Incomprehensible Reading

by Joshua Foust on 3/23/2010 · 60 comments

I always hate reading lists. They usually lend insight to the lister, rather than the subject the list is ostensibly about. That being said, this Afghanistan Politics reading list—for Foreign Affairs, of all places!—by Zalmay Khalilzad is just bizarre:

  • A Thousand Splendid Suns. By Khaled Hosseini. Riverhead, 2007.
  • The Places in Between. By Rory Stewart. Harcourt, 2006.
  • In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan. By Seth G. Jones. W. W. Norton, 2009.
  • Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. By Ahmed Rashid. Viking, 2008.
  • After the Taliban: Nation-Building in Afghanistan. By James F. Dobbins. Potomac Books, 2008.
  • Reconciliation in Afghanistan. By Michael Semple. United States Institute of Peace, 2009.

Now, most of those names will be familiar to readers of this site… in a negative way. In fact, almost all of these authors I have derided for lending misleading or outright factually incorrect portrayals of Afghanistan. Judging by the last few years of the Afghanistan conference circuit, it’s kind of obvious these guys are all friends (Seth Jones in particular outright admits he’s friends with Dobbins and Khalilzad, for example). Probably the least objectionable book here—and that is saying a lot—is Hosseini’s book, which is maudlin, yes, and unrealistic in how it portrays Afghan families (they’d be aghast to have only two children, for example), but genuine to a large degree.

The other people on that list are bizarre choices, whether Rory Stewart’s consequence-free advocacy of withdrawal in prestigious magazines, or Seth Jones’ factually troubled and confused “history” of post-2001 Afghanistan, or Ahmed Rashid’s reckless fear-mongering about not just the Taliban but Muslims in general (his first book, Taliban, I thought a good primer), or Michael Semple, or even James Dobbins, whose tenure as “special representative” in the country didn’t exactly leave him blameless for how badly the early years got screwed up.

There is something of an ideology to how one chooses books about Afghanistan, which then propagates whatever variant of selection bias the list maker already has. In Khalilzad’s list (note: I am not a fan), we can see he likes his friends and doesn’t really care for any discussion of Afghan politics that is critical of Hamid Karzai. That’s great—I’m all about insiders patting insiders on the back in moderation—but none of those books actually discuss “Afghan Politics” in any real way. You don’t learn about the goings-on in Hamid Karzai’s administration from any of those books, for example. Nor do you learn about Karzai’s outreach efforts to competing political interests in the country—say, the many stages of Hekmatyar’s reconciliation talks, or Haqqani’s contentious relationship with Kabul going back to the late 1980s. You don’t even get a history of how politics tend to work in the country in recent history—like, before 2001—nor do you learn about the government’s structure or a history of its decisions.

In fact, Khalilzad’s book list doesn’t actually discuss Afghanistan’s politics, but western political interests in Afghanistan—which are very much not the same thing. He says that these books will “illuminate the main factors that will help determine the struggle’s outcome,” but I don’t know how Hosseini’s book about spousal abuse (for example) does that. While he mentions the international scramble for influence in the country, only maybe Rashid’s book discusses it in any detail; the rest don’t, except for the expected mentions of Pashtun communities in Pakistan’s border regions.

So now is the point where I cast irony to the winds and the Lords of Kobol, and list what I would recommend reading to understand Afghanistan’s domestic and regional politics. Just to be clear: I tend to favor academic books for history and personal memoirs for context, because that’s how I roll. It’s my own selection bias—in general, I write off or ignore pop history or pop political books about the place (and the region!) as being too shallow or too obvious. So anyway, in no particular order:

  • Afghanistan by Louis Dupree and Taliban by Ahmed Rashid (reviewed here). Combined, the two books offer the most concise overview of Afghanistan up to the late 1990s or so. Dupree’s encyclopedic work remains the bible of how Afghanistan was organized before 1979, how its culture and religions (note the plural) used to work, and so on. It should be the foundation from which we understand Afghanistan’s more recent history, as it not only shows how horrible things have become (think of the Paghman Gardens, for example), but also the myths of Afghanistan that many of its leaders are still trying to recreate. Rashid is useful because Taliban, though by no means perfect, is nevertheless his most rigorous and interesting book, and forms a good introduction to understanding the Taliban movement and how it found support abroad.
  • Land of the High Flags: Afghanistan When the Going Was Good, by Rosanne Klass (reviewed here). Klass’ memoir of when she was the first female teacher at an all-boy’s school in 1950’s Kabul is remarkable. There are sociologically fascinating tidbits to be gleaned from it. The Kuchi, for example, were exempt from Zahir Shah’s purdah, so the women walked around, even onto the grounds of the U.S. embassy, uncovered and unmolested, as did the Western women (there is a fascinating photograph of Klass, wearing a delightful sun dress, walking through a market past burqa-clad women in heels). But just as important is her overwhelming sense of grief—grief at what Afghanistan did to itself in the 60s and 70s, and total grief at what the Soviets did to it in the 1980s. Though personal in the extreme, hers was an experiential book, one that lent a feeling of place more than a history of it, and should, I think, form at least one basis for understanding Afghanistan as a nation of people and not just a nation of events.
  • The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan, edited by Robert Crewes and Amin Tarzi. This is a thickly-written book for scholars, but it contains some real gems. One of the biggest is chapter one, written by Abdulkader Sinno, which is basically a shorter (and more easily comprehended) version of his dissertation/book about Pashtun social and political organization. His theory, greatly boiled down, is that the Taliban of the 1990s succeeded because they were good at mobilizing Pashtuns. M. Nazif Shahrani’s portrayal of the Taliban in an historical context is equally compelling, highlighting the emergence of the Taliban as a consequence of Afghanistan’s century-long status as a buffer state, with outside powers seeking power through the mobilization of Pashtun communities (see a theme here?). There are other compelling chapters—including a history of non-Pashtun tanzims during the Soviet War, and how incredibly brutal they were toward their own people—that establish a context beyond the superficial “good v. evil” portrayal of the mujahidin.
  • Before Taliban, by David Edwards (Christian heartily recommended this and its predecessor, Heroes of the Age). Edwards charts, basically, the destruction of the dream of Afghanistan—how the country changed from a beacon of progressivism and growing modernity to a collapsed nightmare of terrorism and narco-trafficking. His ruminations in particular on identity and place are deeply revelatory, and have helped me to contextualize some of the often contradictory messages Afghan informants have told during interviews over the last several years.
  • The Fragmentation of Afghanistan, by Barnett Rubin. This is probably the best single source one can read to get an idea of the continuity of Afghanistan’s politics. Many of the same figures he details in the late 1980s and early 1990s are still dominating the landscape today. In particular, I would suggest reading chapters 8 through 11, which discuss in excruciating detail how the imposition of the tanzims and other outside influences destroyed traditional tribal and community groups, leading to the radicalization and militarization of politics within the country. Understanding this context—written as Afghanistan was failing into utter darkness—is crucial to understanding how and why many of these players, and communities, currently behave and believe the way they do.
  • The Afghanistan Wars, Second Edition, by William Maley. This is related to Rubin’s book, above: a comprehensive, detailed discussion of Afghanistan’s recent wars. This helps you understand the major conflict points, and which actors have influenced and ruined Afghanistan over the last 30 years or so. Along with his previous book, Fundamentalism Reborn, Maley must be considered one of the major authoritative sources on Afghanistan’s conflicts and the significant figures who drive them.
  • “Afghanistan: Politics, Elections, and Government Performance,” by Kenneth Katzman, Congressional Research Service (download, PDF). This is not a book like the above selections, but it is one of the more concise pictures of what modern politics inside Afghanistan look like. Good comprehensive sources on how the government operates and how it relates to society are few and far between (though AREU has by far the most high quality research in one place), but this is a pretty decent overview of the latest elections. I do wish Katzman had discussed further the surprising 3rd place finish of Ramzan Bashardost (just named by Radio Free Afghanistan “Person of the Year, a vast improvement over when they gave the same honor to Gul Agha Sherzai in 2008), who is probably the most interesting person in Afghan politics. There are other articles and books that discuss these things in a reasonable detail (see here, for example, especially the two Glatzer articles and Giustozzi’s book), but rarely do they focus on Afghanistan’s politics instead of its conflicts.

