Reworking Older Representational Strategies to Account for a Changed Afghanistan: Fredrick Forsyth’s The Afghan

William Kingsbury


“Afghanistan, like the Afghans themselves, is a country of contradictions that are constantly played out for any reporter.”

(Rashid, Taliban xv)


“Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Afghanistan is its continuity.”

(Jones 325)


            Immense shifts of understanding or appreciation of Afghanistan’s relationship to the Western world have occurred since the annexation of the Taliban by Coalition troops and the Afghan Northern Alliance in 2001.1 Throughout over ten years of conflict with the (often loosely defined) Taliban insurgency, the news media and academia, among other institutions, have explored a constant need for reassessment of the West’s role in Afghanistan’s future. Interestingly, current concerns over affiliations with worldwide terrorist activities have disrupted the popularized image of Afghanistan or the Afghans laid down in traditional Western representational strategies. As such, the ability of modern authors of fiction in the West to replicate these conventions has been greatly compromised. The British author Fredrik Forsyth, however, has remained undeterred by this situation, having chosen for his bestselling espionage thriller, The Afghan (2006), the difficult task of applying once recognizable “Afghan” identifiers to the figure of a so-called moderate member of the Taliban. In this essay, I ask why he has wished, in this fashion, to recover an image or idea of Afghanistan and the Afghans that is rooted in Britain’s colonial past.

            From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, a sense of romance and mystique became attached to stories of frontier encounters with the apparently fierce, enigmatic, but noble Afghan tribesman. Such ideas about the Afghans gained a renewed prominence quite recently in the West when worldwide support for the Afghan resistance fighters of the 1979 to 1989 Soviet-Afghan War (known collectively as the Mujahideen) was at its height. This is something that can easily be discerned, for example, in fictional representations like the film Rambo III (1988) or the spy novel by Welsh writer Ken Follett: Lie Down with Lions (1986). In these stories the Afghan characters, having stood up bravely to the military supremacy of the Soviets, are shown to be greatly in need of the support and guidance offered by their newfound Western allies. For the Western characters in these stories, the bringing of help to the Afghans is seen as a chance for them to redeem themselves of past sins. Alongside this, the sense of kinship to be forged with their primitive but gracious Afghan hosts affords them a new sense of purpose in life.

            Similarly, through his descriptions of modern Afghan history in The Afghan, Forsyth affords the period of Western involvement during the war in the 1980s a nostalgic feel. However, he also shows his dismay over the events following the Soviet withdrawal. The book’s narrator, for example, laments that the Mujahideen groups, though seemingly unified in their ambitions, let the West down by not making stability in the country the legacy of the war. For Forsyth, identifying the blameworthy in Afghanistan, after the fall of the Soviet-installed government of Mohammad Najibullah in 1992, has been a serious concern, and he goes to great lengths to show how his main Afghan character, a Pashtun tribesman named Izmat Khan, can be distinguished from those he describes as the “snarling, grabbing, feuding, self-serving opportunists, who . . . created a civil war” after Najibullah’s defeat (136).

            Although Forsyth does indeed draw upon the same traditions for depicting the Afghans as, for example, Follett—those to be found, most famously, in the work of Rudyard Kipling—he has been unable do so without, at the same time, greatly facilitating our recognition of them. His choice of depicting a member of the Taliban (Izmat) has made this task that much more challenging. Forsyth’s purpose in doing this, I believe, has been to try and identify what would be, in his terms, a viable partner for negotiating an end to the current conflict in Afghanistan. I describe below how, with The Afghan, Forsyth has attempted to reconcile older Western ideas about Afghan society, which have been long adhered to, with changing perceptions of the country after September 11th, 2001. Throughout the essay, I consider what effect this breakdown of the traditional means of representing Afghanistan and the Afghans has had on Forsyth’s narrative. In conclusion, I briefly discuss the implications of the West’s continued preoccupation with such caricature-like ideas, where future dealings with Afghanistan are concerned.


