Tag Archives: Afghanistan

A superb suspense novel set in the USSR, Afghanistan, and the U.S.

A review of Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The third book in a trilogy, Agent 6 concludes the story of Leo Demidov, a hero in the Great Patriotic War (as the USSR termed World War II) and later an agent in Stalin’s secret police. By way of introduction, the book opens in 1950 with Leo in thrall to the Sovet State, a senior officer in the MGB (predecessor to the KGB and to today’s FSB) charged with training newly recruited agents. Jesse Austin, a world-famous African-American singer closely resembling Paul Robeson, is visiting Moscow, where he will perform and publicly extol the accomplishments of the Soviet regime as he sees them. Leo is detailed to help ensure that Austin is shielded from the realities of life in Moscow. In the course of this challenging assignment, Leo comes into close contact with Raisa, a beautiful and brilliant young teacher with whom he has been infatuated from afar.

The scene shifts abruptly to 1965, with Leo and Raisa married and living in poverty with their two adopted daughters (minor characters earlier in the trilogy). Raisa has persuaded Leo to leave the secret police. Meanwhile, she has risen far in the Ministry of Education and has been named to head a peace delegation to the USA — a student group in which she insists including her daughters. With great misgiving, Leo agrees not to stand in the way of their leaving for New York.

There, in New York, still in 1965, a tragic series of events involving Raisa, her younger daughter, Elena, Jesse Austin, and a senior FBI agent named Jim Yates swiftly unfold. Leo is unhinged by the tragedy and devotes his life to unraveling the mystery behind it.

Again the scene shifts. It’s 1973, and Leo has just failed again in his frantic attempts to leave the Soviet Union and make his way to New York to investigate the mystery. Seven years later, in 1980, we find him in Kabul, where he had been given a dangerous assignment as punishment for attempting to flee the Soviet Union. He is now the longest-surviving Soviet “advisor” to Afghanistan’s Communist Party, training the new Communist regime’s secret police. Here, in the shadow of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the ferocious resistance by the mujahedeen, Leo becomes embroiled in a series of violent and troubling experiences that eventually make it possible for him to travel to New York at last.

In the concluding scenes of this extraordinarily compelling novel, we find Leo in New York, scrambling to unlock the mystery that has bedeviled him for a decade and a half.

Agent 6 is the conclusion of Tom Rob Smith’s Leo Demidov trilogy, which began three years ago with Child 44, his debut novel. Child 44 was an instant success, both critically and commercially, and won numerous awards both as a thriller and as a work of literature. It was followed in 2009 by The Secret Speech. All three books are brilliant, and all can be read without reference to the others.

Tom Rob Smith is a young, Cambridge-educated British writer, son of a Swedish mother and an English father. It’s difficult to understand how he could have acquired such a fine sensibility about life in Stalinist Russia, let alone in Afghanistan under Soviet occupation. Smith was born in the year the USSR invaded Afghanistan, a quarter-century after Stalin’s death. Yet Agent 6 rings true throughout.

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Filed under Detective Stories, Mysteries & Thrillers

A great story of international intrigue that could have been better told

A review of Tribe, by James Bruno

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Harry Brennan is a veteran CIA field agent, equally skilled in recruiting informants and in front-line combat, but he has little respect for his superiors in the agency and poor insight into the finer points of the high-stakes office politics that threatens to sideline him. Following a botched mission to Afghanistan, he comes to believe that someone in the agency tried to have him killed in the field to conceal a plot to shift U.S. foreign policy to the benefit of Big Oil. The stakes in this latter-day version of the Great Game couldn’t be higher: $25 trillion in oil reserves, a brokered peace between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and the election of a President — not to mention Harry’s life and the life of his college-age daughter.

Tribe might have been an outstanding book. The backdrop shifts from Afghanistan, where espionage, major power rivalries, and the outsized ambitions of commerce so often converge, to the Georgetown cocktail circuit, the White House, and the CIA. Harry Brennan is a satisfyingly complex figure. Descriptions of life and work in the CIA, the White House, and on the front line in Afghanistan ring with credibility. The story itself is powerful and almost plausible. And James Bruno’s writing style is evocative.

Unfortunately, Bruno hasn’t produced the book that could have been crafted by a more experienced writer steeped in the principles of narrative technique. Time contracts and expands with no apparent logic: a span of minutes may occupy pages, while the passage of weeks or months is dispensed with in a phrase. Scenes shift without warning, in the absence of even the most rudimentary transitions.

James Bruno is a former diplomat, military intelligence analyst, and journalist who clearly possesses a wide range of knowledge about the themes touched on in Tribe. However, this is his third novel. Here’s hoping he’ll study narrative techniques before he writes the fourth.

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Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers, Spy Stories

Counterstrike: Essential reading to understand the U.S. war in Afghanistan and Pakistan

A review of Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Asainst Al Qaeda, by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker

@@@ (3 out of 5)

One of democracy’s most remarkable characteristics is the sheer volume of closely guarded information that can be reported and published without resulting in jail time or torture for the authors. Counterstrike, a remarkable bit of longitudinal reporting by two veterans of the New York Times, brings to light a host of insights and behind-the-scene details about America’s decade-long campaign against Al Qaeda and its affiliates and imitators.

