Book review: Above the Din of War, by Peter Eichstaedt

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 4:50pm

Above the Din of War

by Peter Eichstaedt

Chicago Review Press

So much for Operation Enduring Freedom. The American-led mission launched after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York's fiscal heart limps on, finally set to fizzle out in 2014, when the US forces are slated to end their occupation of Afghanistan.

Above the Din of War suggests the US campaign against the Afghan group implicated in the attacks - the ultra-Islamist Taliban - is a flop.

Peter Eichstaedt's portrait of Afghanistan, based on a year of travel there, is revealing and unusual because he invites the views of locals from all kinds of backgrounds: think an ex-warlord, a Taliban judge, daring female parliamentarians, self-immolation victims, would-be suicide bombers, embattled merchants, spooked mullahs, and distressed archaeologists.

The picture that crystallises borders on shocking.

"The extent of the Taliban resurgence was beyond what most people were willing to admit," Eichstaedt writes. Since 2004, he adds, Herat province in Afghanistan's west has degenerated from one of the country's safest states into one of the riskiest - apparently most people consider the local shadow Taliban government the true power.

The same picture applies across much of Afghanistan, Eichstaedt shows, noting that while the Afghan army wields old AK-47s, the Taliban have rocket-propelled grenades. Dire.

Eichstaedt's accounts of Taliban abuse of Afghan women make for especially grim reading. In one episode, a woman accused of violating the custom of being constantly accompanied by a male relative is repeatedly stabbed then tossed in a well. The internal terrorism looks unlikely to stop because America has failed to tackle the root of growing Taliban influence - its grip on opium production, which thrives despite coalition cover-up attempts.

Eichstaedt's website describes him as "a veteran journalist and author dedicated to revealing the stories behind the world's worst human rights tragedies around the world".

His Afghanistan solution is a negotiated regional settlement that would nix the need for a hefty, continuing Western military presence. That would be welcome news to the war-weary American voting public, which by a wide margin opposes long-term military commitment, he writes.

Foreign policy know-it-alls may say that, despite his originally intimate take on Afghanistan, they have heard it all before. Still, most readers may be surprised at just how dysfunctional the country remains. Meanwhile, guess who stands to gain from the mess? Yes, China. The nation wedded to realpolitik will reap the rewards of 10 years of American fighting partly funded by Chinese loans, according to Eichstaedt.

"China, meanwhile, has not even provided one soldier to help with the war in Afghanistan, yet stands to earn billions in profits from Afghan copper."