- - Friday, September 2, 2011

By Patricia McArdle
Riverhead, $24.95, 368 pages

There was a time, particularly during the Cold War, when the lines between the responsibilities of the State Department and the Defense Department were clearly drawn. Defense did war-fighting when diplomacy broke down, and when the fighting stopped, the diplomats took over. It wasn’t always that way. William Eaton, a diplomat, led the invasion of what is now Libya in the Barbary War and organized the storming of “the shores of Tripoli”by the Marines.

John Paul Vann, a U.S. Agency for International Development employee, effectively commanded a Corps-sized military force in Vietnam replete with its own air force. However, by 2001, the lines were clearly drawn between the soldiers and the diplomats. Afghanistan and Iraq changed all that. In these messy conflicts, diplomats have been called upon to assume operational roles while soldiers often have been directed to conduct independent negotiations. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that people have been asked to do things they may not have been prepared to do by training or inclination. “Farishta” is a novel about a woman thrown into such a situation.

It is 2005, and career diplomat Angela Morgan is assigned as the American representative on a British Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in northern Iraq. PRTs are formed to do the development work in counterinsurgency. They are interagency teams composed of military members, diplomats and other civilians who try to address the root causes of the insurgency, which usually are economic or social in nature and typically are exacerbated by poor governance on the part of host-nation officials.

Angela is a wreck. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder caused when she and her husband were posted in Beirut and he was killed in the embassy bombing in the early ‘80s. A series of poor relationships and too much alcohol have left her career in shambles, and Afghanistan is her chance to salvage it. She walks into a loaded situation. As an American female diplomat on a military-led, all male British PRT, she has the deck stacked against her and must spend much of her time just trying to fit in.

The tension between diplomats and civilians on PRTs is portrayed interestingly in the novel. Angela is a fluent Dari speaker, and British Maj. Davies is a fluent Pashtu speaker, but they are instructed to keep that secret. They are in an area where Dari is the local language but most Afghan government officials speak Pashtu. The British suspect that one or more of the interpreters is deliberately mistranslating to assist local drug lords, and the two are supposed to find out who it is.

The relationship nicely highlights the cultural challenge between soldiers and diplomats, and the tension between Angela and Maj. Davies eventually turns to attraction. There also is a subplot involving a romance between Angela’s interpreter and a young female Afghan law student who is trying to stop arranged marriages between grown men and teenage girls. Anothersubplot involves a Russian diplomat who shows interest in Angela.

This is a good story, well told. My favorite segment involves an episode in which Angela (Farishta is the Dari word for Angela’s name), who has no real job on the PRT, takes it upon herself to try to solve the problem of poor women trying to find cooking fuel in war-torn Afghanistan, where the forests have been stripped bare. She draws on an old Girl Scout trick to build cheap solar ovens out of glass, cardboard and aluminum foil. This becomes her crusade, and when possible, she combines official trips outside the PRT compound with educating Afghans on this “new” technology.

Eventually, she expands operations by covertly venturing out in head-to-toe Afghan dress to educate Afghan women on the virtues of solar cooking. This kind of thing is exactly what PRTs are supposed to do. What the author describes has happened in reality countless times. Individual American soldiers and civilian officials in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen something that needed to be done and have done it, damn the bureaucracy. It represents the very best our country brings to such conflicts.

Patricia McArdle is well-qualified to choose this subject for a book. She is a retired diplomat who served on a PRT in northern Afghanistan. She admits that “Farishta” is a fictionalized version of her experience there. It is her first novel, and it is a very good one indeed.

Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps colonel, is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He served on a PRT in Iraq.

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