The Neo-Taliban and a Negotiated Peace

After 2001, the “internationalization of the Taliban’s ideology,” and their greater integration within “the national jihadist movement” has, in part, been responsible for the Western re-designation of “Neo-Taliban” (Giustozzi 13). Because of a resurgence of the Taliban’s activities in 2006, the idea of reconciliatory talks with the Neo-Taliban began to be more seriously pursued. Western sponsorship of a (claimed) nationalist legitimacy for the so-called moderate members of the group helps promote the view that elements from within their movement are ready for re-integration in a soon-to-be stabilized Afghanistan. After 2006, such a course has been increasingly suggested as the only solution for a less prolonged Western engagement with Afghanistan, and the world’s attention has been actively directed toward a changed, accommodating, attitude with regard to the insurgency.

            In 2006, the resurgence of the Taliban’s activities led the US, NATO, and Afghan intelligence services to collaborate on a secret report outlining how the movement was constituted. In the report, it was stated that the Taliban comprised four distinct elements: “hard-core extremist leaders linked to Al-Qaeda, fighters recruited in Pakistan, unemployed youth, and disaffected tribes.” It went on to conjecture that these last two categories might be won over through the promise of “jobs, education, and development projects, as they were not heavily indoctrinated” (Rashid, Decent into Chaos 368). Such early speculation over the achievement of reconciliation with those who were deemed “moderate elements within the Taliban” evolved after 2006 into more extensive, and publicised, efforts to achieve a negotiated peace agreement (Baker).2

            Published in August of 2006, the action in Forsyth’s book is set during the time of its writing and moves gradually into the very near future. It deals extensively with the inner workings of, mainly, the British and American military intelligence services as they collaborate to undermine the new global threat to Western security. The narrator refers to this as a “new Cold War,” with Islamic fundamentalists taking the vacant place left by the communist nations as dangerous carriers of anti-Western philosophy (21). One of the author’s chief concerns, throughout the novel, is to show how more accommodating members of the Taliban’s movement can be recognized, so as to distinguish such elements from those he characterizes as enemy combatants in this so-called neo-Cold War, namely, foreign radicals who have embedded themselves in Afghanistan and young fanatics newly joining the Taliban’s ranks.

            In this effort, Forsyth is drawn to some of the more controversial Western arguments that are used to promote the idea of dialogue with the Taliban’s leadership. For example, it is often suggested that many of the group’s members no longer subscribe to the ideology the Taliban professed in its “initial form” (Srnicek). For such moderates, it is said, previous associations with, for example, medieval fanaticism and hypocritical attitudes, particularly regarding the treatment of women, may be considered part of a past incarnation. It has also been affirmed, by Western observers, that negative perceptions of the Taliban have been unfairly propagated from early in the group’s existence. One argument, which is replicated in The Afghan, is that their “stabilising” influence on the country, after the civil conflict that ensued from 1992 to 1996, has been greatly missed. As the journalist James Fergusson puts it in September 2010’s edition of the London based magazine Prospect, “The repression of woman and the assault on certain freedoms was a small price to pay if it stopped the wholesale rape and slaughter that preceded the Taliban” (34).


The Afghan: Brief Plot Outline

The Afghan has a contemporary setting in which the Western world is poised to intercept an international Al-Qaeda plot discovered in the planning phase. Mike Martin, a senior British soldier, undergoes extensive training in order to infiltrate the Al-Qaeda terrorist group. His training is all done in preparation for him to pose as Izmat Khan, an ex-Taliban commander, whom he has in fact fought alongside in Afghanistan during the 1980s war against the Russians. For five years, the real Izmat has been incarcerated at the Guantanamo Bay internment camp, and after a quickly organized transfer to an Afghan prison, he is hidden in a safe house in the American wilderness. Martin takes his place, in disguise, on the prisoner transport making its way to Afghanistan; his escape is faked within the country, and he begins his mission, able to pass for an Afghan, the author claims, because of an Indian paternal grandmother. As a result of the fame that Izmat has earned as a Mujahideen fighter, Taliban commander, and unbroken Guantanamo detainee, Martin easily works his way into the Al-Qaeda network. After a lengthy interrogation that tests his training to the limit, he is informed, through a message from Osama Bin Laden himself, that he is to be part of the new mission they are planning.

            The Al-Qaeda plot involves the hijacking of a ship loaded with highly combustible liquid petroleum, which is to be blown up near a ship-bound G8 summit. The details of the terrorists’ plan are painstakingly concealed from the reader until near the end of the novel, and as it is carefully executed, many seemingly unconnected occurrences are shown to have been aspects of patient, complex planning. When the G8 boat nears the terrorist rigged ship, Martin heroically sacrifices himself, hitting the bomb switch before the ship is in range of its target. Izmat, meanwhile, has made an unlikely escape from his safe house only to be killed by a sniper as he attempts to contact the main architect of the Al-Qaeda plot, Dr. Ali Aziz Al-Khattab, from a phone booth.

