Afghanistan reading bleg

by Chris Bertram on March 17, 2010

The blogosphere was very exercised about the arguments for and against war in Afghanistan and Iraq, but as both conflicts have dragged on there has been less sustained attention given to the developments within those countries. Still, a trip over to Amazon presented me with a list of possible books to read about Iraq, the invasion, the occupation, the current situation, etc. Not so for Afghanistan where the top choice was an updated edition of a book first published in 1981 ( _Afghanistan: Land of Conflict and Beauty: A History of Conflict_ by John C. Griffiths). So is there anything? (And if not, why not?)



bordesinremedio 03.17.10 at 8:50 am

There are many, but I would recommend especially two books that offer a glimpse of Afghanistan past, and they are recent.

Larry P. Goodson, Afghanistan’s Endless War, U. Washington Press, 2001;
and Jeffery J. Roberts, The Origins of Conflict in Afghanistan, Praeger, 2003.

They hardly delve for time reasons in the present situation, but up to 2000, it gives a good overview of the country.


Nabakov 03.17.10 at 9:02 am

When it comes to imperial yet incompetent overreach in the Great Game, the first Flashman novel is at least an entertaining place to start.

Or you could go back further to Kipling’s ‘Kim”

“Very foolish it is to use the wrong word to a stranger; for though the heart may be clean of offence, how is the stranger to know that? He is more like to search truth with a dagger.”

– from the chapter where they go into Afghanistan and the Pundit is left for dead when it all fucks up.

– ‘Kim’, Rudyard Kipling.


Chris Bertram 03.17.10 at 9:10 am

Well thanks for the comment Nabokov … but it doesn’t really answer the question which was about developments since 2001.


J. Otto Pohl 03.17.10 at 10:50 am

There is not as much on Afghanistan as Iraq. But, there has been some stuff written. As far as serious academic works on Afghanistan I would start with more historical works first. Afghanistan has had 30 year of continuous war and without a basic background in the history of those three decades it is difficult to make sense of what exists today. For a good background on this recent history I would recommend Barnett R. Rubin’s, _The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System_ (Yale University Press, 2002). It covers 1978 to 1992. These are the years that I think are most critical for understanding the current situation in Afghanistan.


Nabakov 03.17.10 at 10:51 am

“..but it doesn’t really answer the question which was about developments since 2001.”

True. But on the other hand, my references may help explain why no one has come up with a coherent narrative for Afghanistan since 2001.


Nabakov 03.17.10 at 10:53 am

Though you gotta admit leaving a pundit for dead on the North West Frontier is a good start.


ajay 03.17.10 at 11:00 am

What exactly are you after? There’s been plenty of good books written on the Taliban since 2001, and on the war more generally: when you say “developments” are you looking more for sociology or economic stuff rather than war-related material? If not, then “Koran Kalashnikov and Laptop” is good, as are Giustiozzi’s subsequent books. Ahmed Rashid is also worth a look: “DEscent into Chaos” covers Pakistan as well and is up to date as of 2008, I think.


Nick L 03.17.10 at 11:03 am

I agree with Ajay, Giustiozzi is generally regarded as one of the main authorities on the conflict. His new book is ‘Empires of Mud: Wars and Warlords in Afghanistan’.


Nick L 03.17.10 at 11:06 am

Oh, in addition, I think that this newsweek piece is an essential resource for anyone interested in making sense of the war. The writers interviewed scores of Taliban fighters about their own reasons for fighting:


Enzo Rossi 03.17.10 at 11:15 am

A while back I read Taliban: The Story of Afghan Warlords by Ahmed Rashid. Journalistic, but not bad. He’s written quite a lot on the current Afghan situation.


Dan Hardie 03.17.10 at 12:26 pm

Barnett Rubin is one of the leading Western scholars: a number of references but start with ‘ The Fragmentation of Afghanistan’. He’s a very learned man and writes exceptionally nuanced books. He’s currently advising Richard Holbrooke and is said to be strongly against some of the military escalation plans in circulation.

Amin Saikal: ‘Modern Afghanistan, a history of struggle and survival’. Saikal’s an Afghan who fled the Soviet invasion and now teaches in Australia.
The book’s very much a ‘history from above’, as he admits in his preface- but a clear picture of what happened in Kabul is important for understanding Afghan history. The bibliography gives a lot of useful further references.

