A blinkered view of the war on terrorism

My following book review appeared in last weekend’s Sydney Sun Herald newspaper:

The Triple Agent
Joby Warrick
(Scribe, $32.95)
Reviewed by Antony Loewenstein

The war in Afghanistan is the longest in modern American history. This year has been the most deadly for Afghan civilians.

British MP Rory Stewart wrote in The New York Times that the presence of foreign troops and private security was inflaming the situation and making peace impossible: “Helmand is less safe in 2011 with 32,000 foreign troops in the province than it was in 2005, when there were only 300.”

Amid this chaos sits the CIA, the highly secretive (and largely unaccountable) organisation given the job, by successive US presidents, of tracking, capturing or killing supposed insurgents and bringing “victory”. This book documents one infamous case of how horribly wrong and misguided this stated aim can be.

In December 2009, a group of senior CIA operatives were based in Khost, Afghanistan, and were ready to greet Humam Khalil al-Balawi, a man they believed was the ultimate al-Qaeda insider who would give America invaluable intelligence on the terrorist organisation. Instead, he detonated a bomb strapped to his chest and killed seven CIA operatives, a deep blow to the agency.

The mercenary company Blackwater is front and centre of the story, often in charge of protecting CIA installations and officers in conflict zones, despite a troubling human rights record.

Such firms have been invaluable to America’s war machine since the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, without which Washington could not fight its countless battles around the world.

This Pulitzer Prize-winning book reads like a thriller but is infused with a deep sympathy for the war America is fighting in Afghanistan and the “war on terror” in general.

For example, US drone attacks in Pakistan are only seen as “killing terrorists”, whereas the facts tell a different, more disturbing story.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism recently released a study that found hundreds of civilians had been killed by drones since 2004.

Author Joby Warrick does not seem too concerned with such details, praising the supposed heroism of drone pilots killing remotely from back in America. But Warrick knows how to tell a cracking story and the importance of this book is to reveal the legal black hole of Washington’s actions globally, and the cultural and social ineptitude of US forces in countries they occupy.

This is an insider’s book written by a journalist who admires his countryfolk entrusted with allegedly defending the homeland.

Few doubts are expressed and the work closes with the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan.

It is framed as a retribution for the CIA deaths – a closing of the circle.

American foreign policy has never looked so tawdry and obsessed with revenge.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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