Sunday, August 5, 2007

Literature for a post-9/11 World

Here at The Loop and The Lou, we keep things on the lighter side. We'd like to talk more politics and religion, but our audience loves puff pieces. "Coovo's trip to the Zoo" and "Roller's Dirty Diaper Nightmare" have garnered much higher ratings than clunkers like "Coovo's trip to the Senate" and "Roller's Dirty Election Nightmare."

So at the risk of alienating some fans, I'm going to take the opportunity give a quick review of some books that I've read related to 9/11, the CIA, al Qaeda, etc. I've become pretty enthralled with this subject matter, and I'd like to spread the word.

While any of these books can be read on its own, and I recommend them all, I'd push for Ghost Wars or The Looming Tower first. They are so comprehensive, and reading them will provide excellent context for the others. Also, I highly recommend listening to the books. I read Ghost Wars and See No Evil first, and then listened to the rest. If you're a slow reader like me, it helps to digest all this content.

The following 4 books are delivered like documentaries, which is to say they remain objective and the stories they tell are all backed with facts (interviews, declassified government documents, etc.). Although that style sounds pretty dry, the subject matter definitely held my attention. I liken these books to a Tom Clancy novel without bad dialog or a romantic sub-plot.

"Ghost Wars" - This book provides a comprehensive history of the intelligence and military players in Afghanistan from 1979 (invasion of the Soviets) through 9/11. You learn how the intelligence agencies of the USA, Soviet Union, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, along with various regional Afghan warlords played their roles in the fight against Soviet occupation, subsequent skirmish for power and the rise of the Taliban and their symbiosis with al Qaeda.

"The Looming Tower" - This book has some overlap with Ghost Wars, but differs in that it does not focus on Afghanistan, but instead the history of al Qaeda. The book introduces one of the main voices of 20th century fundamentalism (Sayyid Qutb), how he influenced Ayman al-Zawahiri (al Qaeda's no. 2) and, of course, the rise of bin Laden and the al Qaeda organization.

While their paths differ before 1995 or so, both Ghost Wars and The Looming Tower provide an excellent account of the al Qaeda network, terrorist activities leading up to 9/11 (WTC bombing in '93, the US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the bombing of the USS Cole off teh coast of Yemen), the planning and execution of 9/11, and what the U.S. knew and did in an effort to neutralize al Qaeda pre-9/11.

"9/11 Commission Report" - This also had some overlap with Ghost Wars and The Looming Tower, but I felt it filled in some of the blanks from the U.S. side; it had a more detailed account of the interactivity (or lackthereof) between various U.S. agencies (CIA, FBI, State Department etc.). It also opened with a minute-by-minute account of the morning of 9/11, including everything that is known to have happened on each plane. I felt this was a balanced, objective report - its criticisms were justified, but I didn't detect any taint.

"No True Glory" - The book includes the invasion in '03 in its intro, but focuses on the battles in Falluja, Iraq, a Sunni town filled with former Baathists, fundamentalist clerics, Sunni insurgents, and your plain ole' run-o-the-mill criminals. Perhaps the biggest problem with the Coalition's approach to Falluja was that they expected residents in Fallujah to welcome troops; after all the troops were there to liberate and protect them. In contrast, residents wanted no foreign presence in their city. Fallujans that were not allied with the insurgents knew that one day the foreign troops would leave, whereas the insurgents lived there and wouldn't forget anyone who even wavered on their support. The book also described the complexities of "instilling freedom" in a country with politics so closely tied to, and yet so fiercely divided by, religion.

The book was filled with the play-by-play of the battles. At first I didn't understand how this was possible, but if you see soldiers in their gear today, they're all wearing microphones as part of their communications. Every minute on the battlefield is recorded, and the stories are about as real as you can imagine. There are no words for the mental and physical toughness of these soldiers. I get a fever and I call in sick for work. These guys get shot and refuse to leave the battlefield.

The following 3 books are told as first-person, first-hand accounts.