We should take that last bullet point to heart. Despite Khalilzad’s earnest list-making, there is almost no comprehensive studies of Afghanistan’s politics—most studies seem to focus on American politics within Afghanistan, and especially the military’s politics within American politics. There are studies of the Taliban, to be sure, but rarely do they include a deep discussion of the government itself (I have, glaringly, omitted My Life with the Taliban by Abdul Salam Zaeef, as I have not yet read it and therefore cannot comment on it). There are scattered feature-length magazine articles about various figures within the government, but little if any comprehensive analysis of the country’s politics. Most of it is experiential, a memoir of an author’s experience trying to understand these things. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t really help us understand how things function, and how they are likely to function under a given set of stresses and predictable events.

Khalilzad’s list is, basically, light reading: none of the books he listed are terribly complex, and none should take more than a day or two to read and really comprehend. The books (and article!) on this list, however, are substantial: Dupree’s book alone is 804 pages, and all told these eight books total well over 3,000 pages of very dense mostly academic text. It would probably take a normal person with a day job well over a month of dedicated reading, hours a day, to work through all of this (and few of these books are available very cheaply), but that is necessary to get more than a shallow, and frankly misleading, understanding of Afghanistan as a place rather than as a talking point. Unfortunately, lists like Khalilzad’s tend to promote the latter, rather than understanding… which is why I’m so baffled as to why the Council on Foreign Relations not only asked him—hardly a disinterested scholar of Afghanistan—to assemble that list in the first place, but then accepted what many scholars of the country would dismiss as shallow and frivolous works. It makes no sense.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Josh March 23, 2010 at 4:33 pm

I loved The Places in Between, FWIW, and I don’t think it has any of the policy elements you object to in Rory Stewart’s subsequent writings.

Joshua Foust March 23, 2010 at 4:36 pm

That’s fine: most people don’t think it was as gratingly self-indulgent as I did. So what does it tell you about Afghanistan’s politics, as Khalilzad’s list would suggest? Did you learn about the government or the forces shaping it by reading about Rory walking through Faryab in 2001? Because I didn’t get that.

Josh March 23, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Oh, I make no claims to it teaching you anything actionable about Afghanistan, I just thought it was a really evocative snapshot of Afghanistan at that time.

Madhu March 23, 2010 at 5:09 pm

I like book lists, although they always make me slightly panicky – so many books, how many books, too many books! It’s like that slight depression you might get walking into a bookstore, thinking, “yikes, all these people spent ages of their lives writing, and no one’s going to read any of it, really. What’s the point?”

But there is a point.

Land of the High Flags looks particularly intriguing as memoir and I don’t mind – at all – the idea of an outsider telling his or her story as long as you understand the story is really about the memoirist. In that vein, I never get the objections to a Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (fiction, I know) because it was herself in India that mattered and so she documented it. On that note, I understand the interest in Rory Stewart, but it does seem a very, very slim reed to hang any policy hopes on….

Sorry for the rambling, but I like this list.

Kakajan March 23, 2010 at 7:16 pm

None of these fine and exquisite authors have spent any time with the pukhtu, how could they begin to understand the essence of Afghan politics in which marriage, family and property are paramount.
Academic buffoonery prevails where hands on experience is lacking. As for Barry Rubin, who couldn’t remember Nur Taraki’s name before a congressional hearing some time ago, that demonstrated void has only been filled by reading FBIS in the intervening years.
You’d do better reading Raferty, Bellew, Lady Sales or Elphinstone. In fact has anyone in Washington ever heard of these pioneers? Their absence from discussions of the issues are the obvious reason we are in the fix we now enjoy.
Only Dupree’s contribution is worthy of a second glance and that given the use of such drivel as penned by James Spain at the State Department as an introduction to Afghanistan.
Preposterous, all of it. No one of these twits has spent more than an afternoon with the people they now have the guts to pretend they understand.

Vikash March 23, 2010 at 8:36 pm

While Dupree deserves great respect, there is a bit of orientalism in his work. Take for example, this classic passage (which Dorronsoro was charitable enough to label as “an unverifiable hypothesis”):

“Mothers table and toilet train their children at an early age… The mother maintains considerable influence in a son’s life. The harem atmosphere exists in every household or camp where females of two or three generations must compete for affection. Quite early in life, the young boy learns he must bargain well and sell his attributes high in order to survive in the village or tribal struggles for power. One is tempted to relate (at least partly) the ability of Muslim statesmen to gain concessions from both East and West to the lessons learned in the harem atmosphere,” (Dupree 1978, p. 193).

Any particular reason why you don’t include Olivier Roy’s Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan in your list? Just wondering…

Joshua Foust March 23, 2010 at 10:12 pm

Pure oversight. Roy, Giustozzi, Dorronsoro, and Ahmed (and yes, Barth) have all written useful books. In fact, there is a substantial number of really well done books about the country, both pre- and post-Soviet era. I don’t intend for this list to be a comprehensive selection of all good writing about Afghanistan, merely a beginner’s guide to the country’s politics.

As for Dupree’s orientalism… well, yes. The man wasn’t perfect. But his book remains one of the best single sources of basic data on the country. I can’t think of a better one out there, can you?

Nathan Hamm March 24, 2010 at 9:00 pm

Barfield’s new book coming out in April might be. But, that’s going solely off the title. I heard him describe it a bit, and it’s possible it might fall into the “general overviews and modern histories of Afghanistan” genre.

Bob Jones March 23, 2010 at 8:56 pm

@Joshua Foust

“In fact, almost all of these authors I have derided for lending misleading or outright factually incorrect portrayals of Afghanistan.”

And your holistic, enlightened perspective on the current conflict in Afghanistan is based on what experience again? [cricket noises]

You are a fraud, and should be exposed as such. Your continual mischaracterizations of the Afghan conflict serve only to further your one obvious goal of shameless self-promotion. Your misguided pontificating does nothing to add to any meaningful dialogue about Afghanistan. Please, find something else to write on.

DE Teodoru March 27, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Now here we have a real stable MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE kind of guy. I hope he turned in his weapons and clips before coming home!

reader March 23, 2010 at 9:53 pm

I would add Nancy Tapper to the list. Her work was with a community of Durrani in the North who were long since uprooted and whose community as such was destroyed. But her analysis of inter-ethnic relationships, including those of a romantic nature and the way in which her subjects defined who or what is a Pashtun makes it a worthwhile read. But the book is much more than that, gender roles, female methods of empowerment and economic class were also addressed. Of course it is outside of Afghanistan, but Barth’s work on Swat is a worthwhile read as was his work on the Baloch. Also Anderson’s “Doing Pakhtu.” Of course, all of these scholars worked before the upheavals of the last 30 years mostly. But Foust is right, why no Giustozzi and why didn’t Khalizad pick “Kite Runner,” the better of Hussein’s work.

Joshua Foust March 23, 2010 at 10:14 pm

Those are all fair additions. I didn’t mean for this list to be a “best books ever about Afghanistan,” merely a primer for understanding the larger currents in Afghan politics. Khalilzad said his list was about “Afghanistan’s politics,” but Semple’s work is the only one you could say is explicitly focused on politics.

reader March 24, 2010 at 7:56 am

Well, what Khalildzad’s list proves is that he’s never been inside a library. It’s like the Barnes and Noble version of what to read about Afghanistan. Some can argue that Khalilzad and other policy makers don’t have time to go to library. Perhaps, I’d argue hubris and laziness.

teresa March 23, 2010 at 10:07 pm

Wow, though the comment above is harsh, I did come on the site to say something along the same lines. The list of books to read, compiled by a former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan then Iraq, bears far more credibility than the one by the guy who blogs about the place. It’s also the tone of writing, I think, that makes it really insufferable — do you really think you know more than all of these diplomats and reporters put together?

reader March 24, 2010 at 7:52 am

Political position has nothing to do with credibility, teresa. I’m sure Dick Cheney and Bush have a reading list of sorts about international affairs.

“do you really think you know more than all of these diplomats and reporters put together?”

I’d have to say that a slightly slow, drunken gerbil would. With a few exceptions, diplomats and reporters, like current-day politicians, aren’t intelligent so much as savy. They know how to advance themselves, but not the common good. You haven’t offered up a single criticism, just some slavish statements about kowtowing to authority.

