STEPHEN SMITH: Untangling What Led to 9/11
Roy Gutman's "How We Missed the Story" (United States Institute of Peace, 321 pages, $26) is a fascinating unraveling of the cause-and-effect relationships that led to the 9/11 attacks that have so profoundly transformed the world in which we live.
Gutman is a former senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and currently serves as a foreign editor for McClatchy newspapers. His reporting on ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovia won him the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1993, so he's an experienced and cautious journalist.
The focus here is Afghanistan -- the Russian occupation, their world-altering defeat by Mujahideen, the complex politics of civil war that followed the Russian withdrawal and how these events led directly to the takeover by the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.
The story Gutman tells is at best mind-numbingly complex, and unless you're well-grounded in the Afghan politics, the going is slow and requires careful attention to the smallest details of history, life and culture in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, Americans have always been amazingly ignorant of non-Western cultures, and Gutman's initial purpose is to instill at least a basic comprehension of the forces at work when bin Laden and Al Qaeda managed to capture and hold an entire country as a base for terrorist operations. But the simplest observations seem alien, and much of what Gutman has to say will come as a surprise to the average American.
At war with themselves for centuries, the fundamental mindset of the factions in Afghanistan runs counter to our notion of warfare.
"Afghan forces compete mainly in skirmishes and rarely fight to the finish," Gutman observes. "Rather, they tend to shift allegiances according to whom they think will be the winner. Alliances are the currency of trade. 'You can be someone's mortal enemy one day and closest ally the next,' said a senior U.S. analyst. And the perception of outside support, 'if not identical to reality, is 90 percent of the game here.'"
But the Taliban weren't so reserved in their conduct. When they moved uncontested into Kabul in the mid-1990s, they were ruthless. "Full of religious fervor, and imbued by a sense of divine mission, and euphoric over their rapid victory, their first act of state was one of primitive vengeance."
Attacking a rival leader at the UN compound, they broke into his quarters and shot part of his skull off. Then they mutilated his body, killed his brother, and left both of them hanging from a traffic post in central Kabul. One victim's body was bound with ropes to keep it from falling apart. Bank notes had been stuffed in their mouths and cigarettes were shoved into their nostrils to signify corruption.
At first, the Clinton administration acknowledged the Taliban, and Warren Christopher ordered our embassy in Kabul to facilitate a dialogue with the new Afghan government. Not long after these events, Osama bin Laden was back in Afghanistan and "issuing fire-breathing fatwas against the United States and looking for the opportunity to influence the Taliban regime." From that time on, there was a massive failure in U.S. foreign policy and a fatal misapprehension of the political situation that gripped Afghanistan.
Indifference and our utter lack of understanding -- our chronic ethnocentrism -- reinforced our belief that small wars in a country thousands of miles removed from our shores were of little consequence.
You know the rest of the story -- 9/11.
If you found "The 9/11 Commission Report" frightening, Gutman's meticulously researched study of our foreign policy failures in Afghanistan and the disastrous consequences will likely keep you awake for many nights to come.
Contact Stephen Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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