Mediocre Thrills from Master of Espionage

Nishi MalhotraRecent news that terrorists were planning to destroy ten transatlantic flights has found an eerie echo in spy thriller writer Frederick Forsyth’s latest bestseller, The Afghan. The story is indeed, as one reviewer puts it, “ripped from the headlines”. The writing, however, is not as gripping as one is accustomed to from the master of this genre. The plot revolves around a daring operation mounted by the British and American secret services to infiltrate Al-Qaeda and foil a large scale terrorist plot code-named Al-Isra. Colonel Mike Martin of the British Special Air Services (who was also the principal character in Forsyth’s last bestseller based in the Middle East, The Fist of God) is the man chosen to impersonate Izmat Khan, an ex-Taliban commander languishing in Guantanamo Bay jail. Martin has Indian blood in his genes to account for his swarthy appearance, a childhood spent in Iraq that gives him familiarity with Arabic, and is veteran of two special military missions to Afghanistan (one during the occupation by the Soviets and another during the battle of Qala-i-Jang between the Taliban and US Marines) for added measure. He now enters Afghanistan under cover and from there on travels to the Middle East to become one of Osama’s chosen few who will be given the ‘honour’ of carrying out the latest attack against the West.Writers often combine fact with fiction to make a plot line more plausible. None do so as convincingly as Frederick Forsyth. This ex-employee of some of the best brand name media masters in the business – BBC, Reuters, Time – uses well-honed journalistic techniques to research for information that he can weave with dexterity into his novels; critics have often dubbed his genre of writing ‘faction’ (as opposed to ‘fiction). The author eschews psychological complexity in favour of technical details and his books are full of long asides on weapons and weapon systems, money laundering operations, lock picking, satellite photography, etc. True to style, The Afghan too is peppered with quick tutorials on the Wahhabi sect of Islam and the merchant marine fleets of the world.Forsyth’s other habit, of incorporating the closed door secrets of intelligence agencies such as MI6, CIA and Mossad into his novels, is often a source of headache and embarrassment to governments around the world. In The Day of the Jackal, he described how a would-be assassin visited a gravesite and then applied for a passport in the name of someone who had died in infancy. The government in the story did not cross check for names against the death registry, an omission that was true in actual practice at the time and was revealed by Forsyth in his thriller. In The Deceiver, British agents used a microphone to bug the coffin of a dead IRA member and listen in on the conversation of other IRA members who were using the occasion of the burial to confer with each other. When journalists pressed British higher-ups to reveal if this was true, the government had no choice but to reluctantly admit to the practice.The Afghan is faithful to Forsyth’s tradition of bringing hitherto unknown or unshared information to the attention of the larger world. In describing the surrender of the Taliban forces to the Northern Alliance in November 2001, for instance, the author reveals that the number that actually surrendered was 14,000. What happened to these POWs? “Among Afghans,” Forsyth writes, “there is nothing dishonourable in a negotiated surrender and, once agreed, its terms are always honoured.” What the Allies did however was anything but honourable. The prisoners included “six hundred Arabs devoted to Osama bin Laden who had sent them there. Well over three thousand Arabs had already died and the American attitude was that they would not weep salt tears if the rest went to Allah as well.” There were also 2,000 Pakistanis who were clearly going to be “a thundering embarrassment to Islamabad if they were ever discovered… Over three nights, a secret air bridge exfiltrated most of them back to Pakistan… In another covert deal some four thousand prisoners were sold – for varying sums according to desirability – to the US and Russia.” And the Northern Alliance declared to the media that only eight thousand prisoners had surrendered. What followed was even more horrific and Forsyth describes it in a chilling paragraph so reminiscent of the Holocaust:“It was decided to hand over a further five thousand (prisoners) to the Uzbek commander, General Dostum. He wished to take them far to the west, to Sheberghan inside his own territory. They were packed into steel freight containers without food or water and so compressed they could only stand, straining upwards for the air pockets above their heads. Somewhere on the road west it was agreed to give them air holes. This was done with heavy machine guns that went on firing until the screaming stopped.” Additionally, “2,400 (prisoners) remained behind in Tajik hands and have not been heard of since.”It is ‘journalism’ such as this and (later in the book) a vivid account of the massacre of prisoners at Qala-i-Jangi, that makes The Afghan a better candidate for the Pulitzer rather than the Edgar Awards (of which Forsyth already has a few). As a novel or a piece of fiction, The Afghan does have a plot, but barely. Notwithstanding moments of riveting writing and amazing information (of the kind that makes one exclaim, “Now how on earth did he find that out?”), the first half of the book begins to drag under the weight of material that is intended to be background for the main action. There are some errors – of the kind one doesn’t expect from a master researcher – Forsyth places Karachi in Baluchistan, not Sind.  The wait for real action is interminable. It arrives only in the last third of the book, is swift to the point of being anti-climactic, and is riddled with nick-of-time Hollywood heroics. The protagonist, Colonel Mike Martin, risks not so much his life as becoming a caricature of James Bond. Ultimately, the story of The Afghan is engrossing, more for the likelihood of an event such as Al-Isra actually happening, rather than in the telling of Forsyth’s plot or prose. For those who are new to Forsyth or others (like me) who may not have read anything new by the master since the heydays of his ‘70s bestsellers, my advice is to pick up a copy of The Fist of God, published in 1994. I did, fortunately, even though The Afghan did nothing to recommend the supposedly older and wiser Forsyth. Set against a similar backdrop (the Middle East), related saga (of the new forces of Islam), and including the same cast of characters (CIA, MI6, Mossad, Major Mike Martin, Dr. Terry Martin), The Fist of God is vintage Forsyth and packs more punch than any other thriller, across genres, that I have read in a long time. Here’s hoping the grandmaster of espionage will return soon, with another effort and in exemplary form.

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