The narrative of The Afghan is methodical and relentless in terms of plotting, but with only logical steps taken on a strict linear trajectory. Thanks to the help of Western technology and military efficiency, there is never any slowing of the narrative’s movement toward a final positive conclusion. Importantly, however, an exception to the linear course of the novel is made at a certain point to give the two main characters a detailed comparative backstory. In this section, entitled “Warriors,” it is suggested that Izmat and Martin’s encounter in the 1980s is underscored by an emotional complexity; this section is also set out so as to give the reader a simplistic causal explanation as to why Afghanistan, only one of the major locations of the novel, has become the “intelligence time-bomb of the world” (69).


Izmat Khan, the Moderate Talib

Alongside this description of Afghanistan’s descent into chaos, we are given a backstory about how events in Afghanistan from the early 1970s onwards affect the course of Izmat’s life. Within a country torn apart by greedy warlords, Izmat is presented as a bystander, swept along by the course of events. He is among the first to join the Taliban’s ranks and someone who later becomes one of their senior commanders. Despite this—or in fact because of this—he is certainly shown to exemplify the “moderate” element within their ranks. He has, it seems, learnt about a “dark side to the Taliban” too late, having been won over when they were still “local heroes” promising to stabilize the country (145-46). Two factors are accounted for in explanation for his decision to join. Firstly, he wanted to stand against the horrors he had witnessed in the country’s civil war of the 1990s, and secondly, he had succumbed to the brainwashing he received in the madrassahs (schools) of the North West Frontier province of Pakistan as a boy. Significantly, both of these reasons find an associative grounding through reference to the notorious Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Early in the novel, the “ultra-Islam” of Hekmatyar finds a correlation with the “intolerant creed” of Islam being used to brainwash “a whole young generation of Afghan’s . . . into fanaticism” in the refugee camps of Pakistan (111-14). More particularly, however, Izmat’s decision to join the Taliban comes as a result of his witnessing one of Hekmatyar’s massacres in a village that had refused to pay protection money. As a notorious mass murderer with a reputation for changing his allegiance as the situation dictates, Hekmatyar has gained much notoriety in the West. His reputation simplifies the process of presenting a perceivable evil within the command structures of the Mujahideen. As distinguished from such opportunist men of greed, Izmat is shown to be of an older, entirely more recognizable breed of Afghan; as the novel’s narrator puts it, he is one of the people that “the old British Empire knew and feared, calling them Patans, now Pashtun. Back then, they fought from behind their rocky fastness with long, brass bound muskets called the jezail, with which each man was accurate as a modern sniper” (100).



When describing the early years of Izmat’s life, Forsyth is depicting Afghanistan in the 1970s. During this decade, the anthropologist Louis Dupree famously defined Afghan society as quintessentially “inward looking,” a situation, he claimed, “where man is born into a set of answers” (247).3 As another anthropological specialist on Afghanistan, Fredrick Barth, puts it, Dupree described “Afghanistan’s population as predominantly composed of illiterate, self-sufficient villagers set on defending their traditional outlook behind the ‘mud curtain’ of their compound walls, thereby rejecting progress, social reform, and their own . . . government’s development initiatives” (188). Forsyth’s characterization of Afghan society is very similar to that of Dupree’s, and, at this point, I want to consider what effect this has had on his presentation of Izmat as a moderate member of the Taliban.

            Izmat’s birth, we learn, was marked by the sound of gunfire after his father, the village headman, and their kin had sat in darkness with “only the flames of [a mulberry wood fire to illuminate] the hawk-nosed faces and black beards” (102). Forsyth’s depiction of the Pashtun village of Izmat’s youth, Maloko-zai, involves a detailed descriptive effort largely absent from the rest of the novel. Paired with a timeworn image of Pashtun tribesmen drinking their “hot, unmilked and sugarless tea” we are given a description of the village’s surroundings. Maloko-zai, we learn, is located within


the rich plains around Jalalabad where myriad streams carry the snow melt and rain of the Spin Ghar . . . Like all these hamlets, it was named after a long dead warrior founder. There were five walled compounds in the settlement, each the home of one extended family of about twenty persons . . . As with all these compounds, the walls where the residences and livestock pens were built, so that all faced inwards. (100-01, emphasis added)


He seems to envision a settlement in which activity is always orientated toward a fire in a central position. The next sentence directs our attention to this fire, attempting to give the image of his Pashtun hamlet a feel of permanence: “The fire of mulberry logs blazed as the sun dropped far to the west and the darkness clothed the mountains, bringing chill even in high summer” (101). Here, in the “complete” dark, the people illuminated by flickering flames exist in the timeless state that has long been attributed to the tribal Pashtun/Afghan (102). Izmat is raised around such fires where he is told stories of how “the Pashtun had defeated the red-coated Angleez in the . . . mountains only a hundred and fifty years ago, told as if it were only yesterday” (103). He has no conceivable reason to leave the confines of this self-contained hamlet until the Afghan communist government threatens his way of life.4

            With the coming of communism and then of Russian soldiers, the men of the mountains mobilize for war, a result, the narrator claims, of the Pashtuns’ Pashtunwali tribal code of honour that Izmat has been brought up to follow. Because of their seclusion, the narrator tells us, Izmat’s people have no knowledge of the Cold War, of “who was right or wrong,” and have interpreted the Russian invasion as an insult through adherence to the code (104-05). Unlike the young radicals who began joining the ranks of the Taliban after 2001, Izmat, despite being “brainwashed into fanaticism” in the refugee camps, has roots in Afghanistan and a living memory of cultural stability (137). This is epitomized by the image of Maloko-zai, a place where his father will still overrule his “strict Wahhabi training” to allow singing and dancing at his marriage (139).5 This village, we learn, is damaged during the conflict with the Russians, and Izmat devotes himself to its reconstruction:


Stone by stone and rock by rock, they cleared the rubble left by bombs and rockets and remade the family compound by the mulberry and pomegranate trees . . . [H]e enjoyed the labour and the sense of triumph that Maloko-zai would live again. A man must have roots and his were here. (137)


In this description, we see that emphasis has been placed on Izmat’s need to reconstruct the compound exactly as it has been portrayed in the original description. This further reveals the author’s preoccupation with the idea that such a compound represents, for Izmat, a form of unchanging cultural or societal perfection, which he and his people must preserve at all costs.


Mike Martin, the British Soldier Hero

Something else that separates Izmat from the rootless members of the Taliban is not only his experience of the Soviet-Afghan War but also, more specifically for Forsyth, his personal understanding, and recognition, of Western support for the Mujahideen’s efforts. During the 1980s conflict, when Izmat is told by his father that he must help Martin achieve his mission, he is shocked that they are aiding one of Afghanistan’s old enemies, the “Angleez” (English). His training in the madrassahs causes him some internalized conflict at this point and Forsyth heavily oversimplifies Izmat’s thought process: “He must be a Kafir, an unbeliever, a Nasrani, a Christian, destined to burn for all eternity in hell . . . [yet Izmat’s] father was a good man, a good Muslim and he had called him friend. How could this be” (118). Izmat is tasked with guiding this “Angleez” man through the mountains so he can make contact with the famous Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud: someone who was greatly admired in the West.6 He is able to come to terms with his prejudicial attitude after Martin saves his life. This happens in a scene, very reminiscent of sequences to be found in the film Rambo III, where Martin single-handedly brings down a Russian Hind helicopter with a missile launcher. During this attack, Izmat is wounded and Martin carries him to a converted cave complex where the “so called Afghan-Arabs” have built a field hospital (128). The bond that forms between Izmat and Martin is built upon this moment in the mountains. Importantly, a scar that is left on Izmat’s leg from the removal of a bullet is later replicated surgically on Martin’s thigh in order to complete his physical transformation.

            In envisioning this physical and psychological connection that forms between Izmat and Martin, Forsyth has undoubtedly been influenced by Rudyard Kipling’s romantic characterization of the encounter between men of the East and West on the Afghan border with British-India.7 In Kipling's famous description in “The Ballad of East and West,” all elements of civilization are shown to have been stripped away, leaving only “two strong men” who stand “face to face” (248); the idea is that a desirable sense of primitive equality has been discovered during the encounter. Interestingly, the origins of this idea can be found in the writings of the first Westerner to survey extensively parts of Afghanistan. This man, Mountstuart Elphinstone, was the first British ambassador to visit the court of an Afghan king.8 His opinion of the Afghans he encountered was, fundamentally, that they had been “trained by their unhappy situation (in life) to fraud and violence, to rapine, deceit, and revenge” (198). However, he also noted that an English observer “would scarce fail to admire . . . [the Afghans’] martial and lofty sprit, their hospitality, and their bold and simple manners . . . and he would probably, before long, discover, among so many qualities that excited his disgust, the rudiments of many virtues” (198).9 Indeed, one of the yardsticks by which nineteenth-century British soldiers measured their courage was through the ability to survive in the harsh world of the noble Pashtun. As Akbar Ahmed puts it, “mystification and romanticisation of the colonial encounter on the Frontier helped to popularize a universal image of the Pashtun embodying the finest qualities of loyalty, courage and honor” (2096-97).      

            A nostalgic longing for this older Afghanistan, and older breed of British soldier, is very discernible in The Afghan. Although, throughout the novel, the author revels in the deadliness of modern weapons and the new reach of spying expertise, there is often a detectable ambivalence in some of his descriptions of modern warfare: “With hand to hand combat almost extinct, most men die not by the hand of their enemy but by his computer. They are blown away by a missile fired a continent away or from somewhere under the sea . . . [T]heir killers . . . see them only as vague shapes, running, hiding, trying to fire back. But not as real humans” (394). Forsyth laments the fact that soldiers might now lack any close-up or personal experience of conflict in modern warfare. Martin, however, is represented as the epitome of a British soldier hero, having quickly advanced through the ranks from Paratrooper to SAS soldier, and finally senior officer. He has seen action in the Falklands conflict, served in Northern Ireland, Iraq, and Afghanistan in the 1980s. Forsyth leaves us in no doubt as to how we should think about his moral constitution, saying that he prays often for the souls of men he has killed, giving thanks “that he has never killed women or children nor any who came in peace” (50). As such, he is undoubtedly meant to represent something of this past nobility, lost to modern warfare; not least because he is shown to be a match for Izmat, a tribal Pashtun, whose lasting respect he has earned in the most heroic of circumstances.


Izmat’s Transformation

For Izmat, however, the positive regard for the West once fostered by his encounter with Martin is replaced later in his life by bitter resentment. The reasons for this transformation are revealed to us step by step: Forsyth’s intention is to elucidate his ideas about how potential allies in Afghanistan might be transformed into dangerous enemies. After the battle on the mountain, Izmat remarks that he would “die under torment rather than betray his new friend” (131). When he becomes aware that the followers of the “Sheikh” (Osama Bin Laden) have declared their jihad against the West, Forsyth describes Izmat’s reaction like this: “The West had helped defeat the Soviets with arms and money and the only kafir he had ever met saved his life . . . His concern was for his country, which was descending into madness” (140). After joining and fighting with the Taliban, his opinion is still that this “global jihad against all unbelievers . . . was not his Jihad” (149). In 1998, however, the unthinkable happens as one of the American cruise missiles launched at an Al-Qaeda training camp misses its target and causes a landslide that buries Izmat’s village and the entire picturesque valley: “There was no stream any more, no farm, no orchards, no stock pens, no mosque, no stables, no compounds” (150). With the valley goes his entire family and tribe, and he is left a “man with no roots, no relatives, [and] no clan” (150). As such, the Americans have inadvertently removed this Afghan’s link to a past, and Izmat’s response can only be to declare “a personal jihad unto death” against America (151). His original motivation for honouring the help given to him by the US is expressed in a simple explanative sentence: “It was the code” (131). Forsyth enjoys showing us that this, ironically, is the same thing that prevented Mullah Omar from offering up the Al-Qaeda ringleaders to America: he “could not capitulate. It was the code” (154). Unlike the Arab extremists that Izmat has observed, “always digging . . . broadening, deepening, excavating” their way into Afghanistan, the Taliban are rooted to the country through the Pashtunwali. Inside the cave hospital, Izmat is visited by the then little-known Bin Laden. Osama is pleased to hear of Izmat’s madrassah training but is displeased with the young Afghan’s response when he asks what he believes he is fighting for:


‘I fight for Afghanistan,’ said the boy. Something like a cloud passed across the features of the Saudi. The Afghan realized he might not have said what was wanted.

‘And I also fight for Allah, Sheikh,’ he added. The cloud cleared and the gentle smile came back . . .

‘The day will come when Afghanistan will no longer have need of you, but the all-merciful Allah will always have need of you.’ (130)


Izmat’s nationalist concerns offend Osama, whose belief in the global struggle against the West is shown to separate them. Moreover though, a major distinction between Izmat and the Arab “guests” in Afghanistan is stressed from the novel’s outset (19). This happens when a Guantanamo prison guard finds himself being corrected by a colleague after he refers to Izmat as a “Goddam Arab”: no, says the first guard, he is “an Afghan” (61). The Al-Qaeda man Dr. Ali Aziz Al-Khattab refers to him simply as the Afghan, and this simple designation becomes, for the terrorists, a coded means of denoting his singular reputation and status. Dr. Khattab interrogates the disguised Martin for many days, but after receiving the favourable report from Osama, he simply checks that the scar is present on his leg and his identity as “the Afghan” is confirmed.

            At one point, the novel’s narrator attacks the world’s media for referring to men like Dr. Khattab as simply “radicalised,” remarking that such men are one thing and one thing only: “brainwashed” (280). Before he is sent on his mission, the two major castes of terrorist fanatic are explained to Martin by one of his trainers: firstly, he says, there are “the suicide bombers . . . simple believers; trusting their masters . . . completely obedient,” and secondly, the Takfir, a “chameleon” type that “will adopt every custom of the West, however much they may loathe them, in order to pass as fully westernized and therefore harmless” (213). Later Martin can see the “depth of hatred” working like a “corrosive acid inside” one such chameleon type, when he works with Dr. Al-Khattab. Al-Khattab’s smile is continually referred to, he is the “smiling Arab [who will] . . . smoke, drink, consort with girls, pass for one of us . . . A human chameleon, hiding the hatred” (Forsyth 336, 277). To infiltrate Al-Qaeda in the guise of “the Afghan,” however, Martin need not present himself as either a smiling villain or obedient fanatic. Remembering the bond he still shares with the noble freedom fighter of the 1980s, he never tarnishes Izmat’s image in such a way.


A Bond that Remains Unbroken

When Martin is first shown a picture of the Afghan he is to disguise himself as, he surprises his CIA handlers with the revelation that he knows this man from his past. He is, at this point, sitting with them round an open fire at his Hertfordshire property. He stares into the fire while the others are talking and “deep [with] in the embers” sees the vision of “a bleak and bare hillside far away” (85). Martin “loses himself” in this memory of his time with Izmat in Afghanistan and this fire, it seems, becomes the catalyst for the image to occur. In a similar way, the fire in Maloko-zai was the device used to capture, through the play of light and shadow, an image that denoted Izmat’s rootedness to an older version of Afghanistan.

At the close of the book, the memory of another fireside encounter in Afghanistan comes to Martin’s mind. This happens during the moment when Martin chooses to blow up the rigged ship at the cost of his life; he remembers sitting with Ahmad Shah Massoud by a campfire and thinks about what was said to him. The coming of this memory marks the decisive moment in his heroic split-second act on the ship, an important instant that Forsyth delays for the reader. In this moment, Martin must choose whether to “go for the man [or] go for the button. There would be no surviving either” (451). This man is a psychotic Lebanese terrorist named Ibrahim, who holds a gun pointed at Martin’s chest. At the moment of indecision, Martin is aided by the memory of Massoud’s words: “We are all sentenced to die, Angleez. But only a warrior blessed of Allah may be allowed to choose how! . . . Martin made his choice” (451). Importantly, there is a suggestion that Izmat and Martin are, in a sense, still “joined,” despite all that has happened to them since the 1980s war. The only serious development of this idea comes from exploration of symbolism relating to the scar that Izmat attained in the Russian attack. It is remarked that numerous interrogators had “pressed the Afghan for an explanation of the scar” but he had never revealed its secret. Martin has seen “no reason to mention it either” when his handlers bring up the subject (207-08). Both men keep the details of that fateful day to themselves, locking the memory into a secure place beyond the reach of CIA or Al-Qaeda operatives. Thus, the nostalgic idea of the 1980s war, or nineteenth-century frontier romance, is kept out of harm’s way before being brought forth in this moment where Massoud, the book suggests, speaks to Martin from beyond the grave.



