Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

AFGHANISTAN-How We Missed the Story: Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

AFGHANISTAN-How We Missed the Story: Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan

Article excerpt

AFGHANISTAN How We Missed the Story: Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan, by Roy Gutman. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2008. xvii + 353 pages. Epilogue to p. 262. Dramatis personae to p. 270. Notes to p. 298. Index to p. 321. $26.

Reviewed by Thomas Barfield

For American policymakers, events in Afghanistan (and al-Qa'ida threats of violence emanating from there) ranked only slightly above asteroids hitting the earth as a momentous concern before the fall of 2001. Although suicide bombers had struck two American embassies in East Africa, almost sunk an American warship in Yemen, and the Taliban regime was growing ever more belligerent, the Clinton Administration's responses were weak and uncoordinated. It had more pressing problems in the Balkans and a sex scandal at home that gave rise to impeachment proceedings. The succeeding Bush Administration also ignored these problems since they had occurred on Clinton's watch. Neither administration was under public pressure to do more because the press devoted little attention to stories on Afghanistan and al-Qa'ida. Few journalists had the professional incentive to trek into Kandahar or Kabul for a back page story that might be spiked for its comic book lead: "Dateline Afghanistan: Bearded fanatic in Afghan cave declares holy war on West?"

In retrospect, both journalists and government officials wished they had been more proactive. Given the avalanche of books and policy papers that appeared after 9/11 focusing on terrorism, the Taliban, and international Islamic political movements, the print media's earlier silence about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the incubation of a powerful al-Qa'ida network there is all the more striking. Roy Gutman, a journalist, focuses his book on why this occurred, with a particular emphasis on the press and political decision-makers. It is a powerfully well-researched work that will have lasting value. It is unique in providing as detailed an analysis of the politics and personalities in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) as it does for those in Washington, DC and merging the two into a single stream. Specialists on either of these two foreign cultures will find much to learn from his interviews and new documentation. More general readers will be attracted by his clear exposition of a very complex situation, one that is populated by larger than life personalities.

Gutman argues that, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States lost all interest in a region it assumed had no further strategic value. …

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