets the scene for a complex narrative of war, politics, and religion that will unfold over the succeeding two decades. The incident itself received little attention at the time because it was overshadowed by two contemporaneous upheavals in progress.

The most prominent of the regional transformations taking place at the time was the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, which brought an exiled Iranian cleric, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and his religious confreres to power. One of the theological revolution’s immediate side-effects was the seizure of 49 U.S. Embassy employees in Tehran as hostages, and their imprisonment during much of the 1980 presidential transition in the U.S., in which the ultra-conservative government of Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party succeeded that of the more moderate Jimmy Carter, a Democrat.

The other major regional development in the same period was the revolt in Afghanistan by Islamic mujahedin militias, aided by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the U.S., against the country’s Soviet Union-inspired communist regime, and eventually against Soviet troops themselves. To add to the geo-political complexity of the situation, within a year, Iran’s newly established theocratic state would be at war with its western neighbour, the Saddam Hussein-led dictatorship in Iraq, itself a predominantly Islamic country. All of these events unfolded against an even broader Middle East background that included a near-permanent simmering state of war between Israel and a displaced Palestinian population, as well as internal tensions within countries like Egypt, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, tensions connected to a widespread Islamist “revival.” Each of the parties involved in the various conflicts brought to battlefields, mosques, countless back-room meetings, and occasional negotiating tables its own often shifting political agendas, and the resulting Gordian knot of cross-purposes, motives and actions yields a story, as one review succintly put it, “with a cast of few heroes, many villains, bags of cash and a tragic ending.”

The perspective of a CIA operative, usually located somewhere on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, is Coll’s characteristic point of departure for each of the succeeding episodes in his chronicle of the mujahedin guerrilla war against Soviet Union troops occupying Afghanistan in the 1980s. The CIA perspective is quickly supplemented by that of Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, its army, and its often shaky, and sporadic civilian regimes. As well, the views and actions of the Saudi Arabian intelligence agencies are thoroughly canvassed. Although the Soviet Union is the common target of various militias, spies, and governments, their opponents’ motives and longer-range intentions are bewilderingly diverse and often in conflict. Perhaps the only constants are the international arms traffic and the increasingly large sums of money provided by the Americans, Saudis, international Muslim “charities,” and independent political and religious entrepreneurs like Osama bin Laden.

As the Soviet occupation force slowly crumbled in the decade-long war, Coll punctuates his detailed chronicle with useful sketches of the main players on all sides: figures like Ronald Reagan’s CIA Chief Bill Casey, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki, northern warlord Massoud, and Osama bin Laden are but a few of the political principals who come gradually into focus.

By the end of the 1980s, the dying Soviet Union under the reform leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev was prepared to call it quits in Afghanistan and to withdraw its troops. It was expected that the puppet communist regime in Kabul would rapidly fold, and the Pakistanis, Saudis and Americans all jockeyed for position in support of their preferred Afghan warlord.

At which point, there’s the first of a series of small surprises. The indigenous communist regime, led by a former secret police chief named Najibullah, didn’t collapse, in equal parts thanks to its own shrewd maneuverings and to the bungling of its mujahedin opponents, despite the arms and money poured into their ranks. Not until three years later, in 1992, was the regime at last overthrown and Najibullah pulled from a United Nations sanctuary and executed. But instead of the creation of a credible coalition government made up of former militia leaders and available Afghan exiles, as might be expected, the Afghan warlords fell into a brutal civil war, levelling much of the capital of Kabul in the process. It was this failure which gave rise, in the mid-90s, to an even more radical Islamic force, the Taliban, led by a previously obscure warrior-cleric, Mullah Omar, and probably backed by Pakistani intelligence agencies, who soon swept most resistance aside, and installed a theocratic regime as extreme and puritanical as any in the Muslim world. After the Taliban takeover, bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri relocated to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, joined forces under the banner of al-Qaeda and, as troublesome guests of the Taliban, launched a global jihad against the U.S. that eventuated in 9/11.

Those are the broad strokes that Steve Coll chronicles in his dense, blow-by-blow narrative. It’s unnecessary to reprise all the details here, but readers of Coll can be assured that he demonstrates a sure-handed command of the voluminous body of facts that make up an extraordinary saga of war, politics, and theology. Though Coll doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time pondering the meaning of the events he narrates, the story of the Afghan wars raises some inescapable questions that will eventually have to be addressed.

Before doing so, it’s worth considering Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower.

Wright’s book begins with a sketch of the mid-20th century Islamic thinker from Egypt, Sayyid Qutb (pronounced “kuh-tub”). It’s a beginning indicative of the direction Wright will take to the 9/11 story, placing more emphasis on al-Qaeda’s ideological roots and, as much as possible, following developments from the perspective of those who will launch the terrorist attack on the “the looming tower.” The eponymous reference is to a verse in the Quran, allegedly cited repeatedly by Osama bin Laden at a wedding shortly before 9/11: “Wherever you are, death will find you, even in the looming tower.”

Wright immerses us in the theological politics of Islam from the outset, as he tells the story of Qutb, a thinker, writer, and official in Egypt’s Ministry of Education who went to the United States to study in 1948. The ideologue who would give birth to modern Islamic fundamentalism arrived in a post-World War II New York that was booming, sexy, affluent, and shocking to the devout, if provincial Muslim. His arrival coincided with the creation of Israel in the Middle East and the inception of a long-term American policy of support for the Jewish state.

Qutb, after a stint at a university in Greeley, Colorado, returned to a chaotic Egypt in 1950, in the wake of the first Arab-Israeli war. He had been radicalized by his sojourn in the sensually tempting West, and was drawn to the doctrines of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that had been founded in 1928, and whose founder Hasan al-Banna had written, “It is the nature of Islam to dominate… to impose its law on all nations, and to extend its power  to the entire planet.” When an army colonel, Gamal Abdul Nasser, the leader of a group of military plotters, seized control of the country and sent Egypt’s King Farouk packing in a 1952 revolutionary coup, it was expected that Qutb, again working in the Ministry of Education, would ascend to the ruling Revolutionary Council. Instead, Qutb became a critic of the new regime for its failure to impose a sufficiently stringent Islamic dictatorship. When an assassination attempt was made on Nasser’s life in 1954, Qutb was one of thousands of Muslim Brothers suspected of orchestrating the plot who was jailed.

