To most of us in the west, Afghanistan is the new Middle East; a place so beset by political upheaval, violent religious extremism and external power struggles that it’s eas- ier just to turn the page than read beyond the dateline to the latest catastrophe.
To Kathy Gannon, who for the past 18 years has been Associated Press corre- spondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the country most people know as a dusty, hopeless spaghetti junction of competing religious and political agen- das, became a beloved second home.
Based in Islamabad, Gannon has covered neighbouring Afghanistan from the last days of the Soviet occu- pation through the ascendancy of the Taliban, the arrival of Al Qaeda and the post 9/11 US-led invasion. Her book, I Is for Infidel recounts in com- pellingly moving and sometimes har- rowing stories the last two decades in a country where history seems to have been making up for lost time.
In I Is for Infidel, Gannon intro- duces us to the human beings behind the clichés conjured up by words like Taliban, Al Qaeda, mujahedeen ”” men sometimes bewildered by their own power, driven by history to go on fighting tribal wars in an era when no war is local, and who now confound an America that once used their reli- gion as a motivational tool in training them to fight a different enemy.
Covering a repressive fundamen- talist regime is difficult enough for any reporter, but Gannon is a fair- haired, blue-eyed, 50-year-old woman from Timmins, Ontario. And though you’d never hear it from her, she’s a legend among correspondents in the region, which gives her unique stand- ing with sources of every faction as well as the regular Afghanis whose lives she chronicles.
Whether it’s because she’s been there so long or because she reports on the politics and the culture with a point of view unfettered by a reflex, conscious or not, to pander to a political agenda back home, it has paid off in access (she was the only foreign reporter allowed back into Afghanistan by the Taliban during the fall 2001 bombing campaign that led to their retreat from Kabul) and in insight into a part of the world that so many observers get wrong.
One of the benefits of getting the story from a reporter who has lived in a place for this long, rather than being sent in from New York or London every time things heat up, is that she knows more about the facts on the ground than most diplomats and cer- tainly more than the people who rely on the diplomats to feed their spin.
Among the White House myths Gannon debunks is that Osama bin Laden was a creature of the Taliban. In fact, he arrived in May, 1996, after the Soviet army withdrew and before the Taliban took over, at the behest of notorious warlord and mujahedeen leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (who won a seat in last month’s Afghan elections amid protests from human rights groups).
She also deftly lays out the double dealing of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, George W. Bush’s vaunted post-9/11 ally, who Gannon says gave sanctuary to bin Laden to ease US pres- sure on the Taliban. Her reporting that bin Laden was and may still be hiding in northwest Pakistan echoes com- ments made last spring by CIA chief Porter Goss, who told Time magazine that he has an ”œexcellent idea” where bin Laden is, but that the sovereignty of nations offering sanctuary made it difficult to capture him.
Despite the speed and style exigen- cies of wire service reporting, Gannon has long been the one whose copy everyone else checks before filing from this part of the world. In I Is for Infidel, she fills in the space between the lines of her news stories with all the colour of a place she clearly feels for, and of its beleaguered people about whom she writes with affection and respect.
Beneath all that, this book is a look at the daily life of a foreign corre- spondent who is not in it for the air time or the adrenaline, but who risks her life over and over again to let the world know what’s happening and why in a remote but important place.