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.
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?”
Girardet, like most authors, aspires to write definitive books. But he cannot do that with Afghanistan because, as he says, “there is nothing definitive about Afghanistan.” Historically and currently, Afghanistan still exists as an identifiable entity. It can be described as a land of deserts and mountains at the cusp of Central Asia (surrounded by present-day Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), and the Indian subcontinent. But due to invasions against the amorphous ruling parties from within and outside national borders, stability in Afghanistan has been elusive, and life itself is more fraught than in most geographic locales. A centuries-old tradition of impressive hospitality to visitors has dissipated to a point where “basic humanity seems to have vanished,” as Girardet puts it in one of many, many haunting phrases.
Trying to understand such chaos is difficult for any of us – and even for the most skilled foreign correspondent. Yet Girardet is the most fair and accurate armchair guide a Westerner can consult. To ignore his accumulated wisdom is intellectually wasteful. Because the US government can be counted among the most recent invaders, up-to-date information is vital. Why was Bush – and why is Obama – so resistant to the fact that many, almost surely most, Afghans see Americans with weapons “as an unwelcome foreign occupation force”? Girardet’s book could lift the fog enveloping the White House, Pentagon, State Department, and Congressional policy decisions.
Part of the fog apparently derives from the failure of outsiders to understand that talking about Afghanistan in an undifferentiated manner is ludicrous. “I quickly grasped that every valley, district, province and region was distinct, with its own peculiar characteristics,” Girardet writes. “One could not assume that what one witnessed in one part of the country was the same as another.... All tribal, clan, and ethnic groups were different, so I made a point of traveling with diverse guerrilla factions throughout the southern, eastern, and northern parts of the country.”
As he travels through treacherous regions to gain accurate information, Girardet inserts himself into the narrative over and over, making the book into a war correspondent’s memoir as well as a third-person field report. He does so effectively, without apparent ego. “Killing the Cranes” deserves a large, thoughtful readership.
Perhaps if enough readers of influence pay attention, the Siberian cranes will return to fly peacefully in Afghan skies.
Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, author of eight nonfiction books, and an investigative reporter with 40 years’ experience.