The principal theme of Counterstrike is how in the course of the past decade “the government’s force of professional counterterrorism analysts has grown from a group small enough to know each other’s phone numbers to a vast army linked by supercomputers processing thousands of bits of data in nanoseconds.” And, by no means incidentally, spending tens of billions of dollars in the process.

Schmitt and Shanker reveal without editorial comment the strong contrast between the management styles of our last two Presidents: “While Bush showed an apetite for tactical and operational details — [for example,] the number of spies working against Al Qaeda in Pakistan . . . — Obama wanted to understand the strategic nature of the threat and demanded to know when his personal orders were required to break through resistance across the intelligence and security community to make things work at the tactical and operational level.” The bureaucratic squabbles, most notably during the tenure of Secretary of Defense Runsfeld, are another theme that stands out.

However, the overarching theme of Counterstrike is the gradual maturation of American counterterrorist policy in the opening decade of the 21st Century, shifting gradually from one bent simply on using brute force to kill or capture terrorists to a much more sophisticated and broad-based policy of deterrence drawn from the playbook of the Cold War. As Scmitt and Shanker report, “Deterrence — updated, expanded, even redefined — is now official American policy for countering Al Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist organizations.”

At first blush, deterrence might seem futile against an enemy willing, even eager, to die for his beliefs. However, as Schmitt and Shanker reveal, there is a wide range of tactics available to delay or prevent terrorist attacks. Among these are multi-faceted techniques such as cyberwarfare to disrupt the communications and financial transactions of the Al Qaeda network and creative actions by local CIA or military officers. (In the most amusing of the latter, American officers first set high bounty prices on Al Qaeda commanders, then lowered them to imply that the terrorists’ importance had declined; soon, to prove their continuing importance, the terrorists revealed their locations by striking out against the Americans in impulsive and foolhardy ways. The result is that they were then either killed or captured.)

So, there is considerable substance in Counterstrike. The discussion of how deterrence policy evolved into the U.S. strategy against Al Qaeda is especially illuminating. Unfortunately, the structure and writing style don’t enhance the reader’s experience. The book is slow going, consisting largely of one long expository paragraph after another, relieved only by lengthy quotes from some of the hundreds of individuals the authors interviewed. Schmitt and Shanker might have benefited from a few lessons in nonfiction writing by a master of the craft such as Tracy Kidder, Erik Larson, or even Bob Woodward.

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Filed under History, Nonfiction

Getting to the bottom of the conflict between the U.S. and Al Qaeda

A review of The Longest War: Inside the Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda, by Peter L. Bergen

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

If you’ve been an avid follower of the news about the “war on terror” and the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there’s likely to be relatively little in this book that you don’t already know. What sets it apart, though, is that it presents the story of these closely related subjects from both sides, Al Qaeda’s as well as the U.S.’s, and it brings to the table the perspective of a genuinely knowledgeable journalist and not a participant with obvious self-interest at stake.

The Longest War is an able, one-volume history of the fateful two-decade interaction between Osama bin Laden and his followers with three successive U.S. Administrations. The author, Peter Bergen, is an award-winning journalist who in 1997 produced for CNN the first interview with Osama bin Laden and has been following the story ever since. Perhaps more than any other Westerner, Bergen is the best-qualified person to have written this book at this time.

What emerges from a careful reading of The Longest War is that the U.S. government under both Presidents Clinton and Bush Jr. did a truly execrable job of confronting the challenge raised by Al Qaeda. The Bush Administration’s performance was especially shameful: grounded in a stubborn and irrelevant ideology and managed in an abysmally ineffective manner, the Administration seems to have made a tragically wrong decision at virtually every critical juncture during its eight years in office. First, soon after taking office, by ignoring repeated and passionate pleas from knowledgeable insiders to review the evidence that Al Qaeda was planning a major attack on the U.S. Then, responding to 9/11, deciding that an air war in Afghanistan could destroy Al Qaeda and capture Bin Laden, and quickly ending the effort when it inevitably failed. Later, launching a preemptive war on the grounds that the greatest problem was Iraq and not Al Qaeda . . . ensuring years of civil war there by disbanding the Iraqi Army, pursuing mindless de-Baathification, and imposing on U.S. forces in the field a strategy that ensured they could never keep the peace . . . and pursuing a counterproductive alliance with Pakistan’s Musharraf regime that only strengthened the hand of the extremists and ensured them safe harbor across the border from Afghanistan.

The jury is still out on the Obama Administration’s actions to date.

ASIN: B003WEAI4Y

ISBN-10: 0743278933

ISBN-13: 978-0743278935

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Filed under Current Events, Nonfiction

Obama’s Wars, by Bob Woodward

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

We may not always say so, at least by using the same term, but what we look for in a President is, above all, leadership. Obama’s Wars — Bob Woodward’s most recent behind-the-scenes report, a sort of current history — provides a front-row seat on the leadership style of Barack Obama. As I view the scene Woodward portrays, President Obama comes off looking really good as a leader.

