Archive for July, 2008

Five Best Books on Afghanistan

Saturday, July 5th, 2008

1. Heroes of the Age
By David B. Edwards
University of California, 1996

David B. Edwards’s thesis in “Heroes of the Age” is that Afghanistan’s problems come from “the moral incoherence” of the country itself. Afghans share a myth of the nation, but not an idea of the state, Edwards argues. The principles of Islam, honor and state governance are all respected, but often incompatible. The conflict is vividly on display in Edwards’s engrossing essays about a three larger-than-life and arguably psychopathic men: Mullah Hadda, a saintly late-19th-century mullah from Ghazni, in central Afghanistan; Amir Abdur Rahman, Afghanistan’s brutal, unifying king from 1880 to 1901; and Sultan Muhammad Khan, who participated in Afghanistan’s last tribal rebellion, in the 1940s (he blinded his mother for denying him the opportunity to avenge his father’s death). Their stories, which unfold largely in the still-volatile eastern frontier provinces, would be useful to American soldiers in understanding the dysfunctional aspects of the society in which they are operating.

2. Caravans
By James Michener
Random House, 1963

This novel from early in James Michener’s career is the fruit of wide-ranging trips to Afghanistan in the mid-1950s. Despite its contrived plot, “Caravans” has more to teach about the country and its people than almost any later work of fiction or travel writing. Michener gets everything right, from the pronunciation of Kabul — “cobble” — to the archaeology. The protagonist, an American diplomat, travels across large areas of the country in 1946, some of the time with nomads, observing the beginnings of modernization, but also a public execution and mullahs spitting on those they disapprove of — a portent of the violent extremism in Afghanistan’s future.

3. The Hidden War
By Artyom Borovik
Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990

Published when the author was barely 30, “The Hidden War” is the best-written account of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This story has been obscured by a focus on the mujahedeen who ousted the Soviets. But it’s important precisely because the Soviet experience in Afghanistan was not ours: Soviet troops, many of them draftees, were sent into the country with no clear objective, and they performed — and behaved — terribly. They saw Kabul’s grimy, impoverished markets as a shopping opportunity, Borovik writes, and they quickly adapted to a place where “bribery, corruption, profiteering and drugs were no less common than the long lines in Soviet stores.” American soldiers, faced with the same culture, are influencing it in a positive direction, not submitting to it.

4. Modern Afghanistan
By Amin Saikal
I.B. Tauris, 2004

As an Afghan scholar based in Australia, Amin Saikal starts out with the advantage of fluency in the languages of original source documents and just a degree or two of separation from many of the contemporary figures he discusses in “Modern Afghanistan.” Saikal conveys some hard truths about his native land, including his broadest point: No Afghan government has been able to maintain itself in power without foreign support. He sometimes lapses into fashionable anti-Americanism, but he is right to note the many opportunities that America missed to influence Afghanistan as far back as the 1920s. Even in June 1976, with Soviet interference mounting, progressive nationalist President Sardar Daoud’s entreaties to the Ford administration for help went unheeded. Less than a year later, this flawed strongman — who looks pretty good compared with what came later — had been toppled by Afghan communists and killed. The effects of the civil war and the Soviet invasion that ensued are still unfolding.

5. A Journey Through Afghanistan
By David Chaffetz
Regnery Gateway, 1981

Because Afghanistan, despite its long history, has spurred comparatively little scholarship and serious study, books about the country can tend toward the eccentric. Certainly “eccentric” describes David Chaffetz’s vivid, loving account of a trip on horseback and on foot through remote areas of northwestern Afghanistan in the late 1970s. Chaffetz has good Persian and considerable learning, and he writes with wit and verve. It seems Chaffetz is now a computer company executive in France; he’s never written another book. But this will endure.