Steve Coll: ‘Ghost Wars’. A journalistic account of the CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan from 1978 to 2001, with plenty of excursions into other relevant subjects (especially Pakistani and Saudi politics). Superbly detailed and not at all American-centric. The book’s a useful corrective to the ‘it’s all about pipelines’ conspiracy theorists, but the CIA and the US still come out of it looking pretty awful.

Ahmed Rashid, ‘Descent into Chaos’: the clearest account of what has happened in Afghanistan and Central Asia since 2001. I’m a little sceptical of his policy prescriptions (basically more NATO forces in Afghanistan applying a lot more counterinsurgent wisdom) but he’s one of the region’s leading journalists. His earlier ‘Taliban’ is probably the best single book on life under the regime.

On the battles fought by British troops since 2006: none of the books I’ve read manages to be properly informed and sufficiently sceptical. I thought Steven Grey’s ‘Operation Snakebite’ was probably the best attempt. Most books in this genre are gung-ho but you can make out some useful facts none the less, eg from Patrick Bishop’s ‘3 Para’ or Stuart Tootal’s ‘Danger Close’.

The two smartest critics of Western policy in Afghanistan seem to me to have been Rory Stewart, whom I knew back in the day, and Adam Holloway, a rightwing Tory MP and former SAS officer. Google Holloway’s name and read his Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet and his various Telegraph and Spectator articles, written in 2006-8 and all sadly prescient in their predictions of major bloodshed. Rory’s written a number of extended pieces, most recently for the NYRB.

There was a good discussion of some of the economic and military difficulties of Helmand Province between myself and Dan Davies in his ‘Wages of Terrorism’ thread:

For eyewitness testimony, Rory Stewart’s ‘The Places in between’ is an excellent account of walking from Herat to Kabul in 2001- the madman. I think it will have lasting literary value, but for a student of Afghanistan it shows just how atomised society had become after 23 years of war. Saira Shah’s ‘The Storyteller’s daughter’ is also supposed to be excellent, though I haven’t yet read it.


Ano 03.17.10 at 1:23 pm

Was going to suggest the NYRB article by Rory Stewart (the best article out there if one is trying to convince himself that Obama’s plan isn’t terrible), but Dan Hardie beat me to it!

You’ve probably already read it anyway, but just in case here’s the link:


sj 03.17.10 at 1:35 pm

I second Rubin, Giustozzi, and Rashid as the key authors. The first two worked on Afghanistan before 2001, which makes their work especially valuable.

Giutozzi’s edited volume, ‘Decoding the Neo-Taliban’, is dense but good for academic purposes; his previous work, ‘Koran, Kolashnikov and Laptop’ is more accessible.

Rashid is the best (and, really, only detailed) author on Pakistan’s role in the Afghan civil war and insurgency, something that was neglected in the West until recently.

None of these authors fully brings out the nexus of insurgents, terrorists, and criminals that characterizes S/SE Afghanistan today, though. Something that’s needed.


Maurice Meilleur 03.17.10 at 2:33 pm

@9: Not to drag the conversation off-topic, but I think it’s long since time that using ‘journalistic’ as an epithet stopped. As far as I can tell, all it means is ‘does not invoke any of the interpretive or explanatory theories that are now or have been in professional circulation among self-described social scientists’.

I learned a hell of a lot more about Afghanistan from Rashid’s book (his follow-up book and articles are worth reading, also) than I ever could hope to learn from the pages of the American Political Science Review. I bought a copy the week after the September 11 attacks (like thousands of other people in the US, of course) and read it in one sitting.


ajay 03.17.10 at 2:43 pm

Additional to 10: “Ghost Wars” is very good, but it doesn’t (I think) go beyond 2001, so may not be what you’re looking for.
The other trouble with most of the books about the Helmand fighting (“Operation Snakebite” is a good example) is that they are fairly limited in scope: they tend to be about what one person, or at best one battlegroup, did over a six-month tour, so they’re not always great for getting an idea of the big picture, either of the longer term or of what was going on in the rest of the country.

