Monday, March 9, 2009

Dexter Filkins's The Forever War

I have been listening to The Forever War on my Ipod.

Dexter Filkins spent 2001-2002 in Afghanistan and 2003-2006 in Iraq, covering the conflicts for the New York Times. The book is organized as a series of anecdotes. Filkins makes some broader thematic points, but not as many as I'd like -- as compared with Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life, this book lacks an overarching framework that ties the stories together. He does, though, paint vivid portraits of Afghans and Iraqis who experience the wars first hand.

The first story of the whole book -- a Taliban-led execution in a sports stadium (in Kabul, I think), in which the brother of the victim is brought into the stadium to kill the murderer -- is incredibly dramatic. As I listened to Filkins tell the story, I pictured the stadium that Olav and I went to in Jaipur for an India Day celebration; the low-to-the-ground seats in Jaipur made it feel much more intimate than most American stadiums, and Filkins' description of the Taliban episode gave me a feeling that the watching crowd was very emotionally involved in the whole episode (although Filkins didn't assign blame to them for enabling the Taliban; his opinion of the crowd was ambiguous). Perhaps it was that the telling of the story, and the human details - not to mention the content - was so dramatic that I became emotionally involved as I listened to it.

Regarding a "bigger picture" aspect of the book: this weekend Helene Cooper had an article in the New York Times about the Obama Administration's tentative outreach to Taliban members. The article had echoes of a point that Filkins makes several times: the Afghan fighters were very prone to switching sides depending on the momentum of the war at any given moment. Filkins makes this point about Afghans pre-2001, whereas Cooper emphasizes that the willingness to switch sides may prove helpful to current US efforts:

But there is a growing belief, particularly among experts who have been advising the Obama administration on Afpak policy, that it is important to peel away some lower members of the Taliban, in sort of a divide-and-conquer strategy.

General Petraeus, the head of the United States Central Command, said last year that one element of the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq that might be applicable in Afghanistan was outreach to what he has described as “reconcilables” among the insurgents.Under that principle, Mullah Omar is not considered, at least at this point by the West, as “reconcilable.” But a local Taliban district commander might be.

Take Mullah Salam, a former Taliban commander who was persuaded by the British, with the aid of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to cross sides in 2007. He remains ostensibly loyal to NATO forces, and some British officials mention him as an example of how a campaign to woo Taliban district commanders might work.

But it remains an open question whether Mullah Salam’s defection has helped or hurt the war effort. The British installed him as district governor in Musa Qala, in Helmand Province. Mullah Salam has since been the focus of complaints from the local populace; he is unpopular and corrupt, the locals complain, adding that he demands bribes and tributes from anyone who needs something.

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