Conspiracy-laden look at messy Afghan history

The authors argue that Dan Rather miscast US involvement in Afghanistan while he was anchor of the “CBS Evening News.’’ The authors argue that Dan Rather miscast US involvement in Afghanistan while he was anchor of the “CBS Evening News.’’ (Joe Tabacca for The Boston Globe/File 2000)
By Kenneth J. Cooper
Globe Correspondent / June 30, 2009
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The husband-and-wife team of Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould scored a big scoop when they were the first American journalists permitted to enter Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion. Under contract to CBS, they delivered footage that was used in a Dan Rather report on the “CBS Evening News.’’

Other footage was omitted. Fitzgerald and Gould were dismayed in particular that Rather left out Afghanistan’s communist leader saying Soviet troops would depart if American, Pakistani, Iranian, and Chinese meddling ceased, a multi-conditional statement the journalistic couple seem to have taken at face value. Their view has been that CBS, along with other mainstream media, mistakenly cast the covert proxy war that the United States waged in Afghanistan in the 1980s as a Cold War struggle to end Soviet aggression instead of a clever trap to end the Soviet Union - by prolonging that same Afghan war.

Nearly 30 years later, that episode forms the crux of the “untold story’’ that Fitzgerald and Gould seek to tell, and is held up as a prime example of the American bungling in that desperate country before and since. US officials have gotten plenty wrong in policies on Afghanistan, from dealing with a minor holy warrior named Osama bin Laden during the Soviet occupation to abandoning the country afterward and then, in the 1990s, being at least complicit in the formation of the Taliban.

So there is no need to exaggerate American failings. Still, the coauthors do just that, wedging the history of Afghanistan and US involvement there into a tidy ideological framework. The problem is that Afghanistan is too messy a place to fit.

In the late 1970s, Fitzgerald hosted a public affairs show called “Watchworks’’ on Boston’s Channel 25 as its token liberal when the station, then WXNE, was owned by Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. Fitzgerald had earlier worked on the congressional campaigns of Barney Frank and Ed Markey. WGBH sponsored the couple’s 1981 documentary, “Afghanistan Between Three Worlds.’’

In their book’s prologue, the coauthors declare an antiwar perspective rooted in the Vietnam era. They go on to characterize Afghanistan, before US engagement, as being a better country than it actually was: Afghans believed in a tolerant strain of Islam, and their “strong central government’’ was leading the country in a steady march toward progressive modernity under benevolent King Zahir Shah.

Most scholars would say moves to modernize came in fits and starts, usually halted by popular objection to departures from fundamentalist traditions. Shah was accepted as king throughout the country, they would add, precisely because his government let ethnically disparate regions do their own thing.

On the other hand, the coauthors describe US adversaries in Afghanistan as either not that awful or, alternately, creatures of American deviousness. The US-funded war against the Soviet occupation was a “make believe struggle of good versus evil.’’ Al Qaeda is a “phantom terror organization.’’ The Taliban, depending on the page and source cited, is either the handiwork of Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s interior minister or the CIA. The agency also gets blamed for Afghanistan’s recent turn from producing raw opium to processing it into heroin. Many more conspiracies are suggested in a heavily annotated book that is too densely packed for easy reading.

Those aren’t the biggest problems with “Invisible History,’’ though. In dismissing the precepts of neoconservatives and their cold warrior predecessors, Fitzgerald and Gould substitute the premises of a pacifist, progressive outlook. Afghans don’t dwell in either of those ideological lands.

Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a freelance journalist based in Boston.


City Light Books, 389 pp., paperback, $18.95

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