Rashid’s “Jihad” covers Islamic extremism in Central Asia and is a few years old now, but still worth a look – not exactly what you asked for though.


The Raven 03.17.10 at 3:36 pm

Drop a note to Sean-Paul Kelley. He’s likely to have some good ideas.


smuhlberger 03.17.10 at 4:24 pm

Thanks to all who participated in this thread. I have been looking for recommendations on books about Afghanistan for myself, and this was a good start.


Es-tonea-pesta 03.17.10 at 4:58 pm

Afghanistan: Land of Conflict and Beauty: A History of Conflict

Fans have waited 30 years for the conclusion to the saga, Afghanistan: Land of Conflict and Beauty: A History of Beauty.


Laban 03.17.10 at 7:53 pm

Don’t know what Dilip Hiro’s 2005 “Afghanistan and 9/11 – The Anatomy of a Conflict” is like, but he knows his way around that neck of the woods. What I’m not sure of is if he actually gets his feet on the ground.

For ancient background, Churchill’s ‘The Story of the Malakand Field Force’ is on the Web, Charles Allen’s ‘Soldier Sahibs’, about the young Victorians who policed the North West Frontier and their Pashtun allies, and Hiro’s ‘Between Marx and Muhammed’, a review of the Central Asian republics, all the more valuable for being written before 9/11 (indeed before 1990). Since then he’s revisited them in ‘Inside Central Asia’.

Quite a few articles on the Taleban too, pre and post 9/11.


Naadir Jeewa 03.17.10 at 9:43 pm

The Afghanistan Analyst is a good place to start. It’s a fairly comprehensive bibliography on all things Afghanistan.


Naadir Jeewa 03.17.10 at 9:45 pm and Abu Muqawama also often both give book reviews and recommendations.


LFC 03.17.10 at 10:35 pm

This recent book, not yet mentioned here I think, has been well reviewed (though I haven’t read it myself):
Adulkader Sinno, Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond


Chris Bertram 03.17.10 at 10:54 pm

Many thanks to all those who have contributed suggestions.


LFC 03.17.10 at 10:54 pm

And I’m fairly sure there are various places in the blogosphere where one can find ongoing, well-informed analysis of Afghanistan. One or two have been mentioned already. Try also Vikash Yadav at Duck of Minerva (whom I don’t always agree with but who does seem to know what he’s talking about).


Elizabeth 03.18.10 at 2:02 am



Tom T. 03.18.10 at 2:19 am

Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools are extraordinary stories of a certain slice of day-to-day life in Afghanistan and Taliban-controlled Pakistan, although they’re not specifically about the war.


Zora 03.18.10 at 8:27 am

To put it all in the longest possible perspective, Willem Vogelsang’s _The Afghans_, which starts with the earliest archaeological evidence and marches forward indomitably.

If you take the longer view, you see that Afghanistan as a country is a fairly recent creation, carved out of the remnants of Nadir Shah’s conquests by one of his lieutenants, Ahmad Shah Durrani. It was an empire, briefly, it shrunk, and would probably have disintegrated if the British hadn’t wanted a *stable* ally/client state on the western edge of the Raj.


Dan Hardie 03.18.10 at 11:53 am

I should have left a link to Adam Holloway’s CPS pamphlet, which is here in pdf format:

Very good indeed, whatever one might think of Holloway’s political views on domestic UK subjects.

Thanks to Naadir for his suggestions. I have to say I really don’t like ‘Registan’: the main writer is very, very hawkish without ever having served in the military, which is generally a bad combination.

Michael Yon’s weblog gives the most detailed description of fighting on the ground, although his politics are very rightwing.

Ajay, since I have actually served in the Army in Afghanistan and am likely to be doing so again, I find it extremely distasteful that you went around on various blogs falsely implying that you had done the same. I would politely suggest that you become a little more discreet on the subject of Afghanistan, since intelligent advice rarely comes from Walter Mitty types.


ajay 03.18.10 at 12:03 pm

It was an empire, briefly, it shrunk, and would probably have disintegrated if the British hadn’t wanted a stable ally/client state on the western edge of the Raj.

