Know thy enemy
On the Road to Kandahar: travels through conflict in the Islamic world
This review is a revised version of the original in which it was suggested that Jason Burke had occasionally used cocaine. We accept that this is not the case and we apologise for the error. The review has now been corrected (August 23rd 2006).
Journalists are human, despite all evidence to the contrary. The Jason Burke we accompany on the road to Kandahar - and on to Islamabad, Gaza, Algiers, Srinagar and Baghdad - is engaging, good-humoured, nagged on occasion by fear and self-doubt, moved and sometimes overwhelmed by the world's humanity and inhumanity. He gets drunk, girlfriends come and go, he takes part in a naked table-tennis tournament in post-liberation Baghdad. He fits easily into the company of raw young troops from Michigan and Milwaukee stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, for whom war is a real-time version of Full Metal Jacket. He is, in many ways, a child of our time.
But beneath the colour and incident of this journey, a purpose unfolds: to understand Islam in its variety, and to make sense of the global jihad and the west's response to it. This is, in a sense, a companion volume to the book that made Burke's name, a study of al-Qaeda which challenged our often one-dimensional view of that amorphous body - and, regrettably, led some to conclude that it exists only as a figment of the imaginations of deranged neoconservatives in Washington. This new book serves as an antidote to such simplifications.
Apart from a student misadventure in Iraqi Kurdistan, the journey gets going not in the Middle East, but in south Asia. In Pakistan, the rookie journalist encounters the benign face of Islam in a Sufi holy man and then its harder visage in an isolated village in the Punjab, where an old woman has been set alight and killed for, allegedly, burning pages of the Koran. The harsh realities of Pakistan, and of Afghanistan under the Taliban, provide an initiation into the ways religion is used as a weapon in a variety of social and political battles. Sympathetic soul that he is, Burke feels sorry for the Taliban. But he sees clearly what drives them: fear of change. Educated, unveiled women are "modernity" and so a threat to be countered through the imposition of a puritanical creed: Islam pur et dur.
Here and in other contexts, Burke finds himself wrestling with the moral dilemma of violence legitimated by religion. Decades of Israeli occupation can explain Palestinian frustration but not excuse the "culture of martyrdom" inculcated by Hamas and other militant groups. In Algeria, he witnesses a society profoundly exhausted and alienated by the excesses of violent Islamists, and of the government they fought for more than a decade, and wonders if this offers a shard of hope.
But if the Taliban, Hamas and the Algerian Islamists pose challenges to our understanding, "al-Qaeda" (Burke prefers the inverted commas) is an enigma of a more daunting kind. The attack on the twin towers represented something entirely new: the readiness to use violence against civilians on a vast scale, to fight a global rather than a local jihad, and to use the "propaganda of the deed" to spectacularly novel effect. Manipulation of the media - in particular satellite television and the internet - is central to the methodology of this new jihad. "Marketing martyrdom" (as Burke puts it) is a key element of the strategy. He wants to believe that a growing number of Muslims will reject the whole sinister package; but given the prevailing sense of Muslim humiliation, whose multiple causes he documents, the flow of recruits shows no sign of drying up.
When Burke returns home after watching the US intervention in Afghanistan following 9/11, the overthrow of the Taliban and the failure to capture the leaders of al-Qaeda at Tora Bora, he gradually becomes convinced that the Bush administration and western "security experts" are getting it wrong. They do not understand the enemy. They are obsessed with states and with "hard power". Such thinking leads them, of course, to Iraq. Burke finds himself torn. He doesn't buy the alleged "axis of evil" between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and al-Qaeda, and fears the consequences of intervention; yet he knows how much his Kurdish and other Iraqi friends yearn for Saddam's overthrow.
But as he reports the invasion and its aftermath, the ambivalence fades. Like others, he chronicles the invaders' mistakes, not least their fateful lack of knowledge about Iraq and its history. And later, he sees as hollow pretence the Blair government's efforts to deny any link between Iraq and the 7 July bombings in London. He does not hide his personal shock and indignation at the bombings. Anger aside, however, they tend to reinforce his view that the global jihad is now made up of home-grown groups with little or no link to the original al-Qaeda.
This is a personal odyssey shot through with vivid description and human sympathy. There is no blinding flash of light on the road to Kandahar - only a slow, painful struggle to understand.
Roger Hardy is a Middle East and Islamic affairs analyst for the BBC World Service