Daniel March 23, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Are you kidding? This blog and others like it provides a great corrective and complement to the reporting on Afghanistan. And while sometimes I wish the authors would recommend what they like when they criticize books, articles, and authors they don’t like (and this post is a notable and welcome exception to that trend), the academic perspective is crucial. Just read the TRADOC human terrain analysis to see why. Without critiques and essays like those here, everyone would be going for guys like Gant instead of guys like Kolenda, and would think it a great idea.

The people who write here aren’t just random bloggers; they are serious students of Afghanistan, and proof that proponents of open source intelligence have a point. The blogs on Afghanistan also provide one of the clearest examples of the value of blogging, in addition and beyond what the press reports.

Joshua Foust March 23, 2010 at 10:41 pm

I appreciate the defense, but I can take my licks. People on the Internet saying I’m wrong is small potatoes.

However, I would caution these would-be critics: who has a proven record of being right about this place? Whose ideas have shown a tighter relationship to the situation, especially as time goes on? I assure you, it is not the 2001-era Stewart, the 2002-era Dobbins, the 2004-era Khalilzad, or even the 2008-era Semple (as we can see from the continued disaster of his masterpiece in Musa Qala).

Bob Jones March 24, 2010 at 1:26 am

Not sure if that was aimed at me or not, but no, I am not kidding. This blog and others like it exemplify the kind of agenda-driven analysis that passes as scholarship these days. I agree the academic perspective is crucial, necessary even, but it is not sufficient in its explanatory value. The problem is, the perspectives on this site particularly can hardly be construed as “academic.” It is most certainly not definitive, though Mr. Foust (and to be fair, many of those like him throughout the blogosphere) presents it as such.

I pray I misread it, but I couldn’t help but notice your apparent defense of Chris Kolenda. Chris Kolenda was a coward whose indecision cost more than a few men their lives in northern Konar and southeastern Nuristan. He forced a staff lieutenant to take dictation of his book on leadership while his men died in the field…literally. So yeah, the more people who do NOT listen to what he says, the better. His proximity to and influence on COMISAF is a travesty.

So to be a “serious student of Afghanistan,” what exactly is required, because the way I see it, you can read a few books, do a couple-month pump with an HTT in one area of the country, and suddenly, you are an expert because you did a year of field research in some tangentially related country in graduate school. Forgive me if I don’t genuflect.

reader March 24, 2010 at 7:54 am


Who exactly doesn’t have an agenda in regards to Afghanistan? Who do you recommend that we read?

Ian March 24, 2010 at 9:30 am

What is your reading list, Bob? We’re all waiting.

Bob Jones March 24, 2010 at 1:16 pm

If you read my original post, it argues not against Mr. Foust’s reading list, but instead against his dismissive attitude toward perspectives other than his own and his disregard for experiential knowledge, even from individuals who, unlike Mr. Foust, have actually spent a significant amount of time in Afghanistan, interacting with the Afghan people at all echelons of society. Of course, if they do have experience and they agree with Mr. Foust’s preconceived notions of the conflict, then he will bestow upon them his coveted stamp of credibility.

Ian March 24, 2010 at 3:04 pm

But you can name at least one book that you’d recommend to the readers of this blog, can’t you?

Because if not, what you are doing is yelling at the TV. You can always turn it off, Robert.

reader March 24, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Actually Bob experience on the ground can be both a plus and a minus; forest for the trees and all that. They also, as Major Gant showed us, can become too emotionally invested in a particular group and can be played- the Chalabi effect as I call it. Because this war, like all other wars, has become so politicized and monetarized, I’m not sure anyone on “the inside” would do the honorable thing and commit political or career seppuku if such a move was needed or to come out and say “all our allies in this are some sleazemeisters.” It seems you have to be openly in the pay of the Iranians to get criticized by the US these days.You also have to factor in group-think and Stockholm syndrome.
The system is crooked, look at the experience of Matthew Hoh, who had the moral fortitude to quit, Holbrooke tried to buy him off. Thankfully Hoh went forward with his convictions and wasn’t
“helpful” for this increasingly Tony Robbins-esque mission. While there are some “inside” bloggers who are willing to comment honestly about what they see because they want “the mission” to succeed, they are diamonds in the rough and can’t admit, even to themselves, that the mission might be a boondoggle. On the other hand, I’ll admit the opponents of the ISAF aren’t quite honest either.
And as far as Khalilzad goes, that guy is just a little too slick from where I am sitting. His little Barnes and Noble bestseller list is also a little too Starbucksy, corporate, and nonthinking, the kind of reading that commends itself to a soccer mom in the ‘burbs who wants to understand just a bit more about that crazy place called Afghanistan where the good food comes from, you know.