"See No Evil" - The autobiography of ex-CIA operative Robert Baer. Although he retired in 1997, he spent years in some of the most hostile, anti-Western places in the world, including Lebanon, Sudan, Tajikistan and Iraq. Baer's career has about 5 Hollywood films worth of material; in fact it was noted that his career was the inspiration for George Clooney's character in Syriana.

"Jawbreaker - The Attack on bin Laden and al Qaeda" - CIA operative Gary Bernsten was the top CIA field commander of the ground assault in Afghanistan post-9/11. This book details the overtake of Afghanistan, from the entry in the Panshir Valley to the chase of bin Laden into the Tora Bora mountains. American military might easily crushed the Taliban, but in the end the most wanted man slipped away as some Afghan commanders' loyalties were up for bidding, and the U.S. wasn't prepared to finish the fight in the mountains. A very captivating book.

"Inside the Jihad" - I've only started this book, but it already has me hooked. This is the auto-biography of a Morrocan Muslim who ended up working for French and British intelligence as a spy. He was initially running guns for extremists in Belgium when he realized the savagery of the fanatics he was supporting. After going undercover, he actually went to al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.

There are numerous challenges with bringing democracy to a nation in which autocracy/theocracy is woven into the fabric of the culture. Democracy is freedom of choice, a fair chance for all. It is impossible to play by "fair" rules when the opponents play by no rules at all. The U.S. and its allies are berated globally for any appearance of heavy-handed tactics, yet it is the insurgents that resort to the blind killing of innocents, cloaked in religious divinity. It is not only that the fundamentalists believe killing "infidels" is just; they actually believe it to be their duty - and that those who do not fulfill this duty are infidels themselves.

The long-term success of democratic governments in Afghanistan and Iraq is, in my opinion, doubtful. These governments will be viewed by many Muslims as puppets of the West, no more loved than the theocratic alternative. As in Fallujah, one day western troops will leave. The insurgents will not. Camps can be leveled, cities can be cleaned, but the supply of poor, uneducated, impressionable Muslim youth is virtually endless.

Job opportunity and traditional education in many Arab nations scarce, but room and board at religious schools (madrassas), funded by fundamentalist sheiks, is not. Students in these schools are indoctrinated with fundamentalism and hatred of the West, and when they leave they are no more trained for a traditional career than when they entered. But they are mentally prepared for the jobs waiting for them on the front lines of the jihad. The strength of fundamentalist militias may ebb and flow, but it will not die, and from what I've read it's as strong now as it's been since pre-9/11.

I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting U.S. troops be pulled out. I have the luxury of spouting my opinions and predictions 6000 miles from the truth, and reading a few books hardly makes my opinion worth anything. I can only hope that those with the true knowledge of the all the variables and causes and effects of these situations can make the best, most pure decisions.

Well, what began as a book review got a little out of hand. You might say it was a little ... extreme (scary music). I'd love to hear people's thoughts on this. Heck, I just hope someone read this far. And of course I'd love to hear any books that have been enjoyed by our sleeper cell of readers. Until then, Allah ak bu ahkd ba du (Dude, yeah, Allah an all them).


Ryan said...

Rollers! Great commentary. I hope to read half of those books so we could talk about this stuff somewhat on even footing, but until then I'll trust your judgment.

Well balanced statements, not heavy handed... I understand the danger of being informed only by books, but I still bet you are better informed than 90% of our politicians and media!

Rollo Akbar!

P.S. When are we getting hot telemundo chicks? The rest of the world is already scooping this:

Roller said...

Thanks Rye. Coovo set the over/under for comments on the post at 0. And took the under. I win!!

The beauty in latin news reporting is definitely post-worthy. I'll bet Hispanic males are the most informed demographic in the world.

Tom said...

Hey Roller,
Great column! I'm suprised and very impressed that you have spent so much time taking the deep dive into this subject. I wish I could say the same for my own summer reading efforts, but after Harry Potter 7 I was too emotionally drained to inquire about the complex fate of our pan-cultural wars of ideology. Mostly I wanted to say hi to you, coov and ryan.
TL in the ATL

Roller said...

Always nice to see TLATL at TLATL. Thanks for dropping by, amigo.