What US occupation looks like on the ground

My following lead book review appeared in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald:

INFERNAL TRIANGLE

Paul McGeough

Allen & Unwin, $32.99

This unblinking collection of dispatches separates the rhetoric from the reality of the post-September 11 battlefields.

The new US Defence Secretary and former CIA director, Leon Panetta, recently told journalists the Obama administration was ”within reach” of ”strategically defeating” al-Qaeda but would still need to kill or capture the group’s 10 to 20 remaining leaders.

It was a comment worth considering seriously. The US has hundreds of thousands of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, special forces in countless countries, drone attacks over at least six nations including Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, and military threats against many others, such as Iran. Yet the highest level of the US government now tells us there are only a handful of ”terrorists” who must destroyed.

Welcome to the post-Septem- ber 11 reality.

Experienced foreign correspondent Paul McGeough has followed these stories from the beginning, having been in New York on that fateful September morning in 2001. ”The whole of Manhattan is enveloped in a ghostly cloud of dust,” he wrote on the day of the attack.

This book compiles a decade in the field of battle, witnessing US- and Israeli-led wars. As McGeough commented in March this year, ”those brave enough to make a prediction [soon after September 11] would not have expected the world’s pre-eminent military and economic power to be the somewhat diminished world force that it is today”.

Imperial hubris has left Washington with an identity crisis that Barack Obama has only accelerated. The first US African-American president has, in fact, prosecuted whistleblowers more than any other leader in the country’s history and expanded covert actions around the world in the name of ”fighting terrorism”. It has made the US more insecure and close to bankruptcy.

Reading this fascinating collection of McGeough’s dispatches reminds us the past decade has been filled with spurious claims of spreading democracy, torturing in the name of security and backing Zionism in the misguided belief that occupying Israel is a reliable ally. McGeough bravely tackles all these myths.

McGeough documents the flailing war in Afghanistan and the delusional assessments offered by the Americans. In January 2005, he shows the official view of Washington towards the country: ”The US military – doing great. New democratic institutions – getting off the ground. First presidential election – planning well under way. Women’s rights – good things happening there, too.”

McGeough comments on this assessment with a tongue-in-cheek observation that President George W. Bush might not succeed ”finding a sure democratic footing in central Asia”. Indeed.

But this is journalism without glitz or cynicism. Rather, observational reporting that allows locals under occupation to speak truths about their situation. In Oruzgan province, where the Gillard government says Australian forces are helping to build democracy, McGeough wryly notes a comment in 2009 from a diplomat in Kabul that reveals the empty rhetoric of war backers here.

”We are supporting organised crime [in Oruzgan] and the people don’t like it.”

Imperial arrogance about Iraq was little different. McGeough wrote in July 2003, before the horrifying civil war engulfed the country and claimed up to 1 million innocent lives, that ordinary Iraqis won’t forgive the US for not providing adequate electricity in the searing summer heat. Eight years later, the US-backed Maliki regime, running death squads to eliminate opponents, still can’t provide sufficient power for the population.

An Iraqi technician tells the journalist that, ”we are beholden to the United States for ridding us of Saddam but they just don’t understand us”.

The most contentious sections of this book might be on Israel and Palestine. The local Zionist community has accused McGeough for years of being too critical of Israeli actions. For them, only complete obedience to the Israeli government line is acceptable. But, if anything, he could be accused of being too kind to policies in Palestine deemed illegal by international law.

McGeough isn’t afraid to document the endorsement of suicide bombing that existed in Palestine many years ago – hearing the stories of young martyrs wanting to die for the cause is both heart-breaking and tragic – and yet he places this desperation in its proper context. ”Palestinian researchers say they are discovering a generation of young people who don’t see a future,” McGeough noted in 2002. The reason is never-ending Israeli colonisation.

By the time the author presented a speech to Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas in 2010 on ”Controlling the narrative in Israel and Palestine”, he says Zionist ”mythology” has created a monster: an occupation with no end that still demands global backing. Boycotts and sanctions against Israel are now commonplace and rightly growing. Although, sadly, McGeough hesitates to fully acknowledge the Zionist entitlement to land, he doesn’t shy away from stating the bleeding obvious: ”There is no peace process.” The outcome is indefinite apartheid.

The book closes fittingly with an assessment of this year’s Arab Spring, a thoroughly convincing rejection of al-Qaeda’s nihilistic ideology. McGeough urges the West to forget about ”stability” in the Middle East – former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak might have pleased the US and Israel but he tortured his people for three decades – and dismiss the hypocritical bleating of people such as Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton, who spent years supporting the autocrats.

Unlike so many writers who report on the Arab world, McGeough believes in the possibility of real democracy for the Muslim societies the West has long seen as little more than a reliable petrol pump.