During the following decade, the imprisoned Qutb produced a multi-volume commentary on the Quran as well as a manifesto, Milestones, whose “ringing apocalyptic tone,” Wright suggests, is the Islamic equivalent of such famous political pamphlets as Rousseau’s Social Contract and Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? Scarcely six months after Qutb left prison, he was again arrested for plotting against Nasser’s regime, convicted, and executed by hanging in 1966, declaring shortly before his death, “Thank God, I performed jihad… until I earned this martyrdom.”

Wright offers a similarly extended portrait of Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who assumed Qutb’s ideological mantle. He was jailed in the wake of the 1981 assassination of Anwar al-Sadat, Nasser’s successor, and upon his release, worked as a physician in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region during the mujahedin revolt against the Soviets. After a lengthy career along the winding road of would-be Islamic revolution, Zawahiri ended up back in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s where he joined forces with the man who would orchestrate the 9/11 terrorist attack. Osama Bin Laden, scion of a wealthy Saudi Arabian family in the construction business, is the subject of an equally compelling biographical portrait, which Wright develops at length in the context of an analysis of Saudi Arabian, Sudanese, and Pakistani political and theological developments.

By the time an exiled bin Laden “flew over the suckling supertankers docked beside the massive refineries lining the ports of the Persian Gulf,” across the desert of southwestern Afghanistan that borders Iran, and into Kandahar, “surrounded by the ruins of its irrigation canals and pomegranate orchards,” for his final relocation in 1996 within the mountainous Afghan outback, Wright has painted a broad canvas of the radical Islamist revival, and set the scene for al-Qaeda’s declaration of war against the United States, posted from a cave in Afghanistan.

Wright’s panorama of Islamic thinkers and warriors is counterbalanced by a remarkable portrait of a driven, demon-haunted American FBI man, John O’Neill, a close friend of counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke, who was one of handful of U.S. intelligence agents engaged in an ultimately failed hunt for the leaders of al-Qaeda. The flamboyant and gruff O’Neill, with “the flashy suits, the gleaming fingernails” and a harem of girlfriends in addition to a wife and two children in New Jersey, “concealed a man of humble background and modest means” who was drowning in debt to support his extravagent lifestyle. In his way, O’Neill is as bizarre a figure as any of his jihadi opponents. And yet, before his death in the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, where he was head of the World Trade Centre’s security force, O’Neill came cliffhanger-close to tracking down bin Laden in the caves of his mountain fastness. But for the senseless turf wars between American intelligence agencies, O’Neill and like-minded American agents might have prevented 9/11.

Though both Steve Coll and Wright effectively employ novelistic techniques to tell their respective true stories, Wright’s narrative is the more economical, and benefits from emphasising the background and perspective of its radical Islamist protagonists. Both books leave readers on the cusp of the 9/11 tragedy.

The first observation to be derived from both of these informative narratives is that the U.S. foreign policy establishment was so preoccupied with defeating the Soviet Union during the long Cold War that it more or less completely missed the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and its terrorist strategy. Although Richard Clarke in Against All Enemies gives relatively high marks to President Bill Clinton’s alertness to terrorism in the 1990s, in fact, during the triumphalist post-Soviet decade, the continuing civil war in Afghanistan was put on the American back burner as the administration attended to crises in the Balkans and Africa, and the accession of the Taliban regime was treated with relative indifference.

After 9/11, amid the rush to American military action in Afghanistan, a muted domestic political discussion ensued in the U.S., in which leftists and liberals insisted on appreciating the “root causes” of the terrorist attack, rather than accepting the simplistic account of the Bush administration that al-Qaeda hated American values of freedom and democracy. As The New York Times’ lead critic Michiko Kakutani noted in her review of The Looming Tower, Wright’s account suggests that bin Laden “is not opposed to the United States because of its culture or ideas but because of its political and military actions in the Islamic world.” Similarly, combat reporter Dexter Filkins, also writing in The New York Times about Wright’s book, says, “Wright shows, correctly, that at the root of Islamic militancy — its anger, its antimodernity, its justifications for murder — lies a feeling of intense humiliation. Islam plays a role in this, with its straight-jacketed and all-encompassing worldview. But whether the militant hails from a middle-class family or an impoverished one, is intensely religious or a ‘theological amateur’… he springs almost invariably from an ossified society with an autocratic government.” Worse, those autocratic regimes are often supported by American money and troops.

While the “root causes” argument, as it came to be called, certainly has some traction, the stretch from political criticism of the U.S. to suicide bombings of American civilians in their own country is considerable. Even after one has a grasp of “root causes,” the question remains of whether the terrorists’ program made any sense, in terms of politics, morality or justice. Certainly, the harsh version of Islam they propagated, with its purist theocracy, allegedly based on Islamic or sharia law, and its idiosyncratic declarations of who was and wasn’t a legitimate Muslim, thereby justifying the murder of allegedly apostate members of their own faith, was unintelligble even to those sympathetic to religious claims. For some activists on the left, in North America, Europe and elsewhere, whose political priorities were opposition to American imperialism and Zionism, and who viewed the Bush administration as not merely a period in America history but as a permanent condition of U.S. politics, the “root causes” approach was persuasive. For the rest of us, though we might be critical of neoconservative American politics and administrations, the terrorists seemed as intellectually aberrant as the perpetrators of other, lesser mass murders, such as the teen suicide-killers who murdered their classmates at Columbine (Colorado) High School in 1999.

The American-led coalition war in Afghanistan poses the question, retrospectively, of what should have been done. The options included a) more or less doing nothing and leaving the problem to international institutions, such as the United Nations; b) treating the terrorist attack as simply a criminal act, and attempting to hunt down the perpetrators by “normal” police methods; and c) launching a full-scale assault against the fundamentalist Taliban regime that “harboured” al-Qaeda, and attempting the reconstruction of the country on a democratic basis.

In the event, the last option was chosen as the only one that was feasible and that would satisfy American public opinion. The war in Afghanistan, unlike the subsequent invasion of Iraq, was authorized by the U.N., and an international military coalition was assembled, again in contrast to the subsequent and largely fallacious “coalition of the willing” that was cobbled together for the Iraq expedition. What’s more, and again in contrast to the Iraq occupation, the coalition presence in Afghanistan, according to all reputable polling information, was largely supported by the Afghan public. So, while the question of “intervention,” whether “humanitarian” or military, is arguable (as it was during previous interventions in the 1990s), there was a plausible basis for it in terms of legality, practicality, and democratic ideals. Further, the conditions in Afghanistan, whether those created by Taliban fundamentalism, or the deeper cultural structures of patriarchal tribalism, were such that a case could be made that the attempt to develop a democratic, independent Afghanistan could be seen as being in the liberal and leftist traditions of international “solidarity.”

