Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan, by Edward Girardet, Green Books, RRP£22.50, 424 pages
Somewhere near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan among a network of trenches, an American journalist has an angry exchange with a Saudi legionnaire fighting the “jihad” against occupying Soviet forces. It is 1988.
The argument revolves around a point of honour between Arabs and Afghans over the legitimacy of a western observer being on the front line of the holy war. In a display of bravado, the journalist claims that Afghans understand civilisation and hospitality, while Arab extremists do not.
The journalist is Edward Girardet, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and the Arab fighter is a defiant young Osama bin Laden.
Girardet’s Killing the Cranes is an unusual account of one reporter’s experience covering Afghanistan for 30 years, from the eve of the Soviet invasion in 1979. Part field report, part history book, it chronicles a conflict that spawned myriad Mujahideen groups and sucked in the armies of the world’s superpowers.
The book does not spare the US, Pakistan, the Soviet Union, or the Afghans themselves, for shortening the odds of Afghanistan surviving as a unitary state. Neither does it simplify the challenges surrounding the country’s opium economy, education of girls and meddling neighbours.
One of the author’s encounters is with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir” and leader of the Northern Alliance. Girardet gets close enough to give him books on insurgencies. Later, he waits for an interview alongside the bogus Arab TV crew on a suicide mission to blow up Massoud.
At its best, Killing the Cranes is a gripping narrative of entering and re-entering Afghanistan under Soviet occupation from the Pakistani frontier city of Peshawar. Girardet details long treks into the interior. One of the most memorable is when he accompanied French doctors to the Panjshir Valley, negotiating a way strewn with landmines and worn-out horses.
The book’s success lies in giving the reader a heady mix of personal daring alongside clear explanation of a complex war. Girardet’s reporter’s eye for detail, descriptions of Afghanistan’s harsh landscapes and political insights make this an encyclopedic effort. He describes forgotten massacres, shifting alliances, US connivance and ruinous episodes, such as the battle for Kabul, the nation’s capital.
Girardet’s narrative has a rueful “then and now” element to it. In the 1980s and 1990s reporters accompanied militants on their missions and received a hearty Afghan welcome. Girardet was exhilarated by these experiences as a young journalist when Afghan valleys heroically took on the Soviet empire. He admits to a “romantic” view of the country and of Islam.
“We had constant access to ordinary Afghans. We walked through the countryside, sleeping in villages, with long evenings drinking tea and talking with locals,” he writes. By contrast, the Taliban offer little, if any, access to the western press. Journalists steer clear of “no-go” areas on both sides of the border, fearing for their lives as interlopers or non-believers. “Dispatches of today often seem to be of a different war,” he reflects.
By the end of the memoir, the racy reportage of the early years makes way for drier prescriptions for the current conflict, and perplexity about what comes next. While history may stubbornly repeat itself, Girardet concludes that Afghanistan has been less impervious to its lessons. War has hardened attitudes, a stricter Islam has spread and leaders have allowed themselves to be bought many times over by outsiders. Money and intolerance have won out over honour.
James Lamont is a former FT south Asia bureau chief