The British and American secret services won't like this book - if anyone in those two agencies cares to read it. Given their apparent ignorance and obduracy over how they went about their business in Afghanistan after 9/11, I suppose it is unlikely. A pity. Key executives of the FCO should read it. So should those in the US Department of State. Actually, they should read it twice.
Written by a woman of considerable courage who has travelled extensively through one of the most dangerous countries in the world to collect information on the lead-up to the prosecution of the war in its early days, this book is a shocking exposé of how MI6 and the CIA evaluated intelligence material - of which there was less of a shortage than might be imagined. The consequences are there for everyone to see today.
One of the reasons that I was drawn to the book is because I know Afghanistan a bit and I know two of the characters mentioned, one a British former cameraman during the Soviet occupation, and the other an Afghan friend who introduced me to Ahmad Shah Massoud's family in the Panjshir Valley eighteen months ago.
The central character, Abdul Haq, was probably the greatest strategist the Afghan mujahideen campaign produced. He also comes across as civilized, a modest patriot and a nationalist who was far more concerned with the country as a whole rather than narrow factional interests. His integrity, expertise in asymmetrical warfare during the Soviet occupation, even-handedness, and encyclopaedic knowledge of the personalities and dynamics, however, did little to convince the British and Americans. It seems that they preferred shallow, shiny, glib people of spurious charisma who spoke good English. In essence, Haq's case was that in 2001 support for the Taliban was getting shakier by the day. The majority of senior Talib commanders, some who had fought the Russians, were ready to throw their lot in with him. All he needed was a month at most. But the retaliatory bombing against al Qaeda bases proposed by the Americans after the twin-towers atrocity threatened to throw the process out of kilter by re-kindling support for the Taliban. Despite impressive backing, Haq's pleas were ignored at the highest level in the US because of subjectivity and muddled thinking. Emotions after 9/11 were running amok, too. And the British government toed the line. Bloody fools. The bombing went ahead.
Frantic to rescue the situation from this precipitate response, Abdul Haq, his position now precarious, rushed back to Afghanistan and was captured in the mountains by a hostile Taliban patrol. He was then shot virtually out of hand, a tragic loss to his country and a miserable death for a man of such stature whose wife and son had already been murdered through the fiendish scheming of the Pakistan secret service, the machiavellian ISI.
The first third of the book paints the scene vividly and draws together a mix of threads so as to make a complex story comprehensible. Not an easy task. It is the next part of the book that holds the reader glued to the pages. The author interviews James Ritchie, one of two American brothers who had been brought up in Afghanistan and then made a fortune on the money markets in America. An irascible philanthropist, James Ritchie then devoted himself to Haq's cause. In so doing he had access to the CIA and senior figures in the American administration - including Bud McFarlane, former US national security advisor under President Reagan. The details of the interview left me aghast.
She then interviews Sir John Gunston, a baronet, formerly Irish Guards, and erstwhile photojournalist in Afghanistan during the Russian occupation. He also had access to high-level British and Afghan politicians, and SIS operatives. Like James Ritchie, Sir John was another stalwart who took up Haq's cause with a combination of energy and desperation. Their meeting took place in the Special Forces Club in London and what he told her was both rivetting and appalling. Moreover, he mentioned that the British and Americans seemed hell-bent on doing precisely the opposite of what was being implored. One of the more insidious effects was the rapid expansion of warlordism which has created further distortion for society in some parts of the country.
Another account that beggars belief is how the poppy eradication programme was handled with risible naivety. It made not a ha'porth of difference to the production of opium and nearly all the money ($70,000,000) went into the coffers of one warlord who was linked to the ISI and absconded to Pakistan with his booty. This money was meant to be compensation for the farmers who had been persuaded to destroy their poppy crops. When it wasn't forthcoming they naturally were furious with the doubtless well-intentioned British NGO administering the scheme. Who hires these people who have probably got more degrees than you can shake a stick at?
The final third of the book deals with various events and the implications of Haq's plan had it been implemented. The author holds that much of the detail of his plan which reflects eminent good sense remains of incalculable value if only it can be studied and applied properly. I hope she is right because these splendid people, many of whom live unrelentingly hard lives, badly need fortune to favour them and their country is owed a rebalancing to counter a dreadful catalogue of errors by those powers whose democracies now seem to care little.
Abdul Haq's Afghan solution looks like it was the best one. But we screwed up. Again. It cost him his life. And many more.
If you are interested in what is going on in Afghanistan, I suggest that this is an important book - however much you may already know.
As an aside, I daresay this excellent book would make a very good film.