The Taliban have been a hot topic for about a decade now. Googling "Taliban regime" shows 2,666,000 references and 5260 pages in Google books alone. Studies, investigations and personal accounts of living under the regime abound. Yet, very few outsiders could report from within the country during that period. Kathy Gannon, a veteran Canadian correspondent with AP in the region since 1986, was the only western journalist allowed to stay during the whole time. Her long-term and close association with Afghans of different political and religious persuasions have given her unique insights into the society that are conveyed in this lively and personal account.
Gannon debated with leaders and moderate members of the Taliban movement, with commanders of the Northern Alliance as well as Pakistanis, intimately involved in recent events. Her analyses and conclusions don't make for comfortable reading, yet they are essential to appreciating the complexities and dangers of the political developments in the region. For example, she exposes the naïveté and short sightedness of western governments. Rather than building on their influence, she contends, they abandoned the Afghani people several times. Once the Soviet Army had withdrawn, the US and its allies left warlords and mujahedeen commanders in control. Many Afghans saw their new regime as a reign of lawlessness and arbitrary terror. When the Taliban fought back, many Afghans initially welcomed them as protectors. Yet, the West, Gannon claims, ignored the moderate Taliban, who were eventually overwhelmed by the movement's fundamentalists. There were strong indications that bin Laden and Al Qaeda commanders consistently influenced the Taliban leadership also towards its role in a global jihad. Even after the defeat of the Taliban regime, western governments were not systematically supportive of re-emerging moderate forces in Afghanistan. This lack of engagement facilitated known criminal elements and brutal warlords to retake large parts of the country. In many Afghans' view only a strong and competent military presence of western allies could have overcome the political crises that continue to unfold, Gannon argues.
She presents solid evidence by way of examples. Several warlords, now participating in the government and supported by the US and its allies, were in fact close collaborators with first the Soviets, then the Taliban. They were also part of the group that welcomed Osama bin Laden into Afghanistan. For obvious reasons they had no interest later in handing him over. At the same time, under the disguise of exposing Taliban fighters, longstanding ethnic and political feuds are being violently settled, in particular against ethnic Pashtuns.
Gannon quotes extensively from her interviews with various leaders, conveying their positions directly and candidly. She depends on the insights of several contacts, who she has learned to trust over the years. The picture that emerges is highly complex defying simple interpretations and generalizations. Pakistan's role in Afghanistan is a case in point. Gannon is quite candid in describing the contradictory behaviour of political leadership and military in that country. While on the one hand supporting the US administration's "war on terror", there is continued support for the Taliban among Pakistani leaders. For example, Gannon provides disturbing insights into the role of the Pakistani Intelligence who seem to support the Pakistani jihadists and Al Qaeda in contradiction of official Pakistani positions.
Gannon's lively, engaging and personal style makes the reader forget how close to danger she often was during her travels. She does not question her reasons for being in the country despite the looming threats to her safety. While the immediacy of her reporting style had strengths, it also has weaknesses. She sometimes jumps the timelines and assumes context knowledge that may not be at hand for the less familiar with the region and its history. For all the information contained here, one can only hope that many will read this book to better understand the challenges we all face from the continued conflicts in the region. [Friederike Knabe]