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Killing the Cranes

After decades in Afghanistan, a Monitor journalist offers a memoir and field report.

By Steve Weinberg / December 19, 2011

Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan By Edward Girardet Chelsea Green 417 pp.

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Probably no journalist understands the country known as Afghanistan better than Edward Girardet, who has written about events there for the Monitor and other publications since 1979. It is impossible to know from a distance whether Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton, George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and other American foreign-policy decisionmakers have read Girardet’s reportage carefully, superficially, or not at all. But if they have read it carefully, then their military and diplomatic maneuvering on behalf of the United States make even less sense than previously.

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Girardet is no foreign-policy ideologue – just the opposite, in fact. However, given his up-close observation combined with his unparalleled network of sources, he could logically come to no other conclusion than this: Any foreign interloper in Afghanistan will never “win” anything lasting or meaningful, whatever the goal. It is not a conclusion he shares joyfully, having risked his physical health, mental stability, and very life for 32 years to share such depressing news.

The meaning of the book’s title, Killing the Cranes, will not be immediately clear to the uninitiated. Yet it says so much in just three words. They come from a conversation Girardet had in March 2004 with Masood Khalili, a former resistance fighter then serving as Afghanistan’s ambassador to India. Siberian cranes are large birds that honk loudly during flight. Every March, they fly from the southern wetlands of Afghanistan to western Siberia and the Russian Arctic. Year after year, starting in 1978, Khalili had watched friends and enemies die during warfare within Afghanistan’s rugged borders. Now, in 2004, he was wondering why no cranes had migrated yet so late in March. He gazed silently upward, then said to Girardet, “Have we even killed all the cranes?”

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