my afghanistan reading list
Several of my colleagues here have asked me for the names and authors of the best books I’ve come across about Afghanistan, so I thought maybe more people would benefit from reading some of these works. Each one is a little different. Some are more geopolitical; others are a very human look at life in this country; still others focus on military operations since the beginning of OEF.
I have to say, in general, folks back home are very generous with care packages for the troops, with more candy than anyone here can eat, notes, cards, toiletries, and paperback novels. My only wish would be for more of the sorts of books I list below to be ubiquitous in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unfortunately, despite “Commanders’ Recommended Reading Lists”, most people serving here have very little idea of the culture, history, or politics of the region that they spend six or twelve months in. That is at best a lost opportunity; at worst, it can be a fatal misstep for a mission or a planned operation.
I would welcome your comments or additions to this list.
Best Human Perspective
Sarah Chayes, The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan after the Fall of the Taliban (Penguin Books, 2007)
I read Ms Chayes' book in 2007, before my Iraq deployment, and found myself wishing I was coming to Afghanistan. Her love for the Pashtun tribespeople is evident, and she paints a wonderful picture of fragrant orchards, mild nights, tasty fruits and nuts, and meaningful relationships. These pleasant memories of Kandahar are scattered amid the backdrop of a disturbingly confused reconstruction strategy carried out by DoD, USAID, NGOs, and international donors.
Best Current-Events Landscape (tie)
Seth G. Jones, In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan (W.W. Norton, 2009)
RAND Corporation analyst Jones does a succinct job of laying out the relevant regional history, the current players, and the sticky issues confronting the international community as reconstruction and counterinsurgency efforts progress in Afghanistan. The most telling part of Mr Jones’ book comes early on: he reminds the readers that the average duration of successful counterinsurgency operations is 14 years. And the amount of money required per capita? FAR higher than what has been invested or even committed in Afghanistan.
Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos (Viking Adult, 2008)
An accomplished author of multiple books about the region, Pakistan-born journalist Ahmed Rashid spends a good deal of time explaining the complex relations between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and how this affects everything we do in the region. You can’t understand one without the other. He also unfolds the story of the insurgent groups, including Al Qaeda, Taliban, Haqqani Network, and TTP (Pakistani Taliban).
Best Military Ops Account
Sean Naylor, Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda (Berkley Trade, 2006)
Naylor, a seasoned war journalist, delves deep into the details in this book about an early 2002 operation in the Shah-i-khot Valley, a few dozen miles from where I’m writing. The details of military machinations ring true, from the detailed preparations of the special operators, to the “war-by-video-teleconference” mentality of some of the senior leadership. The special forces units pull off some pretty heroic feats, despite inadequate support from some of their leadership. An insightful look at how military ops are planned, executed, and susceptible to flawed communication.
Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 (Little, Brown, and Co., 2007)
Luttrell describes the training that goes into being a Navy SEAL, and later in the book one appreciates why exactly these tough young men are made to endure extreme hardship, sleeplessness, and physical punishment: because a SEAL instructor may not be the scariest challenge one ever has to face. Luttrell and his team get caught in an ambush in eastern Afghanistan, and his brave companions are killed, one by one, until he is finally the only one living. He makes it to a nearby Pashtun village, where he is cared for and protected until he can make it back to safety. A remarkable account.
The One I Can’t NOT Mention
Greg Mortensen, Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Viking Adult, 2009)
This follow-up to Three Cups of Tea carries Greg Mortensen’s story of school-building from Northern Pakistan into eastern Afghanistan, from Kandahar to Khost, Nuristan to Badakhshan. While education is not the sole solution to some of the problems in this region, it is a good start. In fact, it is THE start. Uneducated people are people easily led by demagogues and extremist ideology. The Central Asia Institute has begun to do what we should have done when the USSR collapsed: build schools to give the Afghan people a future.