Two Kandahar-based researchers, Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, have long been championing the cause of reconciliatory talks with the Taliban and have done much to try and reconfigure perceptions of the movement. Like for Forsyth, a key concern for them has been the displacement of engrained associations between the Taliban and terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda.10 Moreover, they have also been concerned with distinguishing the high-ranking, or moderate, members of the Taliban from younger, more radicalized, fighters whom, they say, fill the vacant spaces left when such men are killed.11 Importantly though, as part of their drive to promote a reappraisal of the Taliban’s image in the West, Van Linschoten and Kuehn penned an open letter to President Obama, in December of 2010, signed by twenty-three academics, journalists, analysts, and former diplomats, in which they claim that the “Taliban today are now a national movement.”12

            It is important to note that Afghanistan is divided into regions, which vary tremendously among themselves in terms of population, culture, geography, and history. This makes any description of the Taliban’s movement as distinctive or representative of a national Afghan identity self-evidently problematic. After they took power in 1996, the predominantly Pashtun Taliban made it known that they wished to rule the country “without the participation of other (ethnic) groups,” which they claimed were “sufficiently represented in the Taliban.”13 To prove this point, however, they set out to show how quickly they could “unify” the whole country by using military force (Rashid, Taliban 95). Van Linschoten and Kuehn have rightly affirmed, as Tariq Ali puts it, that “though the Taliban have been entirely conflated with Al-Qaeda in the Western media, most of their supporters are driven by local concerns” (22). Importantly, however, there are those in Afghanistan who will always be opposed to claims that the Taliban can represent their interests effectively, “especially minority groups and women, [who] fear the outcome of “reconciliation” talks between the exclusive, unrepresentative group of President Hamid Karzai’s cronies and Taliban insurgents” (Markey).

Close examination of Forsyth’s novel clearly reveals the problems he has encountered—undoubtedly because of his awareness of Afghanistan’s modern history—in making plausible his representation of Izmat as either someone whose perspective might exemplify some sense of an Afghan national consciousness or as a potential partner for the West’s future dealings with the Afghans. For instance, there is little continuity between the earlier characterization of Izmat as a Mujahideen freedom fighter grateful for Western support and, later on, as a staunch Guantanamo detainee. To transform him in a manner that avoids any sense of moral quandary, Forsyth relies on a simplistic plot development involving a cruise missile that literally wipes his past from existence. The author has meant to convey how the West, because of its reliance on pushbutton warfare, has destroyed in the mind of an Afghan like Izmat a link to the past that would have freed him from the path of fanaticism. Furthermore, the difficulties Forsyth has encountered when trying to transform this heroic Mujahideen fighter into a recognizably moderate Talib are demonstrated when the narrator insists, for example, that Izmat has no “taste for the cruelty” the Taliban unleash on ethnic minorities like the Hazaras, their apparent “dark side” (148, 146). In his fight against former Afghan allies of the Soviet Afghan war, the Northern Alliance, Izmat is shown to be an innocent caught up in the whirlwind of events, the complexities of which are conflated into an offhand simplification: i.e., that he was simply struggling to “unite his homeland once and for all” (148-49).

            It remains to be seen what effect the merging of ideas about the moderate Taliban and Afghan nationalism, such as we see in The Afghan, will have for future representations of the country and its peoples; especially when its relationship to the modern world, in a newly “stabilized” condition, is reassessed. I have argued above that in his attempts to isolate a “national” character that can be used to distinguish Izmat from globally orientated extremists, Forsyth has relied upon archaic British ideas about the Afghans and their traditional ways of life that were conceptualized during the nineteenth century. Interestingly, Afghanistan scholars B. D. Hopkins and Magnus Marsden have described how, in the current war, the United States and its allies have themselves mimicked policies once put in place by British India’s frontier administrators, in their attempts to promote stability and increase their own authority in the country (19). Efforts to make use of what they consider native traditions for administrative purposes, Hopkins and Marsden remark, have only proven further to Afghans how little the coalition has developed any real understanding of local cultures:


Afghanistan is not a country of primitive tribes cut off from the modern world . . . If America and its allies hope to identify and partner with Afghans who are willing and able to build a stable political and economic future, they must set aside the stale caricatures about “tradition” that have long dominated thinking about the region. (19)


Works Cited


Ahmed, Akbar. “Colonial Encounter on the North-West Frontier Province: Myth and Mystification.” Economic and Political Weekly 14.51/52 (1979): 2092-97. Print.

