On the Road to Kandahar

May 25, 2006

No one knows how Britain’s Nato adventure in Afghanistan will end. Depending on who you listen to, it is either one of the most dangerous policing roles in the new age of asymmetric warfare, or a consolidation of the post-9/11 achievements of the international community.

Military commanders who pick up Jason Burke’s Road to Kandahar are likely to be persuaded that it is the former. Burke reminds us that no outside interference in Afghanistan can be regarded in isolation and he shows that is a consequence of Western actions before and, critically, after the attacks on New York and Washington.

From Algeria to Thailand, Burke, formerly The Observer’s chief reporter in the region, moves through every quadrant of Islam, drawing out profound differences between the communities. This is no homogeneous surge of Muslims massing to rise as one against the West. His vivid contacts with Kurdish, Arab and Asian Muslims reveal complex issues, intercommunal and international, that far outstrip the war on terror’s capacity to provide analysis or answers.

The epicentre of Muslim discontent used to be in and around the territories occupied by Israel after the 1967 and 1973 wars. Today, the mayhem in Gaza and the West Bank is but a small facet in a much wider conflict. The six-decade battle to protect Israel has become a war in which America and her allies have left the Israelis in the shade.

In the West, it may look like war in the spurts we see on TV, but it does not feel like the one our parents and grandparents emerged from in the Forties. Only on 11 September 2001 did it feel like that, and then only for a moment.

But to the Islamic world it feels more and more like war as each day passes. The weight of the Islamic world resides well to the east of the Arab world, in Iran, Pakistan, India, Indonesia and the Philippines. The long Arab-Israeli conflict has resulted in a Palestinian exodus that has expressed itself in a secular diaspora that made new lives anywhere from Manhattan to Kuwait. The new asymmetric world has resulted in the radicalisation of entire Islamic communities. It expresses itself from Tipton to Timor and involves hundreds of millions of people.

America and her allies think that this war is about terror. But Muslims increasingly perceive that it is about them. In the early stages, the enemy was seen as the Arab. Yet the only Arabs fighting in Afghanistan in the Eighties were those lured there by American funding, Osama bin Laden included. Today, the enemies are not only the Saudis the CIA has paid, but Somalis, Sudanese, Algerians, Afghans, Pakistanis and others.

We in the West have lost sight of the scale of this war and the states that have been laid waste by it. Worse, we are even losing interest in the states where our forces are hunkering down for the ‘long haul’. How are Western populations ever to be engaged by the fight conducted in their name? The mullahs are not exaggerating when they tell their flocks that the victims are Muslim.

The story of Western deaths from terrorism, which fuels Western leaders’ justification of the war, does not fit readily into the account that most Muslims are hearing. The ‘war on terror’ has resulted in considerable Islamic loss of life, recorded nightly on TV screens across the Muslim world. Beyond the toll of 9/11 itself, Western loss of life has been extraordinarily light.

Burke is not the first to identify the folly of mythologising al-Qaeda into a Soviet-style monolith with a capacity to destroy the West. But what he does more effectively than most is to use the personal experience of a decade and a half of reporting across the Islamic world to show the consequences of the West’s flawed response to 9/11.

He points to the comfort that the West’s obsession with al-Qaeda has given unsavoury regimes around the world. ‘For governments such as those of Algeria, Uzbekistan, the Philippines and Russia’, he writes, ‘attributing long-running local insurgencies to al-Qaeda, the newly discovered international bogeyman, was extremely useful, simultaneously releasing a flood of diplomatic, military and financial aid from Washington while also obscuring the role their own corruption, nepotism, repression and mismanagement had played in fomenting violence.’

The effect of 9/11 has been to vastly increase and reinforce the masses ranged against Western interests. Mark the developing relations between China and the Islamic world: a Saudi king visited Beijing for the very first time only last month. Burke warns that we proceed along this violent road at our peril. There really must be a better way than bombing to allow Muslims to realise the better lives to which they, like us, aspire.

On the  Road to Kandahar Members’ price £20 (plus p&p)