In this book journalist Jason Burke writes a survey of events of the first ten years of the so called war on terror from the late nineties to the death of Osama Bin Laden and the Arab Spring in 2011. Well documented and footnoted it offers the author's commentary on many of the main events with the author as correspondent visiting many of the war zones and interviewing participants in events. From this perspective, Burke writes from the viewpoint of ordinary people caught up in the events and the consequences for them. Burke in his extensive travels in the Middle East and Arab World could see much of what happened at first hand and he offers his intended audience, mainly readers in the Western Hemisphere insights and perspectives into the minds of those on both sides of the conflict.
The author presents a view of the war from the ground up, and is not focused on the behavior of top ranking American and British politicians, such as Bush and Blair or why they acted the way they did. Much debated issues such as the events of 9/11 itself, and the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq get relatively little detail, with the focus and analysis on what came later in the Middle East and Europe.
The first section of the book deals with the origins of the Taliban and the departure of the Russians from Afghanistan. Beginning with the destruction of the ancient Buddhas by the Taliban government and the American invasion of the country leading to the Talibans’ flight from Tora Bora, the author offers insights into what went well on the ground in Afghanistan as well as what did go not go according to plan.
It also deals with the more problematic invasion of Iraq twelve months later, and the failure of the occupying Americans to win the peace. He outlines the role of misinformation on both sides, the counterproductive use or torture and rendition by the Americans in both Afghanistan and then Iraq. It highlights the fragility of western style liberal democracy in both countries, and how the perceptions of America and its allies by many ordinary citizens in both countries, changed from being that of a rescuer and liberator to that of an oppressive occupying power.
The later parts of the book deal with the impact of terrorist bombings in Europe, and has entire chapters devoted to Pakistan and FATA, the later clearly one of the most dangerous places in the world for any westerner. Burke concludes his summing up of ten years of the war by suggesting that while the war has not been won by either side, neither has it produced the Armageddon that some had expected. He also attempts a carefully considered estimate of the collateral damage, the civilian casualties.
A major thesis in the book is that it is far too simplistic to view the war as a titanic struggle between opposing ideologies, Christianity V's Islam, or even Evil V's Good, but Burke emphasizes how often local issues determine what sides or values those in the opposing forces choose to support. For example the Pashtun minority in Afghanistan found the Taliban willing to stand up in support of them against a bigoted majority who would rather still continue their persecution, and how Western ignorance of Iraqi culture, helped contribute to the insurgency that still exists in that country. If there is anything positive to be gleaned from the conflict so far, it is an awareness of the real complexity of what has to be done to reform countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, if that is what is intended. This was not apparent in the West's initial self righteous desire to avenge the innocent loss of life at the world trade centre, at the onset of the conflict.
Burke may be considered a mere investigate journalist rather than an Historian, but he writes History in a similar manner to the ancient historian Herodotus, the so called Father of History. Around 500 BCE Herodotus, wrote his own epic history of another titanic struggle the Greek/Persian Wars, using presumably more primitive methods of interviewing, and by extensive traveling and first hand observation. More sophisticated perhaps, Burke writes in much the same way, making use of telling anecdotes to frame his analysis. In this respect Herodotus might be the Father of Investigative Journalism too.
Unlike his ancient counterpart, Burke offers us nearly two hundred pages of scholarly footnotes, to back up his observations and analysis. His bibliography informs the reader that a vast literature on the 9/11 wars already exists, and Burke has now made another major contribution towards it with this book.