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book review

Over its 13-year mission in Afghanistan, Canada was aided by Afghan nationals – as fixers, security guards, embassy staff, translators and the like. Following the Taliban’s rapid advance across the country in August, 2021, most of those individuals who remain in the country now face possible persecution. As two new books demonstrate, the U.S. government left some stranded in Kabul without warning, while others were forced to join the mass movement of migrants who headed to Europe in what has become the biggest refugee crisis on the continent since the Second World War. These compelling true stories of refugees and corruption shed light on the continuing crisis.

The Naked Don’t Fear The Water

An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees
By Matthieu Aikins

After seven years of war reporting in the Middle East, Matthieu Aikins found himself emotionally exhausted.KIANA HAYERI/The Globe and Mail

Back in the fall of 2015, the award-winning Canadian journalist Matthieu Aikins began working on an investigative story about a controversial bombing in Kunduz, Afghanistan, and travelled to the bombed-out Doctors Without Borders hospital. He was accompanied by his long-term Afghan translator, driver and close friend, Omar, who grew up in exile in Iran and Pakistan as a refugee from the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-89) and got his first assignment in Afghanistan as a translator with the Canadian Armed Forces.

After seven years of war reporting in the Middle East, however, Aikins found himself emotionally exhausted, and planned to return to New York.

But leaving Omar behind would have felt like betraying a true friend who, since they began working together in Afghanistan in 2009, had become as close as family. Besides, Omar had always dreamt of escaping to the west, and amidst an intensifying civil war, those aspirations grew more urgent. “After all the dangerous assignments we’d done here together, I trusted Omar with my life,” Aikins writes in the opening pages of The Naked Don’t Fear the Water.

The book is a gripping story of international adventure and romance. Stylistically, it sits somewhere between Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Daniel Trilling’s Lights in the Distance. It also presents a nuanced and detailed account of the refugee crisis that reached its apotheosis during the Long Summer of Migration in 2015, when more than a million “boat people” (Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi war-fleeing refugees) made their way from the Middle East to Turkey, and then moved westward, across the Mediterranean to Greece, up north through the Balkans, and into western Europe.

Predominantly, it focuses on a four-month life-threatening odyssey that Omar embarked on during the summer of 2016 to escape a war-torn Afghanistan.

“If Omar was going … then I wanted to go with him and write about it,” Aikins explains. We also learn there is another reason for Omar wanting to urgently leave Kabul: He’s smitten with his landlord’s daughter, Laila. But it’s complicated. His beloved is from a wealthy Shia family, while Omar, a Sunni Muslim, is barely making a living. If he can somehow secure asylum and a steady income in Europe, he figures he’ll be able to get Laila’s father to agree to an arranged marriage proposal.

With this romantic quest as their guiding source of inspiration, Aikins and Omar embark on a journey across several countries with unwelcoming hostile borders. It begins in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and takes them to various locations across Afghanistan, but plans change as threats such as kidnapping, imprisonment and international terrorism loom on the horizon.

Aikins decides his best option is fly to Turkey, and wait for Omar on the other side of the Iranian border. When the Turkish authorities accuse the journalist of being a threat to national security, he gets deported back to Italy. From the port city of Trieste, he then travels 700 miles across the Balkan Peninsula, to Sinemorets, a resort town on the Black Sea in Bulgaria. Posing as an Afghan refugee, he crosses the Turkish border, illegally, at Igneada – eventually reuniting with Omar, who took a long and arduous journey to get to Istanbul. From the Turkish city of Izmir, they both jump aboard a small dinghy: this takes them on a perilous journey to Lesbos.

The latter part of the book takes place in Moria: an overcrowded refugee camp/open air prison on the Greek island. It was burnt to the ground in 2020. During the height of Europe’s refugee crisis it housed more than 5,000 migrants in appalling, inhuman conditions. We read some of their harrowing and heartbreaking stories here.

The travelling duo also find themselves at a low ebb in the camp. Running out of cash, they become so hungry they can barely function. But their stern resilience, patience and willpower eventually pay off handsomely. Omar manages to find his way to Athens and reunites with Laila.

Aikins’s informal and emotional prose relies for the most part on first-hand experience. The rebellious and brave journalist also cites a number of credible historians and anthropologists as he goes, but this constant reflecting, philosophizing and name-dropping distracts the author, at least occasionally, from the main story he wishes to tell.

Aikins concludes with an important historical footnote: noting how on Aug. 15, 2021, the Taliban captured Kabul, sending a new wave of Afghan refugees into global exile.