DE Teodoru March 26, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Bob, fully appreciative of the field experience, I must ask you to consider the cerebral categories and reasoned order one brings there, both before and after an explosive event. After all, in Afghanistan one sees that last ***BOOOM*** in one’s mind’s eye with every step. Looking at the brain as an integrator of sensory input (past tense) and anticipated experience (future tense) can one not imagine that what is put in memory is rather loaded with amygdaloidal emotive values? I mean “learning” from experience is a rather narrow circle while learning from REAL intel and studies is a wider circle; and mixing it up with that academic le ne sais quoi “CRITICAL JUDGEMENT” gives yet another dimension. There’s a critical difference between Rubin and Rashid. But somehow– and that’s the gift of being social animals– we can communicate layering of experience to each other. Such lamination gives depth and places where to put what otherwise would be out of visual field relevance when the adrenaline is making your trigger finger itch.

That’s why MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE means so much more than FAT BOOK. There was a fascinating British TV show “CONNECTIONS.” It presented the past in very different ways by bringing in the tools experiences make people develop. Can that not be a way in which this war can be seen?

Michael Hancock March 23, 2010 at 10:26 pm

I don’t think this list is about Josh saying he “knows Afghanistan” better than anyone else. The start of the post was his pointing out what a bizarre reading list someone else gave, followed by his own misgivings of reading lists, and his admission that reading lists tell you more about the lister than anything else. All good points. And I think, his own reading list aside, he’s absolutely right about the one he’s commenting on. I think Josh’s list was given out of a sense of “let’s be fair, you can now make fun of my reading list.” Which worked fairly well, I think.

Michael Hancock March 23, 2010 at 10:28 pm

And I think Josh’s best complaint was pointing to Zalmay Khalilzad’s inclusion of Rashid’s worst book.

M Shannon March 24, 2010 at 12:36 am

The key reading and watching materials to help comprehend the current Anglo-Afghan War (the sixth or seventh if you’re counting) should be about our institutions and politics- how the military-industrial-security complex has been allowed to run amok. Our major problems are internal and have little to do with Afghan peasants.

Watching a Sopranos episode about “no-show jobs” , crooked local pols and cops on the take will give more insight to our current problems than Flashman fantasy’s, memoirs about the good old days in Kabul or analysis by beltway “experts” whose total time in country can be measured in months or weeks and who can’t speak or read any Afghan language.

DE Teodoru March 26, 2010 at 3:45 pm

The thing that used to make MACV Americans go bananas in Saigon was how Saigon officials risked so much for so many at so little gain for themselves. No big trail of $ at the end of the entre nous vietnamien deal as in American corruption. That disgusting cutting loose of Karzia by US/Brit officers to official propagandist Robert Kaplan

(reminds me of Robert Shaplin) as if he’s why we failed to date, loosing our COINS everywhere, is the ALL-AMERICAN game of scapegoating. What starts as cover-up to protect one’s job ends up as blackmail warfare. Just look at what our Gov has become. I would argue that we sought– as Kaplan admits– to in colonial fashion impose our models with all their crazy costs+ and then blame then when they can’t replace the Taliban. But how are they supposed to see those lumpy old Americans lining up to hump some little Chinese whores in Kabul? Can’t they think that Americans never met God? And then, can they be expected to bow their heads in regret as some American in inarticulate English goes amuck because the ANA trainees haven’t got a clue and just want to go home?

“Being there” sometimes is more of a lie than reading about it, even if it’s Kaplan’s yellow journalism accounts. Consider that we’ve more than proven our incompetence by scapegoating the guy we chose to “voluntarily” choose what we tell him to spend our money on.

