War in Afghanistan

The Ghost War

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 July, 2008, 12:00am

The Ghost War

by Alex Berenson

Putnam, HK$200

'China's economy could propel it to be the world's most powerful country by the end of the century', a story in a financial newspaper predicted. 'Is America in Decline?' a headline on the cover of the magazine Foreign Affairs asked. Alex Berenson's second novel, The Ghost War, might be fiction, but it is against this possible shift in the balance of world power that the action takes place.

Former reporter Berenson is familiar with the complexities of international affairs, having covered everything from the global economy to the Iraq war for The New York Times and his eye for detail gives his plot a scary plausibility. Scary because he spells out just how vulnerable the world is when power falls into the wrong hands.

Seemingly unrelated events - a failed American mission in North Korea, an agreement to help Iran go nuclear, foreign help for the Taleban in Afghanistan and a political bid for power in Beijing - conspire to spark an international confrontation that leads the world to the brink of war. It falls to CIA agent John Wells to trace the links to try to save the day.

The last time we saw Wells, in Berenson's first novel, The Faithful Spy, he was alone in saving New York from a devastating terrorist attack, having alienated his CIA bosses after infiltrating al-Qaeda. At the beginning of The Ghost War he is suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder that leads him to risk his life unnecessarily at high speed on his motorcycle simply for the adrenalin rush.

Wells desperately needs to return to action, as his CIA lover Jennifer Exley realises, volunteering him for the task of finding out who is helping the Taleban in Afghanistan. What Wells discovers leads him on a conspiracy trail embracing greed, betrayal, political ambition and military power.

But there is more to this novel than just the thrill of the ride. The journalist in Berenson offers reflections on the roles of the US and China, weighing the vulnerability of the former as top dog superpower with the potential of the latter as pretender to the throne.

In this passage, for example, Wells becomes the conscience of the US as he faces impossible survival odds. He wonders if his fate is 'primordial justice ... for the way his country had walked away from the Geneva Conventions. For Abu Ghraib ... for waterboarding and stun guns and the torture that the lawyers had decided wasn't torture at all. For the madness that had descended on Iraq since the invasion, the uncounted men, women and children who'd died because the fools in the White House told themselves the mission was accomplished in May 2003.'

Berenson contrasts this with China on the rise, albeit catapulted by a fictionalised turn of events that leads to calls for the country to oppose US dominance.

The believability of Berenson's thriller is what sets it apart from its Ludlumesque counterparts. Jason Bourne and John Wells have much in common: both characters are as human as they are hero, a flesh-and-blood departure from the cartoon capers of James Bond.

The difference is that Berenson could well be writing the headlines of tomorrow.