Still, while a strong theoretical case can be made for the war in Afghanistan, there is the further issue of assessing its actual operation. After a decade of war, with still no end in sight, international supporters of Afghan solidarity can point to the existence of a legally elected, albeit deeply corrupt, government; the end of Taliban restrictions on everyday life; and some improvement of conditions for women and children in the country. On the other hand, a Taliban force not only continues to exist but appears to be burgeoning; the war and destruction continue (including the deaths of large numbers of civilians); the fractures within Afghan society remain deep; and the permeability of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has meant that the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism have also increased in Pakistan and further endangered that country’s very fragile, quasi-secular institutions. Further, it remains an open question as to who, exactly, the coalition is intervening on behalf of, and whether or not there really is a potentially unifiable state entity that can be called Afghanistan.

Finally, there is what has been awkwardly referred to as a “clash of civilizations” question. Here, the problem concerns democratic secular societies versus theocratic and/or tribal ones. The secular version of civilization is complicated by the fact that, at least in the United States, political institutions have been closely tied to a particular, limited form of capitalist economics (an unregulated, environmentally harmful, globalized economics, sometimes known as “cowboy capitalism”) and a debased commercial culture driven by market priorities, as well as the U.S.’s own fundamentalist Christian “revival.” Other more social democratic models of society on offer (in Europe, say) have received little consideration as roads to substantive reform.

Nonetheless, questions about theocratic and tribal cultures remain. The one thing to say, not only about Islam and its various widely divergent forms, but about Christianity, Judaism and other faiths, is that they are all based on dubious, often fantastical, tenets that ought to be challenged in any rational discussion. In the “west,” there has indeed been a debate about religion, one that has been in progress for at least two centuries, and that, in the last decade, has been conducted under the rubric of “the new atheism.” That debate has not occurred within the Islamic world, and outsiders have remained chary about treading on sensitive multi-cultural toes.

None of the above questions and observations is the subject of books like those of Steve Coll and Lawrence Wright, which are understandably confined to more delimited material. However, their astute historical narratives provide a foundation for any of the necessary discussion that will take place in succeeding decades of the 21st century.

The other American-led military operation of the decade, the war in Iraq, offers a more cautionary and sadder story.

3. Conquest for Dummies

A couple of years before the publication of George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq (2005), one Saturday morning in March 2003, I was marching in the streets of downtown Vancouver, in the company of about 100,000-or-so like-minded people, to protest the impending American invasion of Iraq. Maybe “marching” puts it too strongly: it was more of a duty trudge, since the war was by then inevitable and our protestations were unlikely to have a significant impact. In cities around the world, similar protest marches were taking place that Saturday. Even for those of us who had approved of the war in Afghanistan that began in late 2001, the upcoming Iraq war, a year and a half later, was puzzling.

For one glaring thing, the proposed assault appeared to be out-and-out illegal. Rather than being a response to directs acts of aggression, as could be argued in the case of Afghanistan, the punitive expedition against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was clearly a “pre-emptive” war, in defiance of international law and institutions. If the United States had been part of the International Court of Justice system (which it isn’t), the American architects of the war would be prospective defendents in the dock at the war crimes tribunals in The Hague. (For those interested, the extended case against the illegality of the war is made in Philippe Sands’ Lawless World: Making and Breaking Global Rules, 2006.)

Second, the claim that the anticipated war was justified by the possession of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” that the Iraqi regime intended to use within the forseeable future was without substance, as was soon conclusively demonstrated. Iraq under Saddam was undoubtedly a totalitarian dictatorship, but hardly an imminent danger to its immediate neighbours, the U.S., or “world peace,” such as it is. It was a danger primarily to its own inhabitants, and even that threat had been somewhat curtailed. The regime had, for a decade, ever since its defeat in the Gulf War of 1991, been under United Nations’ economic sanctions, and was effectively hedged in militarily by “no-fly-zones” which covered large portions of Iraq, including the Kurdish north and the Shia Muslim south. Finally, and crucially, there was no evidence whatsoever that Iraq had connections with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda or with the “9/11” attack on the U.S., notwithstanding American propaganda to the contrary. What’s more, with the occupation of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and the Taliban both appeared to be on the run. Why not nail down the situation there rather than embarking on a dubious new venture?

That the venture was dubious soon became clear as the American occupation became hopelessly bogged down in an “insurgency” by Iraqi militants that killed scores of American soldiers monthly and completely derailed American plans for reconstruction of the country. By the time the U.S. was wallowing in the third year of the war in Iraq in 2005, nobody was any longer pooh-poohing the word “quagmire” to describe the situation of the occupiers. The day-to-day focus of the media predictably provided a combination of blood and spin.

But perhaps more germane than the day’s latest, solemnly-reported, and always horrific body count, suicide bombing, or occasional hostage rescue, is a deeper account of what in fact happened in Iraq since March-April 2003 when, in the first flush of military success, President Bush triumphantly declared from the photo-op-selected deck of an American warship, “Mission Accomplished.” Understanding the neoconservative roots and incompetent course of the war is a better guide to judgment than the nightly, standard dispatch by a TV journalist cooped up in the occupation’s fortified “Green Zone,” unable to even directly cover the events in the deadly “Red Zone” streets of Baghdad. That’s where New Yorker magazine writer George Packer comes in.

Packer’s Assassins’ Gate is his loosely-connected, but quite coherent, reportage-based narrative from Iraq and America. The “gate” of the title is a high sandstone ceremonial arch that provides a “main point of entry into the vast and heavily fortified Green Zone along the west bank of the Tigris River, where the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) governs occupied Iraq.” When Packer first arrived in Baghdad in summer 2003, he mistook the arch for one of the city’s antique gates, built in medieval times to keep out would-be Persian invaders.

Later on, he learned that he’d been wrong about the Assassins’ Gate. Far from being an ancient civic landmark, the gate had been constructed in recent years by Saddam in “grandiose imitation of Baghdad’s classical entrances. It wasn’t even the Assassins’ Gate — not to the Iraqis.” It had only acquired the nickname of  “Assassins’ Gate” from occupying American troops. “It was an American invention for an ersatz Iraqi monument, a misnomer for a mirage.” And the point of Packer’s little introductory anecdote about the Iraqi supplicants he met there, who gathered at the gate each morning seeking admission to the CPA-controlled Green Zone with a variety of requests and petitions for the occupiers, is that so much of the American presence in Iraq was also a misnomer for a mirage.

Packer’s opening chapters offer a thoughtful portrait of the neo-conservative administrators and ideologues who arrived in Washington, thanks to the disputed election of George W. Bush in 2000. The leading neo-conservative figures — vice-president Dick Cheney, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and their minions, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Douglas Feith, many of them dating back to the Reagan administration of the 1980s — were particularly contemptuous of former president Bill Clinton’s tentative “humanitarian interventions” in Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Middle East in the 1990s, and “saw Iraq as the test case for their ideas about American power and world leadership. Iraq represented the worst failure of the nineties and the first opportunity of the new American century.” A mish-mash of motives, from control of oil to exercise of imperial power to some idealistic if naive musings about democracy, made Iraq a focal point of neo-conservative foreign policy ambitions as early as the mid-1990s, well before the younger Bush’s presidency. As we learned from Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies, although the Bush administration was ill-prepared for the “9/11” attack, as soon as it occurred, it was made the fortuitous excuse to roll out plans for the already-contemplated war on Iraq.

The most poignant figure in Assassins’ Gate, who periodically pops up throughout Packer’s chronicle, is an Iraqi exile named Kanan Makiya. Packer first met him in Boston, where Makiya, an architect and an archivist, worked at Brandeis and Harvard universities. In 1989, under a pseudonym, Makiya had published a book about Iraq under Saddam Hussein called Republic of Fear. When the Gulf War of 1991 came along in the wake of Saddam’s ill-judged attempt to annex oil-rich Kuwait, Makiya’s book, which had languished in obscurity, became a minor bestseller among readers who wanted to know something about Iraq. In the aftermath of the war, as it became clear that Saddam’s regime would not be toppled by the Americans, Makiya went public, and became one of a group of exiled spokesmen for forcible regime change in his homeland, writing two more books about the fate of Iraq.

Makiya is that all-too-rare bird, an Iraqi secular humanist. It’s Makiya’s brand of liberalism that leads a writer like Packer to his own initial, if ambivalent, support for the war. It was similar appeals to appreciate the internal horror of the Saddam regime that drew so many strange left-of-centre intellectual bedfellows to this quixotic cause, including such well-known writers as Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman, the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier, and Canada’s Michael Ignatieff, among them. While the developing ideas of the 1990s about “humanitarian intervention” go some way to explaining how some liberals became hawkish enough to sign on to a neo-con-inspired war (one that bore some anti-totalitarian promise), it’s still puzzling how they came to accept an override on international legal norms, one of the grounds of liberalism. In each of the previous interventionist cases — Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo — there was a plausible and legal justificatory argument to support the incursion, as well as some form of international imprimatur from the United Nations. Packer, at least, is more conscientious than most in reassessing his position in light of the actual subsequent events on the ground.

When Makiya and Packer meet up again in Iraq in mid-2003, Makiya is engrossed in an effort to establish a sort of “memory foundation” thinktank to ensure that the regime’s horrors will not be forgotten. “Ultimately and in the very long run,” Makiya tells Packer, “it’s about reshaping Iraqis’ perceptions of themselves in such a way as to create the basis for a tolerant civil society that is capable of adjusting to liberal democratic culture.” Although Makiya believes and says all the right words, Packer sees his friend as drifting out of touch. “Makiya was consumed with thoughts about the past and  the future,” Packer explains. “I wanted him to acknowledge that the present was a disaster. Phrases like ‘tolerant civil society’ and ‘liberal democratic culture’ did not inspire me in Baghdad in the summer of 2003. They sounded abstract and glib amid the daily grinding chaos of the city, and they made me angry at him and myself — for I had had my own illusions.”

Indeed, as Packer points out, Makiya and his counterparts pursued their own mirage. “The returned exiles in Baghdad lived in a world apart. They went to one another’s dinner parties, they traveled easily in and out of the Green Zone… they hatched plans and business schemes and visionary ideas for transforming Iraqi society. The event that had crashed like a bomb in the lives of other Iraqis, shattering the state and leaving them stunned in the smoke and debris, was to the exiles the opportunity of a lifetime.” Increasingly, Makiya’s arguments seem unconvincing to Packer, and his schemes sound more “like an excuse for all that he’d gotten wrong. Iraqis, it turned out, were not who he had thought they were” from the perspective of his long exile. “They were not Kanan Makiya.”

Makiya makes later reappearances in Packer’s chronicle. There’s even a charming romance with a woman friend he’d known as a teenager who he re-encounters in Iraq, and with whom he ends up living back in Boston. But the main story line is Makiya’s ultimate irrelevance as a legitimate liberal as events unfold in Iraq. At the end, over a pot of Turkish coffee in Boston, Packer is still trying to sort out his feelings. “He was my friend and I loved him,” Packer declares. “He had devoted his life to an idea of Iraq that I embraced. He had attached that idea to the machinery of war, and a lot of people had gotten killed. No idea remains intact once it’s been bloodied by history, and history had not followed Makiya’s blueprint. At times, his vision of Iraq had been so at odds with what I saw and heard there that dreaming began to seem irresponsible and dangerous.” In the end, Makiya is a man who can be described, echoing the words of Samuel Johnson, as someone who “embodies the triumph of hope over experience.”

Meanwhile, back on the ground, history had not followed the blueprint of the Bush administration, either. The “blueprint,” such as it was, was the product of the fantastical thinking of Donald Rumsfeld and his Defense Department, the dominant secretariat in the American government. Plan A called for the invasion of Iraq with minimal numbers of troops, joyous expressions of liberated gratefulness on the part of the Iraqis, troops out within three months or so, reconstruction of the country by American contractors paid for by Iraqi oil money, followed by democratic elections and a changed world. There was, as it turned out, no Plan B.

Packer’s book focuses on what happened after the swift American “shock and awe” invasion. It is the story of a disastrously misjudged occupation. But it was a political and military catastrophe that could be anticipated. I remember my own first “aw-oh” about the Iraqi invasion, as I followed it on TV. American troops had secured Baghdad, but within a couple of days of the military triumph there was an ominous brief report that the National Museum in Baghdad, which houses one of the world’s great collections of the artifacts of the birth of civilization, had been systematically looted by unidentified Iraqis. The story remains muddy to this day. What became clear, however, was that U.S. troops had made it a priority to guard the Iraqi oil industry and its ministry, but had somehow overlooked the museum and its historic Babylonian treasures, as well as almost every other public institution in the country. It seemed to hint at something about the limited perspective of the occupiers, to say nothing of the ambitious perspective of the Iraqi criminal class.