The Ledger

By Greg Mills and David Kilcullen

During this pivotal moment in history, Greg Mills and David Kilcullen, co-authors of The Ledger, used their political connections to help evacuate more than 1,000 professional colleagues out of Afghanistan. Kilcullen, a professor of international and political studies at the University of New South Wales Canberra, Australia, has served in Iraq as senior counter-insurgency adviser to General David Petraeus, and as a high ranking counterterrorism adviser to former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Mills is the director of the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, and is also a distinguished academic, author and international policy adviser. Last July, he found himself liaising with then-Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, in the presidential palace, as the Taliban began marching victoriously toward Kabul.

The Ledger contains numerous moments of dramatic last-minute political wheeling and dealing. Kilcullen and Mills’s combined wealth of experience is impressive, although it occasionally comes across like they’re boasting to the reader about how many powerful political players they have on speed dial. The book’s main argument is laden with corporate speak.

Nevertheless, their dedication to public policy in Afghanistan seems sincere and genuine. Over the past 16 years they’ve worked closely with a wide range of key actors across Afghan society, including local police, the military, national security services and Islamic terrorists. With that insider knowledge to hand, they gradually lost faith in an idea they once firmly believed in: that the United States and its Western allies, with enough dollars and military might, could somehow bring secular democracy to Afghanistan.

The humiliating defeat the United States suffered during the Afghanistan war, and the ugly explosion of the Islamic State (IS) across Iraq and Syria has caused both authors to rethink that messianic ideal. Indeed, it’s left them asking the same question many media commentators around the globe also posed last August: Why were the U.S., and its coalition partners, unable to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan? This is the main question both authors rigorously explore at length in The Ledger.

The book begins by drawing parallels to the American intervention in the Vietnam War (1955-75).

As in Afghanistan, the conflict dragged on for more than two decades, resulting in a bloody stalemate where defeating an intransigent enemy with a talent for guerrilla warfare became near impossible. “Western leaders convinced themselves [in Afghanistan] that this time things would be different,” they write. The statistics they quote tell a different story, though. Between 2001 and 2019, two million men and women were deployed from abroad to serve in Afghanistan, and more than US$2-trillion was spent on the war that ended in political and military catastrophe.

Kilcullen and Mills then point to the disastrous last-minute diplomacy efforts that facilitated the eventual American military withdrawal from Afghanistan. It began under the Trump Administration, in February, 2020, with the Doha Agreement: where Washington made peace with the Taliban, while sidelining its ally in the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

So what could have been done differently to ensure a less chaotic exit strategy was achieved?

Answering that question, they argue, requires revisiting the myopic worldview espoused by hawkish Anglo-Saxon neoconservative leaders such as George W. Bush and Tony Blair, as the so-called War on Terror reached a fever pitch after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York in September, 2001. The leading idea then was that a Western design of government could somehow be imposed on a conservative, impoverished country like Afghanistan.

Post 9/11, the presence of U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan was ostensibly meant to root out Islamic terrorism and replace it with a nation-building agenda, wherein liberal democracy was the end goal. This book points to a grittier, harsher reality: a mix of tribal factionalism, internal feuding, corruption and chaotic violence has pushed the landlocked mountainous South Asian country further and further toward failed-state status. Both authors stress how a combination of wishful thinking and superficial political analysis have resulted in unrealistic goals and objectives in Afghanistan. Attempting to simply eradicate the Taliban – who the West portrayed for a long time as a force of evil that must be destroyed – for instance, may have gone down well in certain sectors of Afghan society. But realistically, it was never going to wash with most Afghans, especially in poorer and less well developed regions of the country.

The concluding chapter of the book looks at how the map of the global geopolitical order has been drastically redrawn in the aftermath of the war. Mills and Kilcullen claim that it’s weakened NATO, harmed transatlantic trust, and divided Washington further from its European allies and partners – especially on pressing political issues, such as how the west should deal with China. Moreover, since the U.S. has now willingly, and enthusiastically, abdicated its global leadership role, that vacuum is now being filled by power-hungry ambitious authoritarian leaders such as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.

The Ledger also points to what is perhaps the greatest irony of losing the war in Afghanistan: Random acts of terrorism are almost certainly going to increase in Western countries in the coming months and years ahead. As Salafi/Jihadist organizations around the globe look for heroic sources of inspiration, the monumental victory the Taliban achieved last August in Kabul now stands as a perfect example worth trying to emulate.

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