The Bin Laden “hero” problem

One US embassy cable released on WikiLeaks raises more questions about the Afghan war strategy.

The United States has often been accused, sometimes unfairly, of not understanding the culture of other nations and people. Following the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, these misunderstandings (or should that be "misunderestimations"?) appeared even more pronounced. The very idea that the US military would be greeted as liberators seems laughable. How could Americans have believed that? 

Well, according to one of the recently (Wiki-)leaked US embassy cables: they didn't. The cable in question, from 1999, shows that US diplomats were discussing the fact that Osama Bin Laden had the potential to be regarded as a folk hero in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The cable states that:

We frequently hear reports that some in the lower-middle and lower classes, both urban and rural, consider [Bin Laden] an Islamic hero because the US has named him "Public Enemy Number One". That said, it's our impression that the majority of Muslims, at least in Pakistan, do not necessarily support this view. The pending [US government] distribution of [Bin Laden] "Wanted" posters and matchbooks in Pakistan may increase [Bin Laden]'s stature as a kind of folk hero.

It appears the US government had no delusions that they would be heralded as heroes, should they pursue Bin Laden in the region. The January 2009 cable admits that the Taliban had done a better job of communicating their image of Bin Laden than the US had, stating that "the Taliban have pre-empted us consistently since August", while the US response was "muted and delayed".

This raises some rather interesting questions. First, if the US government was aware of this problem more than two years before the invasion, what made officials think that reshaping Afghanistan (already referred to by some as the Graveyard of Empires) would be successful? They were hunting Bin Laden with renewed vigour now, after all. 

Second, was the US government naive enough to believe that the events of 9/11 were enough to secure the sympathy of the Afghan and Pakistani people? Surely bombing their country would negate that sympathy if it did exist. 

Third, supposing that the US was completely realistic about the realities of opinions among the Afghan and Pakistani populations and had taken on board the points made in this cable, why was there not a better, more comprehensive plan put into effect for the aftermath of driving out the Taliban? Whether you support the war in Afghanistan or not, you have to admit that it has been handled appallingly in terms of winning over the hearts and minds of the people.

The cable suggests a number of measures to convince the Afghans and Pakistanis that Bin Laden is not the Islamic crusader that the Taliban have made him out to be. These measures make sense, but there is no evidence that any of them was ever implemented. This leads to the fourth question: why not? 

Given a realistic idea of how Bin Laden was perceived locally, the tactics of the invasion seem even more woefully inadequate than they would have been if the US had gone in blind.

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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad