I Is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror: 18 Years Inside Afghanistan, By Kathy Gannon, Public Affairs, 224 pp., $25
Few Western foreign correspondents spend more than a few years covering any one patch abroad, making for a constant rotation that gives readers back home the benefit of fresh perspectives, but not always a depth of understanding. Kathy Gannon was a notable exception, on both counts. For 18 years, first as a freelance and then as a staff correspondent for the Associated Press, she reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan, through periods when those unstable Muslim countries were at the center of international attention and others when no one much cared what was happening in the region.
Gannon was around in 1989 when a humiliated Red Army withdrew from Afghanistan, after a disastrous decade of occupation that set the Soviet Union on a course to its collapse. She was there during the years of chaotic civil war that followed and that left Kabul in Dresden-like rubble. She was in the Afghan capital when the Taliban took over in 1996, and there again on Sept. 11, 2001, when the terrorist attacks doomed the radical Islamic militiamen to defeat at the hands of American military technology that boggled their medieval minds.
With that long, firsthand perspective, Gannon has produced in ''I Is for Infidel" a journalistic memoir that recounts a bookful of US blunders, many that have come back to bite America in the backside during the war on terror. She was known to colleagues in the field as a tough questioner; in these pages, she is an unrelentingly harsh critic of US policy in the region, perhaps partly because of her detachment as a Canadian. At the same time, she sympathizes with ordinary Afghans caught, serially, in the hands of one military force after another.
One recurrent theme is an uncanny American habit of allying with Afghan leaders who brutalize their own people and later turn against the United States or nurture its future enemies. During the Soviet occupation, one the biggest recipients of covert military aid from the CIA was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a radical Islamist who, she writes, even then rarely hid ''his loathing of the West." His faction's forces later leveled broad swaths of Kabul. These days he is orchestrating attacks on American troops and Afghan security forces.
Another anti-Soviet leader, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, drew future Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri into his faction. During the US invasion in 2001, Americans got some of its intelligence from Sayyaf's forces. His longtime relationship with US enemies, Gannon suggests, might explain why US forces were unable to find either man.
Gannon catalogs many examples of American mistakes, some likely to surprise even seasoned hands. But she may be too harsh in seeing US folly behind every move. Afghanistan has become an unruly land where treachery knows no bounds and, until recently, the only leaders with standing had to play by the primal rules of superior force. Others of stature went into exile or wound up dead. Who were these unsullied men-of-the-people US officials could have cultivated? There is a reason American officials had to look in neighboring Pakistan to find a plausible democratic leader in the post-Taliban era.
Some US mistakes she cites did spring from pure shortsightedness. Her title is drawn from an English primer printed in the United States for Afghan refugees who fled to Pakistan during the Soviet occupation. The book, Gannon writes, ''taught the alphabet by using such examples as: J is for Jihad, and K is for Kalashnikov, and I is for infidel."