Two tales of Afghanistan

Marianne Elliott and Nicky Hager‘s books at first sight appear to be quite different beasts. Investigative journalist and author Hager needs no introduction, he has been illuminating New Zealand’s political, military and intelligence underbelly since 1996. His books are weighty tomes (metaphorically if not literally) replete with formidably detailed research. Zen under fire by Marianne Elliott, former United Nations’ human rights officer and lawyer, uses a more personal tale-telling technique to describe her time in Afghanistan and its impact on her, her nearest and dearest. Surprisingly the books taken together are complementary and sympathetic, providing a picture of Afghanistan, big and small.

Both Hager and Marianne felt compelled to write due to the lack of information on Afghanistan despite New Zealand’s involvement there. Further Marianne wanted to tell the stories of her Afghani colleagues, “to use the location and time in history to inform people”, to give context and reveal the discrepancies between the theory and practice of humans rights in Afghanistan.

For research Marianne relied on the almost verbatim notes she’d kept of interactions with warlords and non-governmental organisations. Her own “tenacious memory” informed the rest. Hager spoke to serving soldiers, senior officers and collected intelligence and military documents in the tens of thousands. The sheer volume of evidence “nearly melted down his brain” and Hager initially struggled to reduce this mountain of paper and find the essence.

Finding the “voice” of their respective books had challenges for them both. Hager didn’t want a critical, nagging voice. He wanted Other people’s wars to be a nation building book explaining who we are as New Zealanders, and to be read by the military, military families and the wider New Zealand public especially the young. Marianne wrote for her friends, women she knows and loves but who sometimes struggled to understand her experiences. She also felt strongly that most New Zealanders wanted to understand Afghanistan and be able to access nuanced information. The personal story was for her the best vehicle

Asked about what the next five years held for Afghanistan neither author was optimistic. Nicky Hager believes the slow collapse of Afghani society is inevitable once the West withdraws. Marianne likewise, despite her reservations about the West’s original involvement in Afghanistan, fears the lack of long-term political commitment will result in hardship for the many people who have experienced improved lives since Western forces entered Afghanistan. The transition needs to be slow and thoughtful and she hold real reprisal concerns for the many Afghani who have worked alongside the West.

This was a carefully structured and sensitive exploration of the writer’s craft rather than a febrile, political polemic. Well attended, the audience provided some thoughtful and topical questions.