The central and most important chapters of Assassins’ Gate provide a useful and cautionary account of the bumbling bureaucrats led by the U.S. civilian administrator of the occupation, Paul (“Jerry”) Bremer, and his entourage of youthful, inexperienced subordinates. Many of the young Bremer-crats rapidly became aware of the morass in which they found themselves.

As one investment banker who’d been sent to work on economic development told Packer, “First there was the arrogance phase, and then there was the hubris phase. The arrogance phase was going in undermanned, underplanned, underresourced, skim off the top layer of leadership, take control of a functioning state, and be out by six weeks and get the oil funds to pay for it. We all know for a variety of reasons that didn’t work. So then you switch over to the hubris phase: we’ve been slapped in the face, this is really much more serious than we thought, much more long-term, much more dangerous, much more costly. Therefore we’ll attack it with everything we have, we’ll throw the many billion dollars at it, and to make Iraq safe for the future we have to do a root-and-branch transformation of the country in our own image.” The one thing the two disparate approaches had in common, the investment banker added, is that “they’re very conceptual, very ideological. They’re not pragmatic responses to a detailed understanding of facts on the ground.”

The in-country chief ideologue was Bremer, about whom Packer offers a less than flattering profile. His “provisional authority” was housed in one of Saddam’s main palaces, now safely barricaded within the Green Zone. “On the first floor of the palace, off the rotunda, past the metal detector and the bodyguards, Paul Bremer’s long, high-ceilinged office was lined with bookshelves that were nearly bare when I visited. Rudolph Giuliani’s Leadership stood on one shelf, and a book about the management of financial crises on another, near a box of raisin bran.” As it turned out, Bremer’s reading habits and breakfast food preferences provided suggestive clues to a man who arrived in Iraq in May 2003 knowing little about the country. When he left a year later, not much had improved. The occupation, as Packer says, “was launched with a hodgepodge of improvised moves that reflected no one agency’s strategy, no considered strategy at all other than a belated assertion of American control.” It soon gave way to a virulent insurgency and a descent toward possible civil war.

Though Packer’s chronicle only takes us up to the beginning of 2005, the spectre of civil war was already apparent to observers on the ground in 2004, even though it didn’t become a TV item for home consumption until many months later. As Packer says in a late chapter titled “Civil War?”, “Iraq without the lid of totalitarianism clamped down became a place of roiling and contending ethnic claims… It sometimes felt as if a civil war had already started.” Packer notes that already some analysts had “looked at the mess and decided that only a separation of Iraq into three autonomous regions could prevent civil war.” (The proposal is taken up in more detail in Peter Galbraith’s The End of Iraq, 2007.)

Packer’s notion of a “mirage” is more fully depicted in Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone (2006), a brisk, readable account of the American occupation of Iraq in its initial years. Chandrasekaran, a Washington Post national editor and former Baghdad bureau chief, covers much of the same ground as Packer, focusing on the seven square mile enclave known as the Green Zone, home to the occupation’s Coalition Provisional Authority. Chandrasekaran’s book was nominated for a National Book Award, and won several subsidiary prizes, such as the Samuel Johnson Prize, as well as receiving numerous “books of the year” citations. Its message is contained in the book’s title reference to the Land of Oz’s Emerald City. The American “viceroy,” as Chandrasekaran dubs CPA head Paul Bremer, is devastatingly portrayed as a Wizard of Oz type, the fraudulent old con man in L. Frank Baum’s famous series of children’s books.

Much of what Chandrasekaran wants to convey of the American mirage is present from his opening riff, a scene at the Green Zone’s Republican Palace, or “Versailles on the Tigris,” as Chandrasekaran dubs it: “In the back garden of the Republican Palace… bronzed young men with rippling muscles and tattooed forearms plunged into the resort-size swimming pool. Others, clad in baggy trunks and wraparound sunglasses, lay sprawled on chaise lounges in the shadows of towering palms, munching Doritos and sipping iced tea. Off to the side, men in khakis and women in sundresses relaxed under a wooden gazebo. Some read pulp novels, others noshed from an all-you-can-eat buffet. A boom box thumped with hip-hop music. Now and then, a dozen lanky Iraqi men in identical blue shirts and trousers walked by on their way to sweep the deck, prune the shrubbery, or water the plants.” The mirage is not of romantic Middle East deserts, but of an ersatz American holiday spa.

Even at the time of Chandrasekaran’s opening bucolic sketch, June 2004, better than a year into the occupation, one of the countless CPA administrators confesses to the journalist, “I’m a neoconservative who’s been mugged by reality,” reversing the old rightwing boast that “a neoconservative is a liberal mugged by reality.” In any case, reality is beyond the bunkers, blast walls and razor wire of the Green Zone, in the unremitting violence of Baghdad and the rest of the country. Imperial Life in the Emerald City sets out a step-by-step series of vignettes that details the illusions and ideologically-driven fantasies that substituted for a workable post-war plan in Iraq.

Much of Chandrasekaran’s tale would be comic — a sort of Keystone-Cops-Meet-the-Sheik-of-Araby slapstick movie — were it not for the fact that it’s so disheartening sad. The staff of Bremer’s provisional authority was largely made up of rightwing neo-conservative ideologues, often youthful, unqualified and inexperienced. They were hired primarily on the basis of their Republican Party political credentials and, after their brief tour of duty, would return to jobs in President Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign or to conservative think tanks. To make matters worse, in the internecine turf war within the Bush administration, the unabashedly neo-conservative Department of Defense under Secretary Donald Rumsfeld regularly trumped the more moderate Secretary of State, Colin Powell, when it came to personnel, policy and fiscal allocation decisions, as Chandrasekaran persuasively documents.

The various schemes for reconstruction envisaged by Bremer and his superiors mostly came to naught. Notions of privatizing state-owned factories were purely ideologically driven, and found no takers, other than looters. Quixotic plans to revamp the Baghdad Stock Exchange, establish an American-style traffic code, or revamp Iraq’s destroyed and looted university system turned into fools’ errands. Repeatedly, Chandrasekaran details fantasies of reform, both political and material, that collapsed in the face of Iraqi realities, and that leave readers with a don’t-know-whether-to-laugh-or-cry sense of absurdity. The really important reconstruction issues, namely the provision of electricity, water and security to the population, were invariably fiscally shortchanged, and either failed or limped along at less than pre-war levels.

