Book review: Afghanistan: A Distant War


Author: Robert Nickelsberg

Review By : Anil Bhat

A photograph of Arab Al Qaeda members and Afghan Mujahideen jogging at a training camp located in a dry riverbed in Afghanistan, taken at a distance just outside the training camp, “is extremely rare,” says Nickelsberg. “I didn’t go down on one knee and take a light reading…I took the picture quickly, and then turned around and hoped I had it in focus.” Training camps, like these, were filled with Arabs from a variety of countries. Elizabeth Ralph quoted Nickelsberg in Politico magazine, saying “It was sort of like the United Nations of jihad.”

A lone Afghan with a stick in his hand held high, next to a bombed wall with a vast stretch of bare, tree-less desert-like land, on the cover of this weighty book is but a glimpse of how ravaged a once beautiful land has become. Over hundred photographs in the book, with perceptive comments by the author and complementary articles by some journalists bring out the tragedy that Afghanistan further became following the exit of Soviet Russian troops. The relatively stable period of 1933-1973 under King Zaher Shah, seems an old distant dream.

Based in New Delhi from 1988 to 2000 as the TIME magazine photographer, Robert Nickelsberg’s first foray into Afgnanistan was in 1988, when he accompanied a group of Mujahideen across the border from Pakistan.

Interacting with this writer, Nickelsberg said that getting access into Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation was tough as the Soviets didn’t grant any visas to journalists hoping to enter the country, except occasionally, which is how Nickelsberg came to be in Kabul on the first day of the Soviet army’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and captured the photo of an Afghan government soldier handing a flag in solidarity to a departing Soviet tank commander.

With the only route for foreign journalists to Afghanistan being “through the keyhole of Pakistan” and thence across mountains, backpacks and good boots were minimum requirements. Since the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, entering Pakistan or through it to Afghanistan, became much more difficult and by 2014, it became like never before. Forget about overnight access in Peshawar, even daylight access is not worth the risk. He stressed the need to be very cautious and not make any — “mistakes”. For those journalists who reach Afghanistan, being escorted by Afghan Army is also very dicey. Largely responsible for spreading terror in Afghanistan and India — which has also severely affected Pakistan — is the Pak Army and its infamous adjunct, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). However, criticising or reporting its misdeeds can be very dangerous.

According to Amnesty International, at least 34 journalists have been killed because of what they reported since restoration of democratic rule in Pakistan in 2008, but the culprits have been brought to justice in only one of those cases.

Authorities have “almost completely failed” to stem attacks on the media or hold those responsible like intelligence agencies, armed groups/Taliban and even political parties. Reporters have been threatened, abducted or tortured for their work. “Over 25per cent of Karachi is jihadi controlled — too dangerous for journalists,” said Nickelsberg. While this writer elaborated on the brutal murder of Pakistani journalist Saleem Shehzad in his book, After Abbottabad: Terror to Turmoil in Pakistan (Pentagon Press), Nickelsberg mentioned how Hamid Mir stopped six bullets for reporting on the ISI. Nickelsberg’s hour- -and-a-half long narration about this book at New Delhi’s Foreign Correspondents Club of South Asia in March this year, had everyone spellbound. His in-depth knowledge accumulated over umpteen trips to Afghanistan and recorded in many hundreds of photographs, covers all — the Taliban/other jihadi groups’ barbaric brutality, people’s despair, oppression of women, power play of the warlords, the plight of the US Army/coalition forces etc — in the backdrop of some fascinating landscape.

Another photo worth mentioning is of Jalaluddin Haqqani scowling at Nickelsberg’s lens. Ironically, reported to be a friend of the CIA, the Saudis and Osama bin Laden, Haqqani, not originally a Taliban, in 1995, just prior to Taliban’s occupation of Kabul, switched his allegiance to them. In 1996-97, he was also a minister in the Taliban government and governor of Paktia Province. If he had a role in aiding/abetting Osama Bin Laden’s escape, as believed, it obviously means he was close to the ISI. As one of the most important Taliban military commanders fighting against the Afghan government, and US forces in Afghanistan, He is still reportedly secretly aligned with the ISI. While the Pakistani government denies this relationship evidence clearly shows that the ISI is secretly working with various Taliban leaders to weaken and eventually destroy the US backed government in Kabul. Haqqani has also been accused by the US of involvement in the 2008 Indian embassy bombing in Kabul and the February 2009 Kabul raids.

The last two photos in the book are of Ahmed Shah Masood and Masood Khalili, with his son, Mahmud. Khalili, a close a friend and adviser of, Masood, were together when attacked by terrorists posing as a media team.

With the drawdown of US and other troops in Afghanistan scheduled for completion by end of 2014, after 13 years of conflict without much success and the security situation deteriorating again, the book’s release is timely. On May 27, 2014, President Obama reportedly announced his long-awaited plan for Afghanistan that a residual force of 9,800 US troops will remain there for one year following the end of combat operations in December 2014. That number will be cut in half at the end of 2015, and reduced at the end of 2016 to a small military presence at the US Embassy. This plan, despite warnings early this year by White House of a possible “zero option,” is largely in line with what the US military had requested. It also is in line with what Nato and other international partners said was necessary for them to retain a presence in Afghanistan.

The book is an informative reference piece for Afghanistan-Pakistan watchers.



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