Obama’s Wars is, essentially, an account of the months-long period in 2009 when President Obama, the members of National Security Council (including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), and the Pentagon brass were wrestling with one another over how to approach the war in Afghanistan. It’s the stuff of which a graduate school case study in policy-making might be made — and quite a good one at that.

If you approach this book with the often-oversimplified notion that the battle lines would break down neatly, with the generals and the admirals on one side and the civilians on the other (especially in a Democratic Administration), you’ll be very surprised. As Woodward vividly shows, some of the most dogged opposition to the proposed U.S. troop buildup in Afghanistan came from military men, both active and retired. And one of the most consistently hawkish figures in the exhausting debate was Secretary Clinton.

But even those characterizations are highly misleading. The debate Obama led in 2009 about the Afghanistan war was an immensely complex matter with a multitude of possible policy outcomes — none of them good. The resulting compromise — and it was that, after all — incorporated ideas from all sides. However, if a good compromise is marked by making “both” sides equally unhappy, Obama’s compromise was a curious one. It appears to have made “both” sides happy. The Pentagon exulted in receiving a large number of fresh troops for Afghanistan, believing that conditions on the ground there would require them to pursue their recommended tactics despite opposition from the White House, and convinced that the July 2011 withdrawal data Obama insisted on would slip by months and years. The political staff in the White House, by contrast, were content to give the generals the extra troops, believing that conditions on the ground would make it impossible for them to pursue their recommended tactics and knowing that the President would insist on sticking with the July 2011 date for the beginning of a withdrawal.

What most impressed me about Barack Obama — and I firmly believe historians of the future will bear this out — was the fortitude he displayed in resisting simple-minded formulas and half-baked claims. In the course of the great debate about Afghanistan, there was an abundance of both. The President, with considerable support from Vice President Joe Biden, more than held his own with the military brass. And, judging from the history of our last half-dozen Presidents or so, that’s saying a lot.

Woodward’s strength as a reporter is that he gets the story right — or so it would appear, since to the best of my memory no one has ever successfully refuted any of the incidents reported in his books. He relies on intensive and repeated interviews with all the principals. (After all, who would dare turn down the man who toppled Richard Nixon’s Presidency?) Even if a statement here or an interpretation there may be off a few degrees, Obama’s Wars can give you the feeling that you are witnessing up close one of the most fateful national policy debates of recent years.

ISBN-10: 1439172498

ISBN-13: 978-1439172490

ASIN: B003VPWY3M

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Filed under Current Events, Nonfiction

War, by Sebastian Junger

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

So, here you are. You’re a reporter who’s long since proven he has the guts and the physical stamina to outlast most people, and now you’ve decided to tell the story of the war in Afghanistan — the story of all wars, really — through the eyes of soldiers on the front line. So, you pick the fightingest company in the most actively engaged battalion in the whole goddam U.S. Army. In fact:

“Nearly a fifth of the combat experienced by the 70,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan is being fought by the 150 men of Battle Company. Seventy percent of the bombs dropped in Afghanistan are dropped in and around the Korengal Valley,” where the company is stationed, close to the Pakistan border. And, as if that isn’t enough, you decide to embed yourself with Second Platoon, Battle Company’s toughest and most combat-hardened unit. And you spend 15 months with these guys, on and off, until their deployment is up and the survivors depart the country.

And what do you learn from all this? It isn’t pretty. You learn that war, as experienced by the young men who do most of the fighting, is most assuredly not “the continuation of politics by other means,” as the military theorist Karl von Clausewitz famously asserted. And it’s not even mostly about surviving: killing the enemy before he has a chance to kill you. War, Junger shows us, seems to boil down to obsessive attention to keeping your buddies alive. That’s why soldiers dash through waves of bullets to drag a wounded comrade to safety, or even fall on a grenade that would otherwise kill the guys around you as well as you yourself.

War is much more than the honest, unvarnished account of men in battle that I was expecting. From time to time, Junger turns from straight reporting to analysis, relating the findings of his research into the psychology of combat, the psyche of the ideal soldier, and the psychic consequences of experiencing combat. It turns out, Junger reports, that some of the “behavioral determinants” that are typical of an effective soldier “– like a willingness to take risks — seem to figure disproportionately in the characters of young men. They are killed in accidents and homicides at a rate of 106 per 100,000 per year, roughly five times the rate of young women. Statistically, it’s six times as dangerous to spend a year as a young man in America than as a cop or fireman, and vastly more dangerous than a one-year deployment at a big military  base in Afghanistan. You’d have to go to a remote firebase . . . to find a level of risk that surpasses that of simply being an adolescent male back home.”

Previously, Sebastian Junger was best known as the author of The Perfect Storm. During the writing of War, he also shot footage that became the documentary Restrepo, a film that won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

ISBN-10: 0446556246

ISBN-13: 978-0446556248

ASIN: B0035II95C

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Filed under Current Events, Nonfiction