Toryalay Shirzay March 24, 2010 at 12:59 am

When someone who has intimate understanding of Afghanistan inside out,reads books by Western authors on that country,it becomes clear their depiction of the country is partly correct and partly incorrect.This is not surprising as it takes at least 2 decades of focus and experience to get the picture right.These authors could be given some credit for at least trying as the country and the society of the Afghans is not worth writing about much.Facts about Afghanistan are very bitter,more repugnant than the venom of the most poisonous snakes.Here is a society where truth is forbidden to the point where you could lose your head for even attempting to tell the truth,where truth has been strangled and murdered over and over since the imposition of islamic filth.Did you know most Afghan history books taught at schools there are false?
The entire foundation of Afghan society is based on lies and lying has become a national habit.And Afghanistan is one of the most abusive countries on earth,beating children and women and molesting small kids is commonplace.Outsiders have no idea of tremendous psychological pain most Afghan suffer daily not to mention the oppressive living conditions there.All the violence you see in Afghanistan is rooted on aforementioned situations prevailing there now.The Afghan society is shrouded with multiple layers of evil descended upon it for many centuries beginning with the arab-islamic invasion and molestation.None of the authors of books mentioned in the above post has been brave enough to tell the whole truth about Afghanistan and thus the tragedy of our human existence goes on and on.

Barry Rubin March 24, 2010 at 2:00 am

One of your readers makes critical remarks about an author he has a low opinion of, using my name, Barry Rubin, as the author in question. This is an error. He is referring to Barnett Rubin, not me. I’d be grateful if this correction could be pointed out. I don’t write about Afghanistan. Thank you.

DePetris March 24, 2010 at 12:58 pm

Hey Joshua, what about Ghost Wars by Steve Coll? While the majority of the book is rather exclusive in its views towards Afghanistan (it primarily takes the view of the U.S. intel community in the 1980’s and 1990’s), its a relatively accurate timeline of Afghan politics before the September 11 attacks. In many ways, the tone of the book is downright sympathetic to Afghans as a people. Several times, Coll mentions how devastating and immoral it was that the United States abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviets were driven out. And of course, this decision played a pivotal role the decentralization and violence that followed. In addition, the book explains why the Taliban movement came about, and how clueless the United States was during the early stages of its existence.

A great read.

Joshua Foust March 26, 2010 at 10:43 pm

I liked Ghost Wars (review here: use the search function, people!). But again, I would say that book isn’t so much about Afghanistan as it is about American attempts to alter Afghanistan. That’s why I didn’t include it on this list. Its real subject is the power elite of America, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan… Coll barely touches on the actual Afghans who shaped the story.

Farhad March 24, 2010 at 1:35 pm

We could add a few cultural works in there too–after all, Afghanistan isn’t just about wars and invading armies.

Three Women of Herat by Veronica Doubleday

Music in the Mind: The Concepts of Music and Musician in Afghanistan by Hiromi Lorraine Sakata

And I would highly recommend the Afghan-Canadian Hamida Ghafour’s wonderfully, underrated book The Sleeping Buddha: The Story of Afghanistan Through the Eyes of One Family.

Joshua Foust March 26, 2010 at 10:43 pm

I haven’t read these books, but I wholeheartedly second the idea of learning of a place apart from its wars.

DE Teodoru March 24, 2010 at 6:05 pm

May I recommend a look at the severe debate between French authors who seem to know Afghanistan well, especially about Arab invasion of it to bring it from refuge seeking to Jihad. I think we both make too much and too little of ethnic differences in Karzai Gov and Taliban. In reality, there seems to be several overlays that fund all sorts of gang warfare. And still, I marvel at Afghans keeping going because of their social structure, marginal existence, offers no other options. Lastly, the Pakistanis play the 5 million Afghan refugees and its own Jihadi is coming back to bite at the same time it is exploding at US for interfering with Pakistani nuclear security while giving technology to India.

