On the Road to Kandahar: Travels through Conflict in the Islamic World

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A daring reporter's quest through the "living history" of Islam amid the War on Terrorism.

In 1991, a British university student spent his summer break fighting alongside Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq. Now a prize-winning reporter and author of a book on al Qaeda, Jason Burke travels from the Sahara to the Himalayas and meets with refugees, mujahideen, and government ministers in a probing search to understand Islam, and Islamic radicalism, in the context of the "War on ...

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A daring reporter's quest through the "living history" of Islam amid the War on Terrorism.

In 1991, a British university student spent his summer break fighting alongside Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq. Now a prize-winning reporter and author of a book on al Qaeda, Jason Burke travels from the Sahara to the Himalayas and meets with refugees, mujahideen, and government ministers in a probing search to understand Islam, and Islamic radicalism, in the context of the "War on Terrorism." Praised by London's Daily Mail as "intensely personal and accessible," this is the gripping story of a search for answers to some of the most urgent questions of our time: What drives Islamic fundamentalism, and how should the West respond? Are we so fundamentally different that we can't coexist? Although much of his book concerns war and violence, Burke reaches the optimistic conclusion that extremist violence alienates its populations and so is doomed fail and wither away.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

A veteran foreign correspondent, Burke takes his readers on a whistle-stop tour of modern Islamic radicalism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Palestine, Algeria, Thailand and places in between. Burke, whose previous book, Al-Qaeda, incisively cut through some of the errant conventional wisdom about that terrorist organization, began his Mideastern journeys as a volunteer in the Kurdish peshmerga after the first Gulf War. Many of his escapades read like scenes cut from Full Metal Jacket—a fact he self-consciously acknowledges many times. Though Burke doesn't always have the strongest grasp on the intricacies of local politics and theologies—and freely admits it, unlike many commentators—his conversations with all kinds of ordinary people illuminate the struggles that define their existence and sometimes metastasize into intolerant ideologies. His conclusion is hopeful, if tinged with warning: "[D]espite the best efforts of men like bin Laden and al-Zawahiri and al-Zarqawi, despite the incompetent, corrupt, sclerotic dynastic rulers still clinging to power everywhere... the ordinary people of the Islamic world... whose voices were so often drowned out by shouting and gunfire... had not been won over by the radicals." Nonetheless, as Burke argues, the war in Iraq has clearly not helped matters. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
A literate travelogue through troubled lands where the clash of civilizations is resounding loudly-and ever louder. British journalist Burke (Al-Qaeda, 2004) logged time in Iraq in the 1990s as a soldier in the cause of Kurdish liberation. The experience gave him a distaste for carrying a gun, but not for traveling through parts of the Muslim world where bullets fly. The often violent travel reports he collects here range from Thailand to Tajikistan to Gaza to Algeria. In the last, he writes, homegrown Islamists recently mounted a failed rebellion. Burke favors the middle ground, and in Algeria, the ordinary people occupying it brushed the fundamentalists and their revolt aside: "It was their eventual disgust for the militants that had ended it." Just so, Burke, reporting from Iraq, expresses the hope that even though they are hard-pressed on all sides, ordinary Iraqis will find a way to quell extremism and eventually live in peace, even though peace there is quite obviously far away. Burke allows that when the American invasion loomed in 2002, he "felt it was the right war for the wrong reasons, and at totally the wrong time." Sure that it would reveal truths about modern Islam, however, he packed his notebook and went to Iraq; his accounts from both sides of the battle lines are the best parts here. The U.S. Marines he depicts are as much scared kids as stone killers, while the Iraqi civilians caught in the crossfire serve to support his view that there are many kinds of Islam, few capable of being distilled in black-and-white terms. Says one old man at the Battle of Najaf, for instance, when instructed that the Jews are the enemy: "There aren't any Jews here and anyway a good, honestJew is better than a bad Muslim."A book of journeys at once personal and universal. Agent: Toby Eady/Toby Eady Associates
From the Publisher
"Jason Burke has been on the front lines of wars in the Muslim world for two decades, and it shows. On the Road to Kandahar is a thoughtful travelogue that takes the reader on an adventure that begins with Kurd-ish guerrillas fighting Saddam Hussein, to the Taliban religious warriors and their grim rule in Afghanistan, and to the bloody war in Iraq today. Along the way Burke has a lot of smart things to say about the various jihadist groups and Arab nationalists that have fuelled these conflicts. On the Road to Kandahar is really a pleasure to read." —Peter Bergen, CNN terrorism analyst and author of Holy War, Inc., and the Osama bin Laden I Know

"Jason Burke's quest to understand radical Islam exposes dangerous myths that misguide the war on terrorism and ultimately reveals that learning more about why Muslims would be terrorists means taking an honest look at ourselves."

