The book: Crossing Zero: The AfPak War at the Turning Point of American Empire
Authors: Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould
City Lights Books, Feb. 22, 2011
253 pages, $16.95
President Obama announced this week that after nearly a decade of war, America will begin withdrawing from Afghanistan, calling home its surge contingent of 30,000 troops this year and next, with the remaining 70,000 troops to be drawn down steadily until Afghanistan takes over its security in 2014.
America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home, Obama said.
Following fragile gains the U.S. military has made in southern Afghanistan, the fact that the president is now emphasizing that the tide of war is receding is a vindication for Crossing Zero, whose authors argue that time is running out on America's ability to sustain endless wars by finding or creating endless strings of enemies, and that the U.S. emphasis on military over political solutions has made Islamic terrorism more dangerous.
The 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was seen as a way for the international community to give the country a chance at a peaceful democracy that it had earlier been denied, but the Bush administration squandered Afghanistan's potential for peace, stability and development, while radicalizing the region and allowing the Taliban and Al Qaeda to make a comeback, Fitzgerald and Gould write.
They criticize the administration for bringing in warlords to the 2002 Loya Jirga -- and take the Obama administration to task, too, for pursuing a confusing and contradictory agenda in Afghanistan and the broader region. They say that if AfPak is another thinly disguised effort to maintain an imperial presence in South Central Asia by working with a status quo of Afghan warlords, corrupted police and an extremist-compromised Pakistani military, it will be another predictable link in a long chain of legendary Washington miscalculations.
They make the case that the U.S. does not understand Afghanistan or Pakistan, and their point that Washington is stuck in old ways of geopolitical thinking as it continues to play out a modern-day Great Game for Central Asia is a powerful one.
The book's references to history are instructive. The authors explain how the Durand line, named after a British India foreign secretary, was put in place as a boundary between India and Afghanistan in 1893, after the first two Anglo-Afghan wars. It established Afghanistan as a buffer between the empires of Britain and Russia, following over half a century of territorial expansion and maneuvering in the Great Game. Like many borders crafted by great powers, this one was arbitrary and divisive, placing Pashtuns and Baluchis on both sides.
Fitzgerald and Gould point out how Britain failed when it invaded Afghanistan and crossed over the line in 1839, and how Afghanistan did have some stirrings toward modernity before the last 30-odd years of war. They emphasize that Pakistan can not only not be trusted, but often works against the U.S. And they say, quoting a former regional CIA chief, that the Taliban was created initially as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Pakistani ISI in 1992, as Pakistan received funding from the U.S. The last great superpower made trouble for itself, in other words.
Adopting a military and intelligence community moniker, Fitzgerald and Gould refer to the Afghan-Pakistani border as Zero line. They point out that the U.S. has fought on both sides of the line -- on the side of militant-political Islam from Pakistan during the 1980s (against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan) and against it from Afghanistan since the events of Sept. 11, 2011. And as Washington struggles to reconcile its policy with conditions on the ground, they say, we should think of Zero line as the vanishing point for the American empire, the point beyond which its power and influence disappears or simply ceases to exist. It is the line where America's intentions face themselves, the alpha and omega of nearly 60 years of American policy in Eurasia.
That is a big statement -- and this book fails to back it up.
Despite being only 214 pages (before notes), the book is overwritten and overwrought. It is chock full of block quotes, and tangents that are not connected well with the overarching story (WikiLeaks, pipeline schemes), as Fitzgerald and Gould do not stick with any single through line for very long. There is little new reporting, which would not be a problem for a historical and political review like Crossing Zero -- except that it also has too little synthesis. As they bounce from source to source, quote to quote, the original arguments that Fitzgerald and Gould do make get lost in the fog.
The book is inconsistently organized. Some chapters are very short -- U.S.-Pakistan -- A History is all of three pages, though there is plenty on that history elsewhere -- while others are sizable, and Death From Above is 53 pages long. And while Crossing Zero raises many questions it answers few, especially in the cliffhanger-like endings to its chapters. The chapter on the creation of the Taliban concludes by stating that they are probably just as connected to their ultimate goals today as they were in 1992, and asking, But the question remains, what are those goals? How do they work? What is the policy, who are the people pushing it and will the American public continue to back another growing and costly AfPak agenda that has yet to be fully explained?
The answers do not come easily. And that is probably the biggest problem with Crossing Zero. For all of Fitzgerald and Gould's knowledge and experience -- three decades of work on Afghanistan for television, films, and writing and books -- their insights are diffused here, and their big-picture statements (which may have a lot of merit) get left hanging in the jumble, unconvincingly supported. It is too bad they couldn't bring their expertise to bear in a cogent way.
Edward B. Colby is the Books editor of the International Business Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.