The Afghan

December 8th, 2008

Frederick Forsyth is, above all, a great storyteller. In The Afghan, the bulk of the story is told in real time, which is exhilerating. We jump frequently from scene to scene, where characters are acting on information just as other things are happening elsewhere. And there are a lot of characters, but their profiles are well established enough so that the reader knows who he's following around at any given time, and usually, what his motive is.

When I saw the title I was struck by how contemporary it looked. And it is indeed contemporary. Unlike historical novels that are set in the past, background has to be established, and the reader only knows the world in the novel from what he is told. The Afghan is quite different. Forsyth takes a stab at fitting a story in the world of today, the world we know from tv and the news, and with historical persons in central roles. He takes on the Middle East conflict, treating us to a guided tour of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and also to a less severe look at the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Peshawar, Quetta, Kandahar and Jalalabad are some of the venues.

We follow in the footsteps of a young Afghan, Izmat Khan, a boy from a village in the mountains. As a boy he bears witness to the Soviet invasion, deemed too young to participate. His family is evacuated to a refugee camp in Pakistan, where he enters a madrasah, the one flavor of education offered to the refugees, funded by the Saudis who are intent on spreading wahhabism. By the time he grows up, the Soviets are still in Afghanistan, and he joins in with the Mujahideen. Soon, 1989 rolls around and the struggle is over, but the country is by no means at peace. Warlords fight among themselves for dominance, to which the Taliban rises up in opposition, eventually taking control of most of the country.

With the Soviet Union in ruins, the West eventually wakes up to the threat of religious radicalism. Meanwhile, Osama Bin Laden continues to enjoy the hospitality at the hands of Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban. Under Bill Clinton there are air raids on his training camps. A cruise missile launched from a US ship in the Gulf misses its target and strikes the mountain above Khan's valley. He happens to be visiting a neighboring village that day, but he returns to witness his entire village buried under rock. His whole family wiped out. That is the day he pledges to join in the jihad against America. First in the Taliban, he fights the Northern Alliance, US sponsored. Then, he is to become a part of the single biggest terrorist attack to date.

This is all background for the events to take place, established so that the story told in the current can be told effectively. The key is a plot that has been uncovered from an Al Qaeda high official who escapes capture, but his laptop is taken. The plot has a name, but nothing points to what it consists of. Noone knows what it means, because noone knows about it, save a small circle at the very top of the organization. Their communications are under constant scrutiny, but the intelligence services of the West are powerless to tap into them. Messages are often delivered by messenger, recited from memory. And unlike the impatient West, Al Qaeda is in no hurry, things take time and that is way. Their operatives have spotless records, highly educated in the West and above suspicion.

The novel is an intriguing mix of contemporary reality and literary license for plausible additions.

:: random entries in this category ::