Charles Peña, senior fellow, Independent Institute, and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism

"A view from the sharp end. Intrepid and resourceful." —The Telegraph (UK)

"An astute guide to the range and complexity of the Islamic world." —Sunday Telegraph (UK)

"Beautifully written . . . intensely personal . . . absorbing and illuminating." —Daily Mail (UK)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385662369
  • Publisher: Doubleday Canada Limited
  • Publication date: 9/1/2006
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Jason Burke is a prize-winning Chief Reporter for The Observer (U.K.) and the bestselling author of Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam (2004).

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction: I Was a Teenage Guerrilla

We buried the letter at the bottom of one of our bags and left the next morning, travelling west in a local bus on a bad road that led across high hills with slopes of pines broken by slabs of grey rock. Where there was shadow there were strands of dirty snow and, with the chill that came with evening, it was clear why so many refugees had died in the mountains when they had fled earlier in the year. We stopped overnight in a small village set on the lip of a deep gorge and stayed in a roadside hostel where we slept on the floor and were woken several times by gunfire. In the morning we ate thin yoghurt with warm bread and drank tea the colour of polished copper from small glasses and watched impassive local villagers lead heavily equipped troops through their fields and up into the higher hills. There was a ‘big operation’ underway against the guerrillas, we were told. By the afternoon we were out of the mountains and on a straightening road down to the plains. There we were to give the letter to a man in the refugee camp in the desert outside the frontier town where several thousand families lived on United Nations aid. We found the man, who opened the letter, read it and told us that the best way to cross the border was simply to take a taxi. It would cost about $10 and take less than an hour. We were very disappointed.

Sometimes, when drunk or desperate to impress, I tell people I fought as a teenage guerrilla. It’s not entirely true. I wasn’t a teenager, I was 21. And, though I did carry a gun, I didn’t fight. In fact, on the few occasions shooting started, I hid in a ditch. It was the summer of 1991. Saddam Hussein’s ill-judged attempt to seize Kuwait and its oil had ended in swift and predictable defeat by an American-led military coalition a few months previously. In the war’s aftermath, the Shia Muslim population of the south of Iraq rebelled, swiftly followed by the Kurds living in the north. Both believed that they would be supported by the allies. But the allies had stood by while Saddam’s tanks and helicopters dealt first with the Shias and then pushed the Kurds back into their historic mountain strongholds in a series of bloody battles which prompted more than a million refugees to head to the Turkish and Iranian borders. In all, at least a hundred thousand died.

To start with there was little that distinguished my trip, with a friend from university called Iain, from that of any other pair of second-year undergraduates backpacking round Europe. We hitched across Turkey, drank too much Efes beer and were delayed for some time in a cheap hotel in Cappadocia by two Danish girls. But on reaching Van, a city in the east of the country, the half-formed plan that neither of us had really discussed, though we both knew existed, began to emerge. We started, relatively carefully, contacting people who we thought might be able to help us meet the PKK, the local Kurdish Marxist guerrillas, then seven years into an insurgency in the mountains of southeastern Turkey. In fact, to have met them would have been very dangerous and we were gently persuaded of this by a carpet salesman in Van’s main bazaar, who pointed out that the group had a habit of taking Western tourists hostage. He suggested an alternative: crossing the border into Iraq. There, in the north, the Kurds were on the brink of setting up a genuine independent state. This was more or less what we had hoped to do anyway.

He told us that we would have to travel to Hakkari, a rough and ready town 100 or so miles away, go to the Hotel Umit, ask for ‘Achmed’ and say that ‘Apple’ had sent us. We took the bus, found the old hotel not far from the centre of town and told Achmed about Apple. If the melodrama amused him, Achmed showed no sign of it. Within an hour we had been handed the sealed letter in a mouldy hotel room by two taciturn men who neither removed their overcoats nor sat down during the hour we spent with them. In the square outside Turkish troops jumped down from trucks and fanned out through streets full of market stalls, goats and old jeeps. From there, with our letter safely stowed, we headed through the mountains and down to the plains, the refugee camp and the border.

I had never been in a refugee camp before. It was noon and the sun came straight down and the dust blew hard across the open spaces between the tents. A crowd of women and children with an astonishing variety of containers jostled around a water tanker. I asked Iain if the lemon juice I had squeezed into my hair was making it blond and me more like the sun-bleached combat veteran I hoped to resemble. He said no. Because there was no post and telephones were too expensive several refugees gave us letters to deliver to friends and family which I promptly left in the taxi that took us to the border with Iraq the next morning. Enroute we passedan American base with long lines of armoured vehicles in neat ranks. At the border there were Kurdish soldiers, looking impossibly romantic in their beards, chequered headdresses, traditional baggy trousers, wide cummerbund-style belts and square tunic tops. A ragged banner slung over a portrait of Saddam Hussein that had been shot to pieces told us that we had entered Iraqi Kurdistan.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2006

    The Islamic World.

    This is an outstanding book which should be read by all politicians and their advisors concerned with present day tensions between Islam and the West. Also it will appeal to a wider audience of readers interested in current affairs. The author provides us with some wonderful insights and descriptions of the places and people in the regions he travels to. Highly recommended.

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