Wars are often at their most dangerous as they are winding down, fraught with unpredictability and chaos. But that is also the time when the conflict's true trajectory becomes clear, and the perspective of thoughtful and seasoned observers takes on greater urgency.
A pair of new books on the
A highly respected New York Times correspondent, Gall spent a dozen years covering the war in Afghanistan and, in tandem, the tumultuous events in neighboring Pakistan. In this important work, she makes a compelling case that Pakistan — an ostensible ally of the United States — was a driving force of the Afghan conflict, with its powerful intelligence service as a fateful instrument. (The book's title comes from a quote from the late
Tracing the arc of the conflict from the days after the
"I saw it time and time again in Afghanistan: foreign troops taking actions for their own protection, alienating the local population, and thus undermining their security," Gall writes.
The authoritative tone that pervades "The Wrong Enemy" falters somewhat at what may be the book's most crucial juncture: the circumstances underpinning Osama bin Laden's long sojourn in Pakistan, which came to an abrupt and violent end when
Perhaps mindful of the pitfall of journalistic memoirs in which the reporter's inner life takes center stage, Gall only rarely lets slip an observation colored by her own feelings. She alludes briefly to being deeply moved by the patience and stoicism of bewildered Afghan villagers in the horrific aftermath of an errant U.S. strike. She tersely describes her reaction when, on patrol with troops in an IED-ridden slice of Kandahar province, she hears a blast a short distance away and realizes from soldiers' shouts that the powerful antipersonnel mine was triggered by João Silva, the New York Times photographer traveling with her. "I cursed," she writes. (Silva lost both legs, one above the knee and one below, but eventually returned to work after being fitted with prostheses and undergoing dozens of surgeries.)
One might wish for a more emotionally resonant portrait of the remarkable events the author witnessed at perilously close range over more than a decade. When I met Gall at the end of 2006 in Quetta, Pakistan, where we had traveled separately on assignment for our respective newspapers, a fresh bruise was blooming near her temple, inflicted hours earlier when men she believed were military intelligence agents burst into her hotel room. What I most vividly recall is her utterly uncowed demeanor: furious, really, but not scared.
Recognizing, perhaps, that reticence can be a strength, Gall here lets the facts she lays out for us speak eloquently for themselves.
From three angles
With a plethora of policy-oriented works on Afghanistan having appeared in recent years, Anand Gopal wisely chooses to tell the war's story from the personal perspective of three characters: a Taliban commander, a U.S.-allied Afghan official, and an Afghan housewife who claws her way out of a suffocating village existence and eventually becomes a lawmaker. While a younger and less experienced correspondent than Gall, Gopal nonetheless displays a keen understanding of the levers of power in Afghan society and their sometimes devastating effect on individuals trying to make their way in the world.
Gopal's literary method —- switching from one character's life story to another, adding in a wartime chronology and blending in sometimes unwieldy chunks of explanatory prose —- can create something of a whipsaw effect. But he anchors his narrative with small, beautifully rendered Afghan scenes: houses "built right into the mountainside — hundreds of them, lit up like candles, like some votive offering from the earth itself."
The portraits come alive to varying degrees. The Taliban commander, despite a wealth of detail about his activities, remains an opaque presence. The Afghan warlord, enriched and relied on by credulous-seeming Americans, is almost cartoonishly repellent; he is unrepentantly corrupt and keeps a young boy close at hand, praising his "beautiful eyes." (In Afghanistan, many powerful men regard pedophilia as a perquisite of authority.) The most conflicted but triumphant story is that of the educated but long-thwarted Heela, offering a nuanced view of a loving marriage that was nonetheless marred by domestic violence and the wrenching choices she must make at times to protect herself and her children.
Like "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," Katherine Boo's luminous account of the travails of Mumbai slum dwellers, this volume presents precisely rendered dialogue and detailed accounts of events that would in many cases have taken place years earlier. For some readers, that might raise the question of whether such a reconstruction, presented as nonfiction, can be considered entirely faithful. Gopal addresses that in a postscript, telling of interviews with multiple witnesses, retracing subjects' steps and careful use of existing documentation. The reader is left to judge the likely degree of veracity.
Many of the areas where both Gall and Gopal traveled over their years of reportage were extremely dangerous at the time, and for the most part remain so. In both books, much of the action takes place outside the capital, which is always a virtue in reporting about Afghanistan. Swaths of countryside grow ever more violent, as exemplified by the shooting death last month of Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus in remote Khost province, near the Pakistan border. Her AP colleague, Kathy Gannon, who had written about Afghanistan for decades, was seriously wounded.
Gopal's book, like Gall's, contributes to our understanding of a conflict that seemed at its outset to hold such moral clarity but devolved into what Gopal calls "the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy" of violence becoming its own end. Much to their credit, neither writer loses sight of the real lives caught up in war's machinery.
King traveled frequently to Pakistan on assignment for the Los Angeles Times between 2006 and 2009 and was The Times' bureau chief in Kabul from 2009 to 2012. She is currently The Times' bureau chief in Cairo.
The Wrong Enemy
America in Afghanistan 2001-2014
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 329 pp., $28
No Good Men Among the Living