Saturday, May 9, 2009


This week in Washington President Obama hosted the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. An historical and geographical shatter-belt, the area has been a hot spot for centuries. Coll’s book Ghost Wars gives the recent record of plot and counter-plot, of heroic deeds and treachery, of sudden and often savage deaths. It’s a big book. I’m a speed reader but I still have to go slow, it’s so complex. I’m not even half way through.

I’m up to 1990. Bin Laden’s in Saudi Arabia denouncing local dependence upon American assistance and offering to clear the secularist forces of Iraq’s Saddam out of Kuwait with his own holy warriors. The offer was declined. Meanwhile back in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, American, Pakistani and Saudi intelligence services jockey for power in the vacuum created by the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In Washington the CIA bosses refused to accept their field officers’ reports of concerns from many Afghan warlords about the support being offered to the Islamic fundamentalist leaders. The power-games in Washington remind me of the time-wasting, energy-sapping struggles between the Ministry of Education, the Education Review Office and the New Zealand Qualifcations Authority after the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms. On the scale of things very minor, but ultimately important here. In the USA the State Department, Pentagon and CIA all had their agendas. Decisions made affected the whole world.

What comes through clearly is the murky nature of espionage. It’s John Le Carre country. Who do you trust? Nobody. What is scary is the influence that all three spy agencies had over their governments. In many instances they dictated or lead policy.

The defiles and hills of Afghanistan are ideal for guerrilla warfare. The pattern that is emerging is one of a beleaguered leader huddled in Kabul surrounded by strong war-lords. Survival is a game of playing one off the other. Sooner or later time runs out.

I hope Obama is successful. The stakes are incredibly high. But I fear in a country where war has been a way of life for centuries the odds are not good. To switch metaphors his own countrymen down the years have fouled the nest.

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