To make matters worse, Bremer, inspired by Vice-President Cheney and Rumsfeld, made a series of political decisions that undercut the very goals he was attempting to achieve. Former government officials were turfed out of office on grounds of political loyalty, and the former military and police structures were disbanded, depriving the dismantled state of the expertise and experience it desperately needed. A local firebrand Shia mullah, Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of Baghdad’s largest Shiite section of Baghdad, Sadr City, which housed some two million people, was needlessly provoked, and by spring 2004 his Mahdi army militia was in open revolt. As if that weren’t enough, at the same time the U.S. military launched an ill-advised full-scale assault on the city of Falluja, a Sunni insurgent stronghold.

Within six months, insurgent rockets were falling on a beseiged, locked-down Green Zone. Though a proto governing council of Iraqi politicians, former exiles, and religious power brokers was cobbled together, it came nowhere close to cohesion or the ability to function. Nonetheless, it was to this body that Bremer handed over formal political authority a year after his arrival, in a contrived “sign of progress” ceremony made largely in the interests of President Bush’s re-election campaign rather than as a reflection of the situation on the Iraqi ground. The ground itself, outside of the Green Zone’s partial sanctuary, was an inferno of insurgency, suicide bombings, ethnic cleansing, and mounting casualties.

There would be, over the remainder of the decade, oscillating levels of violence, elections of various sorts, an American troop “surge” late in the game, and a great deal of muddling through. While American casualties, over 4,000 dead, would be carefully counted, the number of Iraqi dead are unknown. Figures vary wildly, from a hundred thousand to a million, along with as many as two million people driven into exile. By 2009, there was also the promise of a new American president, Barack Obama, to “responsibly” withdraw American troops from combat in Iraq by decade’s end, leaving the country to a still very uncertain fate. Many of these later developments would also be the subject of various books and reportage, but Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City and Packer’s Assassins’ Gate stand as early, utterly damning indictments of the American occupation of Iraq.

Meanwhile, Ann Jones’s Kabul in Winter: Life without Peace in Afghanistan (2006) is devoid of Oz-like images or yellow brick roads to democracy. However, Jones strongly suggests that the entire project of constructing a democratic, secular nation out of a patchwork of battling tribes and theological disputes also may be little more than a deeply misguided fantasy. In her report of a three year stint in Afghanistan as a foreign-aid education worker during the same period that U.S. troops were becoming progressively bogged down in Iraq, Kabul could hardly be mistaken for an Emerald City, either of the fictional variety or the contrived virtual version established in the U.S. enclave within Baghdad.

Instead, “Kabul in winter is the color of the dust, though the dust is no color at all. It’s a fine particulate lifted by winds from old stone mountains and sifted over the city like flour. It lies in the streets and drifts over the sidewalks… Rain and snowmelt make it mud. Mountain suns bake it. Cart wheels break it down. Winds lift it and leave it on every surface — on the mud houses and the mud walls that surround them, on the dead grass and trees of the park, on shop windows and the broken sign of the cinema, on the brown shawls of men in the streets… Dust fills the air and thickens it, hiding from view the mountains that stand all around. Dust fills the lungs, tightens the chest, lies in the eyes like gravel, so that you look out on this obscure drab landscape always through something like tears.”

High altitude Kabul “stands alone in the thin air, ringed by mountains.” Above the broad deep bowl of the city, “lay a mass of black smog, dense and opaque: a tangle of twisted strands of oily soot and smoke, like a great pot-blackened Brillo pad.” Once the plane bringing Jones to Afghanistan “descended into that soup and the lights dimmed,” she’s in a ruined capital whose main English guidebook promises little more than, “There is a lot to see in the city, even if most of it is wrecked.”

Kabul in Winter is several things at once. As a political travelogue, Jones’s well-written, keenly-observed vignettes give readers a clear sense of the lives of the inhabitants of a blighted landscape, attempting to survive in hovels, supplied only with threadbare blankets and clothes, and less than the bare necessities of life. Jones is there, in the back lanes and crowded dwellings, feeling awkward as her Afghan aid colleagues ask her to take snapshots of the impoverished recipients of the second-hand clothes that the aid workers are delivering, in order to prove the NGO’s legitimacy to the agency’s donors.

Second, Kabul in Winter, is, as New York Times critic William Grimes says, “a work of impassioned reportage, a sympathetic observer’s damage assessment of a country torn apart by warlords, religious fanatics and ill-advised superpower conflicts.” Jones pays particular attention to the condition of Afghan women, visiting them and talking with them in their homes, in schools and in women’s prisons. Not only is this the most powerful aspect of Jones’s work, it is also the first available portrait of the lives of the most oppressed segment of the Afghan population. The story of their oppression makes for grim, but necessary reading. It is a tale of beatings and deprivation of freedom, education, and work. Readers will recoil at the stories of young women, in despair at being married off to a man they fear or loathe, who pour gasoline on themselves and light a match. As Jones documents, the hospitals in Afghanistan are filled with such cases.

Much about the condition of Afghan women is encapsulated in Jones’s sardonic remarks about the history of “veiling.” Given that historians have mostly recorded the doings of men, “it’s difficult to say with certainty just when and why Afghan women came to be clad in pleated polyester body bags.” Some claim that veiling reached Afghanistan as a sign of class. “If such theories are correct — and who knows? — veiling seems originally to have been an affectation of the urban leisure class by which rich men publicly advertised that their wives did not have to work. (Who could work in such a getup?)” A more common explanation of body length burqas is that they’re necessary for “protection.” But, asks Jones, “protection of whom? From what?” Opinions differ, but “many male commentators report that Allah endowed Muslim men with awesome sexual prowess and desire. Any man is likely to be aroused by the mere glimpse of an ankle or a wisp of hair escaping from beneath a scarf. Can he be responsible for what he then feels compelled to do? Of course not. So to protect women from the uncontrollable God-given appetites of men, women must keep themselves under wraps.”

Other commentators on Islamic society, says Jones, “argue that veiling is prescribed to protect men from women. In this view, it’s women, not men, who are thought to be endowed with an insatiable sexuality… Women must be kept under wraps then to safeguard the whole community from the disruptive potency of their whopping erotic capacities.” In any event, Jones’s dripping sarcasm aside, it’s a case of heads-men-win, tails-women-lose. The overarching point of Jones’s excursis is that men not only covered up women, they “covered up women’s history, too… I tell you this long story so you’ll know that the burqa didn’t come from nowhere. That it has a history as hidden and as real as the history of the women who from time to time are forced to wear it.” What’s more, “what a Muslim woman wears is not just a matter of gender. She wears the whole weight of the Islamic world.”

