By Dr R. Balashankar
The 9/11 Wars, Jason Burke, Allen Lane, Penguin Books Ltd, Pp 709 (HB), £30.00.
The 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on America jolted the world in a way never before experienced. The elaborate planning and precision of the operation surprised everyone as much as the obvious failure of the intelligence agencies to get wind of the plot. But this was not a one-off attack nor was it a culmination of a series. This was the biggest and most daring act of the Islamic terrorists who had been waging a war with much of the world, India being one of the oldest victims and Pakistan being one of the abettors, with money flowing in from the Arab world and America.
Jason Burke, a journalist who covered the conflict in the Middle East and South Asia regions as part of his assignments has given a reporter’s account of the events before and after in his book The 9/11 Wars. Burke recounts in dry tones, befitting the barren terrain of Afghanistan, how the local population lived rather existed. “The population of Kabul was around half a million and though it was by far the biggest Afghan city, its streets were empty, bazaars were bare, fuel was scarce and electricity rarer still. The only entertainments were executions and occasional football matches… That most of the spectators at the executions the author attended were there simply because there was nothing else to do was ample testament to the desperation and meanness of their lives.”
He narrates in spine-chilling detail the ‘discussions’ that went on before the Bamiyan Buddhas were blown up. The demand for destroying the sixth century magnificent work was made by a Taliban leader Mullah Dadaullah Akund, who had earned a reputation for brutality, atrocity and violence. In mere two days, after capturing Bamiyan he had driven two-thirds of the population away and destroyed into dust much of the villages, clinics, schools and orchards. Dadaullah’s demand was referred to the Taliban chief Mullah Omar. There was a section which believed that the Buddhas were part of the lanscape and should not be disturbed. Final decision was left to the council of religious leaders, who ruled that the Buddhas would have to go. Americans worked through Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to stop the heritage devastation. The United Nations stepped in, with Secretary General Kofi Annan holding one of the extraordinary meetings in Islamabad, with the foreign minister of Taliban Wakil Ahmed Muttawakel. None of this worked. The final attempt was made by the “mainstream conservative Muslim community in the person of the senior Qatar-based Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi.” He was an extremely popular leader and renowned for his deep religious knowledge. He travelled to Kandahar “with a group of very senior conservative clerics intending to convince Mullah Omar to spare the Buddhas, through a careful argument based on key Islamic texts, quotations and precedents.” We know the mission failed.
Burke discusses the volunteers who enrolled in Taliban and other extremist organisations, and how there was little education but humongous indoctrination and emotional coaxing of these young minds. There was this constant line of the West and Westernisation threatening Islam and its way of life. And hence the need and call of the religion to lay one’s life to protect it by killing those responsible for this state of affairs. The West led by America retaliated the same way, selling the theory to its people that Islam was out to devour them. Since they had the money and the muscle power, they invaded these perceived threats setting off a chain reaction that is refusing to die now. Burke discusses the prisoners’ torture in much the clinical way of a reporter. He does not pass judgment.
The role of Pakistan in fishing in the murky waters of Afghanistan has been exposed thoroughly by the author. To Indians it does not come as a surprise. The planning and execution of the Mumbai attack has been written in significant detail, nailing the role of the senior officials of the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI. Those in India who call Pakistan as a “terror victim” rather than a perpetrator should read this.
Also part of this exhaustive book is the invasion of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan and the engulfing of Europe into the terror net.
Since Burke is viewing the whole series of events as an outsider, he is able to see them rather dispassionately. Right at the outset he sets the tone of his book by saying “One major current running through the pages that follow is the constant tug of war between ‘the global’ and ‘the local’, the general and the particular, the ideological and the individual.”
So is there any winner and loser in these wars? Burke says “The West certainly — despite al-Qaeda’s various successes over the years — avoided defeat.” But has paid a huge price, in economic terms. In 2009 America’s military expenditure was $661 billion, considerably more than double the total of ten years previously, despite being in the red, recession and et all. In human terms too the price has been heavy.The number of American soldiers killed or maimed has been very high. The casualties on the other side — be it Iraq or Afghanistan — has not been calibrated yet, because truth would be inconvenient for all. The damages to the emotional quotient of the people of these two countries caught between two sets of rulers set against each other cannot be measured. In that sense the wars have not ended.
Jason Burke is currently the South Asia correspondent for the Guardian and lives in New Delhi. He has authored, besides several articles, two other widely read books on al-Qaeda and Afghanistan. Packed with information, the book gives a racy account of events of almost a decade whose epicenter was Afghanistan-Pakistan but whose ramifications were felt globally, without taking political sides and blame-fixing. That Burke has left to the readers to do. For us Indians some part of this story comes as a surprise information. Though India has been the victim of mindless terror attack for decades, in the politico-diplomatic area, it counts for nothing. There, the players are all west of our borders. Pakistan has all along been enjoying the proverbial role of running with the hare and hunting with the hound. An informative, important book to read, never mind the bulk.
(Allen Lane Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London, WC2R, ORI England)