Ali, Tariq. “Afghanistan: Mirage of the Good War.” New Left Review 50 (2008): 5-23. Print.

Baker, Aryan. “A Tale of Two Wars: Afghanistan.” Time Magazine 31 Oct 2008. Web. 20 November 2011.

Barfield, Thomas. Afghanistan A Cultural and Political History. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2010. Print.

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William Kingsbury has recently completed a PhD at the University of Essex about fictional representations of Afghanistan in British, American, Russian and Afghan novels or films. As a graduate and postgraduate student he cultivated an interdisciplinary approach to the study of literature and cinema with a focus on the postcolonial field. He is currently teaching at Phayao University in Thailand.


1. It should be noted that the great heterogeneity of Afghanistan’s social ecology makes the use of a single term to identify all the people living there a contentious issue. The name “Afghan” has traditionally been associated with the Pashtun ethnic group. Unless otherwise indicated, when I use the term Afghan, I refer to all the inhabitants of Afghanistan. The use of this term, like that of Afghanistan, is simply for reasons of convenience.

2. However, as early as 2001, the “existence of a less-repressive Taliban group” was spoken of and put forward by some for participation in an Afghan coalition government (Safi 1). It was not until 2003, however, that the United States officially sanctioned the possibility of talks with “moderate members” of the Taliban’s movement (Giustozzi 134).

3. This is taken from Dupree’s oft-quoted 1973 text Afghanistan, the enduring influence of which, on political, ethnographical, and historical writing about the country, cannot be overstated. He is considered one of the most influential writers since Mountstuart Elphinstone to have produced an all-encompassing narrative about Afghanistan.

4. The Afghan communist party (PDPA) overthrew the government of Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud in a bloody coup that they orchestrated in April 1978.

5. Wahabbism is a conservative branch of Sunni Islam begun in Saudi Arabia by Abdul Wahab (1703-1792). The flow of Saudi arms and money into Afghanistan in the 1980s increased the influence of this sect, especially in the religious madrassahs (schools) located in Pakistan’s refugee camps.

6. Massoud was assassinated by Al-Qaeda operatives in 2001.

7. Forsyth chooses to evoke the Kiplingesque idea of Afghanistan directly at one point in the novel through the inclusion of a verse from the poem “Arithmetic on the Frontier.”

8. Benjamin Hopkins has described Elphinstone’s two volume work An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul (1815) as the foundational text in the creation of an image of Afghanistan and its peoples that has been conformed with and reproduced in subsequent writing until the present day (13-14).

9. Elphinstone’s journey into Afghanistan never in fact took him beyond the North West Frontier (the northern region of today’s Pakistan). This meant that his observations concerning the “Afghan” people were almost solely based on encounters with the country’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, who make up only about forty percent of the overall population. Because of this, the many other ethnic groups in Afghanistan, for example the Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Turkmen, have often been subsumed into this generalized understanding of the “Afghans,” one that is often based on interpretation of the customs and tribal organisation of the Pashtun peoples.

10. For example, they point out that Al-Qaeda’s growth as a movement began with a fusion of Middle Eastern Islamic extremism alongside the cause, and subsequent victory, of the Soviet-Afghan War. They remark that many of the Taliban’s leaders were too young to have played a large part in the war of the 1980s and that the movement’s relationship with al Qaeda became “complicated and tense after, and even before,” the September 11th attacks (3). In 2012, however, van Linschoten and Kuehn’s claims were undermined by the content of documents found in the Pakistani residence where Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011. A year after their discovery, it was revealed that they show a close working relationship between Al Qaeda leaders and Mullah Omar, the overall commander of the Taliban (Burke).

11. These young radicals are described by Mohammad Osman Tariq Elias, a former member of the Taliban’s government, as “teenagers who can easily accept to die . . . a new brand of people . . . [who] enjoy and exercise power locally” (49).

12. The letter can be viewed online at (accessed July 2012), http://www.afghanistan

13. Importantly, Anders Widmark describes how many Pashtuns are angry about being “targeted, stigmatized, almost metonymised as being Taliban or terrorists,” particularly by the Western media (Widmark 8).




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