That’s an interesting point – though I think ‘buffer state’ is probably the best description; i.e. a state that was strong enough to keep the Russians from doing to Kabul what they’d done to all the other khanates in Central Asia, and thus keep them a safe distance away from India.
And, yes, Vogelsang does indeed take “the longest possible perspective” IIRC. I remember the feeling of relief when he finally staggers over the pass into the mid-eighteenth century – “thank god we’re into familiar territory at last” more or less sums it up.


Dan Hardie 03.18.10 at 12:35 pm

Just don’t convince yourself that you were in Ahmad Shah Durrani’s army.


Castorp 03.18.10 at 2:05 pm

I second the Rashid recommendations and would add that you should check out his NYRB’s archive:

I also recommend Rory Stewart’s LRB article:

as well as

Gilles Dorronsoro’s “The Taliban’s Winning Strategy in Afghanistan”


Chris Williams 03.18.10 at 2:10 pm

For those who haven’t followed the Ajay / Dan H contretemps, I’d like to point out that at least one observer (me) has found it very hard to reconcile what I saw of Ajay’s words with Dan’s interpretation of those words. Dan might have some smoking guns, which prove firstly that Ajay has definitely claimed – or even strongly implied – he’s served with the British Army in Afghanistan, and secondly that he definitely didn’t, but I have yet to see the former and I’d wonder whether or not the latter can exist.

This caveat ought not to be interpreted as a dig at Dan H’s political campaigning, which I fully support, nor at the quality of the resources he’s pointed out here.


stostosto 03.18.10 at 2:11 pm

You might check out Fredrik Barth, Norwegian anthropologist who very recently had a book published called Afghanistan and Taleban, unfortunately not yet available in English, afaik.


stostosto 03.18.10 at 2:20 pm

The title is Afghanistan og Taleban, seeing as it is in Norwegian.


gmoke 03.18.10 at 5:01 pm

Not quite what you asked for but there are a few books on Abdul Ghaffar Khan also known as Badshah Khan, the man who formed what some call the world’s first non-violent army in the Northwest Frontier Provinces in 1930, the Khudai Khidmatgar or Servants of God. It was comprised of up to 100,000 Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh men and also had a women’s auxiliary. It lasted until 1947 when it was crushed by the new state of Pakistan. Badshah Khan was a friend and follower of Mohandas K Gandhi although his non-violence was based upon the Islamic principle of sadr, patience, and the Pashtun tradition of melmastia, hospitality.

It is good to be reminded that there can be other uses for courage than war.


Abu Ghraib 03.18.10 at 6:17 pm

“Covert troops who killed two pregnant women and a teenage girl in eastern Afghanistan went on to inflict “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” on the survivors of a botched night raid, a report by the UN said.”

“The wife and son had been shot in the head, each with a single bullet. The engineer had died from a shot to the chest. The precision of the killings, coupled with his failure to find any bullet casings after the raid, led Omar to believe that his cousin was murdered either by US special forces or by an intelligence agency.”
Click the link and you’ll understand why he thinks that.

More here.
And go to The Institute for Public Accuracy and sign up for their news releases. They’re good.

And I’m glad some one mentioned Malalai Joya, A WOMAN AMONG WARLORDS though I’m not surprised no one has seconded it. And I’m sick of links to “Abu Muqawama” who’s nothing but a military thug with a graduate degree, who got it to better serve his country, which is not the same, lets be clear as doing so to serve democracy and the rule of law. It’s the American exceptionalism of the gun.

Don’t look for better books, look for better journalism, even in translation, and it will point you to the books you need.


Conor 03.20.10 at 12:20 pm

Dan and others have given a fairly comprehensive list and I would agree with them on Rory Stewart and Ahmed Rashid.

For a good overview of the earlier period (which you really need to understand the present) I would also suggest Stephen Tanner’s A Military History from Alexander the Great to the Taliban


Alice de Tocqueville 03.22.10 at 11:36 pm

Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould’s “Afghanistan: the Invisible History” debunks the idea that Afghanistan has always been “backward”; women got the vote in 1927, and the last king, whatever-his-name-was asked the US for help in modernizing, economically and politically, but got none, (no percentage there for us!) . They contend the Taliban is not indigenous at all, rather a ‘wholly-owned subsidiary of the ISI’. A very exhaustive history up to now.

Comments on this entry are closed.