Among the distressing features of Afghan sexism that Jones emphasizes is the degree to which it is “internalized” by its victims. The society’s patriarchal tribal mores are so deeply engraved in the Afghan psyche that even feminist lawyers that Jones worked with were timid in the advocacy of their clients’ rights, and frequently saw little wrong with the lopsided traditional arrangements under which women labour. Occasionally, Jones offers a moment of inadvertent comic relief, as when she’s trying to explain the western concept of a “blind date” to her language students, and one of them says, “Like my wedding.”

As a feminist leftist, Jones’s book is, unsurprisingly, a polemic, one that lashes out at American policymakers, of whom she’s sneeringly contemptuous. She’s also critical of the entrenched Afghan patriarchy and its corrupt political structures. Finally, she directs some of her wrath at many of the foreign non-governmental aid organizations, their wasteful system of allocating funds and the ineffectiveness of their projects. In many cases, she says, their presence in Kabul has done little more than drive up the cost of living for ordinary Afghan residents. The polemic is perhaps the most arguable aspect of the book, and some commentators have faulted Jones for descending into diatribe. If so, it is, understandably, a diatribe of despair. A half-decade after the publication of Kabul in Winter, the limited signs of a springtime of hope that Jones can point to have only marginally increased, if at all.

4. Terrible Swift Swords

Like Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, much of what New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins has to say in his wide-ranging battlefield dispatches, The Forever War (2008), is laid out in a dramatic prologue. It’s titled “Hells Bells,” and provides an “embedded” journalist’s eyewitness account of the second U.S. assault on Falluja, Iraq in November 2004.

At 2 o’clock in the morning, as minarets “were flashing by the light of airstrikes and rockets were sailing on trails of sparks,” a strange “dialogue” begins to unfold. “First came the voices from the mosques, rising above the thundery guns.” A loudspeaker in a minaret howls, “The Holy War, the Holy War! Get up and fight for the city of mosques.” As the “bullets poured without direction” overhead, a new sound can be heard, “violent, menacing and dire. I looked back over my shoulder to where we had come from, into the vacant field at Falluja’s northern edge. A group of marines were standing at the foot of a gigantic loudspeaker, the kind used at rock concerts.”

The sound blasting out of the loudspeaker is from AC/DC, an Australian heavy metal band. “I recognized the song immediately,” Filkins says. “‘Hells Bells,’ the band’s celebration of satanic power, had come to us on the battlefield. Behind the strains of the guitars, a church bell tolled thirteen times.”

In the midst of this surrealistic, but real-life Apocalypse Now moment, “The marines raised the volume on the speakers and the sound of gunfire began to recede. Airstrikes were pulverizing the houses in front of us. In a flash, a building vanished. The voices from the mosques were hysterical in their fury, and they echoed along the city’s northern rim.” Against AC/DC’s ominous verses (“I won’t take no prisoners, won’t spare no lives”), the muezzins from the minarets cry out, “God is Great!”

After that, it’s all bullets, mortars, air-strikes, and house-to-house urban warfare as the American troops attempt to dislodge the jihadi insurgents who for months had controlled Falluja. Filkins’s reporting is a far cry from the exultant tones of the embedded correspondent in the early days of the Iraq invasion who cited Winston Churchill on camera: “There’s nothing more exhilarating than being shot at and missed!”

In Filkins’s more realistic dispatch, the picture looks like this: “The wind from the bullets brushed my neck. Marines were writhing in the street, tangles of blood and legs, while other marines were stooping and helping them and also getting shot. I kept running, pumping, flying toward the other side as fast I could with my seventy pounds of gear when I saw a pair of marines standing in a doorway and waving to me to come on, come on. I ran straight for them and I could see by the looks on their faces they weren’t sure I was going to make it. They were holding their arms out like they wanted to save me, and I reached them and they grabbed me by my pack and threw me through the door. I lay on the floor for a minute as I regained my senses and thought I was nothing so much now as a child. A child in his crib in the care of his parents, they nineteen and me forty-three.” It may be the first time but it won’t be the last that we wonder what in the world Filkins is doing there at all.

Filkins’s book, which ranges from scenes of Taliban executions in soccer stadiums in Afghanistan, to “Ground Zero” in New York on 9/11, to the battlefields and jogging paths of Iraq (Filkins is a dedicated runner), is an intentionally disjointed, jagged-edged assemblage of fog-of-war vignettes. It pointedly eschews analysis (which Filkins, as readers of the New York Times know from his other articles, is perfectly capable of) in favour of the raw feel of war. The Forever War is very much in the writing tradition of the World War I Italian battle scenes in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, James Jones’s epic of World War II, From Here to Eternity, and Michael Herr’s Dispatches, from the Vietnam War.

The Forever War quickly became one of the most heralded books of 2008. Novelist Robert Stone, in a lead New York Times review, declared that “with the publication of Dexter Filkins’s stunning book… it seems the journals of the brave correspondents assigned to the Middle East will take their place as the pre-eminent record of America’s late-imperial adventures, the heart of these heartless exercises in disaster, maybe some consolation to those maimed and bereaved in them.” Stone argues, “It is not facetious to speak of works like that of Dexter Filkins as defining the ‘culture’ of a war. The contrast of his eloquence and humanity with the shameless snake-oil salesmanship employed by the American government… serves us well.”

Most reviewers, like Toby Clements writing in Britain’s Telegraph, recognized that The Forever War “lacks a coherent narrative or an abiding argument,” but saw that as “an illuminating virtue: from the ground, there is no coherence.” Anthony Swofford, author of the Gulf War memoir, Jarhead (2003), says that the book’s “loose structural footing” at first “feels like narrative sloppiness… but eventually the reader recognizes that these waves of action and inaction, of warfare followed by tea, followed by a run, followed by speeding convoy rides… often without time or date stamps, are a replica of life at war.” Fellow correspondent George Packer hailed Filkins’s book as “already a classic — it has the timeless feel of all great war literature.” The Forever War won the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction, and Time Magazine and The New York Times, among others, named it to their ten best books of 2008 lists.

