Monday, September 10, 2007

The Afghan

Frederick Forsyth's The Afghan is based on the problem that Western intelligence agencies have in fighting Islamist terrorism by infiltrating terrorist groups with agents who can pass for the real thing. It is next to impossible that they will ever successfully pull off something like that.

SAS officer Mike Martin could, however, very well be the exception to the rule and, when British and American intelligence people become aware that Al-Qaeda is preparing an operation that could overshadow even the events of 9-11, Martin agrees to take on the identity of an infamous Afghan being held at Guantanamo Bay. After training for weeks while a faked release and return of the Afghan to Pakistan's safe-keeping is arranged, Martin manages to convince Al-Qaeda that he is the real thing and that he has not been turned by his captors into an informant. The Afghan's heroic history of fighting both Russian and American invaders of his country, and his complete refusal to cooperate with his American captors at Guantanamo ensure that Martin gets noticed by Al-Qaeda's leadership and results in him being added to the small team chosen for their new spectacular.

Unfortunately Forsyth's methodical, step-by-step approach to telling Mike Martin's story kills most of the excitement and suspense that the reader expects from such a promising plot. Instead, with its scant character development, The Afghan reads more like a movie or television screenplay than the thriller it was intended to be, a novel easily pictured as a movie but one in which the reader seldom loses himself.

Forsyth creates a version of Al-Qaeda that is capable of pulling off the kind of plan with which fans of the Mission Impossible movies would feel familiar but one glaring hole in his plot remains unexplained. The Afghan is famous within Al-Qaeda circles as one of their most capable, fierce and loyal soldiers, a man who will fight the enemy to the death and who can motivate lesser men around him. Yet Al-Qaeda leadership is willing to sacrifice him in a meaningless role in which all he is given to do is stand around and wait to be blown up with the rest of his team. None of his skills are used and he is simply taken along for the ride, never even being told any of the details of the mission he is on. Of course, for sake of the book's story, it is necessary to have him there but his inclusion on the mission makes little tactical sense for Al-Qaeda's purposes.

The book's climax, coming finally after the long, detailed set-up, is over so suddenly that the reader never experiences the author's intended feeling of suspense and relief. Coupled with an epilogue explaining how the incident came to be perceived by those who worked to stop it, the ending is one of the book's bigger disappointments.

The audio book version of The Afghan is read by Robert Powell, a reader who naturally did well with the various British accents in the book but who had a real problem with American accents. Powell gave many of his Americans particularly gruff voices to distinguish them from their British counterparts but often lost his supposedly American accent in mid-sentence. His reading of the book is almost as straight forward as Forsyth's writing and adds little to the enjoyment of the book. This is one thriller that is almost certainly better read than listened to on CD.

Rating: 2.5
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