Among its virtues, Filkins’s book repeatedly captures the self-delusions of the Americans and the double-lives of the Iraqis. “There were always two conversations in Iraq,” Filkins reports, “the one the Iraqis were having with the Americans and the one they were having among themselves. The one the Iraqis were having with us — that was positive and predictable and boring, and it made the Americans happy because it made them think they were winning… The conversation they were having with each other was the one that really mattered of course. That conversation was the chatter of a whole other world, a parallel reality, which sometimes unfolded right next to the Americans, even right in front of them. And we almost never saw it.”

When Filkins was temporarily back in the U.S. to write his book (he later returned to his reporter’s duties in Afghanistan in 2009), and people asked him if Iraq was as bad as people said, Filkins replied, “‘Oh definitely,’ I told them, and then, usually, I stopped. In the beginning I’d go on a little longer, tell them a story or two, and I could see their eyes go after a couple of sentences.” A fellow reporter “told me he couldn’t have a conversation with anyone about Iraq who hadn’t been there. I told him I couldn’t have a conversation with anyone who hadn’t been there about anything at all.”

If there’s something other than the report from the ground on Filkins’s mind, it’s probably contained in the book’s poetic, ominous epigraph from novelist Cormac Mcarthy: “He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower” (Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses, 1992).

Well, “the blood of multitudes” has been exacted, but as Ali Allawi shows in The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace (2007), there have been few visions of so much as a single flower in recompense. Allawi, a former minister in the post-war Iraqi governments has been “there” (for some two-and-a-half years), and he’s also one of those Iraqis who has mostly not been there, as a result of several decades’ enforced exile. Educated in the U.S., he worked most of his career as a successful international banker based in London, and was politically active in the diaspora of Iraqi opposition, until he was called back to his native land in 2003 (he arrived on the fateful date of Sept. 11).

For all the pyrotechnic virtues of Filkins’s prose, one reads Allawi’s sober history of the occupation, fashioned in workman-like style, almost with relief. For one thing, Allawi’s is the first book to let us in on some of that conversation Iraqis were having with each other to which Filkins refers. It is, for the most part, not a happy conversation, or even a hopeful one; mostly it’s a conversation of competing ambitions, squabbles about constitutional and other structural documents, and fine-grained dissections of sectarian disputes, both political and religious; and, as a Spanish poet put it in another context, “it ends badly.”

But it is an insider’s account that conveys a clear idea of Iraqi history, politics, and sectarian religion. If Allawi is sharply critical of the American occupiers (and particularly the blunders of Paul Bremer’s Provisional Coalition Authority), he does not spare his Iraqi counterparts. If Allawi’s book lacks the laconic bravura of Filkins’s writing, it is nonetheless, as New York Times Baghdad reporter Edward Wong said, written “in a straightforward, dispassionate manner, painstakingly documenting events from the rise of Iraqi exile politicians in the 1990s to the sectarian cleansing that began sweeping Baghdad in 2006.”

The Occupation of Iraq is as fair-minded and knowledgeable a chronicle of contemporary Iraq as we’re likely to get, and it comes from a courageous participant who “steadfastly refused to move to the relative safety of the Green Zone, not because of any heroics, but because I felt then — and still do — that the Green Zone is the symbol of all that has gone wrong in Iraq since the occupation. A marooned political class living cheek by jowl with the foreign contingent, both cut off from the terrible, daily anguish of Iraqis.” Not living in the mirage of the Emerald City had its costs. “My convoy was ambushed twice; the second time was a near-run thing. The sound of the heavy machine guns of my security detail firing back at the assailants still reverberates in my ears.” Later, while Allawi’s bodyguards were having lunch at a local restaurant, a suicide bomber struck. Three men perished, another half-dozen were wounded.

Writing at the end of 2006, Allawi sadly observes that “the backdrop to the crisis in Iraq began to change,” for the worse. “Death squads and the infiltrated police force began to match — and exceed — the insurgents in the scale and viciousness of their attacks on civilians… The cynicism and anger of the populace were palpable, as public services deteriorated further. Gasoline queues, power shortages, insecurity, lawlessness, car bombs, internal exile — Iraq appeared to be nearing total bedlam.”

In the end, says Allawi, “The Iraqi political class that inherited the mantle of the state… was manifestly culpable in presiding over the deterioration of the conditions of the country. The absence of leadership on a national scale was glaring.” At the time of Allawi’s departure from Iraq, “there was no national vision for anything, just a series of deals to push forward a political process, the end state of which was indeterminate.” By decade’s end, though there had been periodic surges and ebbs in the vortex of violence, the end state was still indeterminate.
I suppose there’s bound to be a certain sense of helplessness attendant on having watched the Afghanistan and Iraq wars from a (safe) distance for most of a decade. What one can do is fairly limited. One can, if it’s appropriate, march in protest, though that seemed increasingly futile as events unfolded. What’s more, the insistence of the anti-war march organizers on rolling all engagements — Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Darfur, god-knows-where-else — into one anti-war-everywhere mirage made the prospect of marching less appetizing to those unwilling to endorse such a blanket policy. Alternatively, one could decide to “critically support” the occupation and try to figure out better ways to make it work than the present administrators. However, most of those who have taken that course find themselves as befuddled and lost as those who claimed to possess the roadmaps.

One can, minimally, “keep up” with the situation by reading books like those written by Coll, Wright, Packer, Chandrasekaran, Jones, Allawi and Filkins, which are, I think, among the most informative and poignant of the crop of volumes that have appeared about the failures and minimal successes of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I guess that’s been my own almost instinctive response, given my predilection for reading and reviewing. And one can, I suppose, hope that history will take another turn, especially in light of the election of Barack Obama in 2008, and his promise of changes in American foreign policy. Looking at the recent past, however, I’m amazed, as are many of the authors I’ve discussed, by the sheer incompetence of those who so confidently, just yesterday it seems, declared how the world would go under their exercise of power. Well, it hasn’t, and I suspect that history will continue to be astonished that an empire invaded hapless nations without even a slightly realistic plan for how to administer their conquest.

So, I find myself with a mild case of political despair, which is not altogether relieved by the many volumes of intelligent reportage and thoughtful analysis that have appeared in the first decade of the century. Like others, I’ve marched, I’ve read, I’ve continued to hope against hope, and I’ve argued with friends of different dispositions over the past years. The arguments have been surprisingly unvituperative. Maybe it’s just that we’ve gotten older and don’t think lost friendships are adequate compensation for the satisfaction of being right or, more likely, we recognize that the enigmas of history are harder to crack than, to cite the title of the decade’s best-selling book, “The Da Vinci Code.”


Berlin, May 21, 2009


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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