I return to my ever unanswered question: Is there here, as in Iraq, a regional solution that cannot begin to manifest until we show that we’re getting our butts out of there and will stop using armies to do police work? We look too much like Soviets in Afghan and Pakistani eyes. Europeans are getting fixated on this and US may be left alone to chase Talibans. So why not let the victims of Afghan poppy to the North and West and those who hunger for Silky oil&gas routes to through Afghanistan to the East solve the problem the way the Kuwaitis, Saudis, Gulf states and Iranians are solving the Iraqi problem…one inch at a time?

You don’t have to go too deeply into Afghan culture to realize that we’re not wanted there, we’re seen much as Soviets were and we’re legitimizing the Pashtun thirst for blood revenge from us with broken promises and cowboy tactics.

READER, your last post is a keeper, I would like to send it to some 800 people for it really shows wisdom most spooks&scholars would not expect from a soldier after service there.

Grant March 24, 2010 at 7:27 pm

Part of the matter I feel is that they are recommending books that are written for the masses. As an example Mr. Rashid’s Descent into Chaos was intended more for the public than for serious thinkers*.

*Personally I found much of it insightful but it presents too much of the situation in terms a Western reader would be comfortable with.

DE Teodoru March 26, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Be charitable Grant. Try reading it a second time, as I did (but wuth Azheimer’s it’s a new book on every page!). I recall how for for-simpletons seemed the Russian surgical books but boy could they patch up a bomb blast victim. Rashid’s book was not for details but to show how everything was square pegs aimed to crush through round holes– KINETICS!– rather than dealing with real problems of real people. It gave enough details to be very thought provoking. Sometimes provoking of analysis does far more good than supplying a big index where you can find lots of dynamite quotes.

Your (*) comment is exactly what about American soldiers made me love them since WWII (field grade only). I hope you get to the East Coast and we might meet over an sumptious Viet or Afghan meal in one of NYC excellent restaurants of those cuisines and talk over the wonders of macro and micro mesh in police COIN rather than military COIN.

So long as you young guys are hopeful enough to be tolerant rather than competitive with eachother, the more dialogue sessions are created the better solutions cxome up. It’s all a matter of will triumphant over momentum. I’d love to see your analysis of Kaplan’s BS, pllllleeeeaaaasssseee!

DE Teodoru March 25, 2010 at 11:43 am
Joshua Foust March 26, 2010 at 10:44 pm

No. I did not make this list so commenters can solicit my mini-reviews on the entirety of Afghanistan literature.

Idi March 26, 2010 at 3:51 am

Toray, brother, if you are going to hang out on the net and take part in a discussion on books on Afghanistan then I suggest you act like an adult. Mention a couple of books and sound as if you have read them. Instead you sound like a Hazara mongoloid fool besides being a well known Kuni and Haramzada. Jesus H. Christ, where the hell did they find you?

Shannon March 26, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Thanks for the list, I plan to read some of your recommendations.

Shannon March 26, 2010 at 12:33 pm

I would also appreciate your take on Ghost Wars.

DE Teodoru March 26, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Crewes&Tarzi offer a series of unique takes, including a fascinating and portentous exposition of Northern view of Pashtuns that exposes the damned if you do, damned if you don’t concequence of trying to unite ONE Afghanistan under a central Kabul Gov. I sure would love to see comments on that.

But I wonder, plleeeeaaaassssee, what do you all think of these two articles from both a scholarly and practical

Joshua Foust March 26, 2010 at 10:45 pm

Again: use the search function on this site. I’ve already addressed Kaplan’s shoddy article:

DE Teodoru March 27, 2010 at 10:24 am

Mr. Foust, I love your thoughts and all but I wasn’t asking for YOU to comment but for a DISCUSSION by the various regulars on this thread– INTERACTIVE rather than alternating crows! I think that the Rashid book deserves more detailed discussion because he is a local who deals much more currently with a lot of the actors right there. His impressions thus seem quite valid and a DISCOURSEIVE exchange by a bunch of you guys, I feel, would be invaluable to passive readers of this site.

Homira March 26, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Josh, you’re doing excellent work. I agree with you fully on that paltry book list. I also second the recommendation on Ghost Wars by Steve Coll. Although I admire Ahmed Rashid, as a development worker in Afg from 2003-2007, I was deeply disappointed with Descent into Chaos, particularly the chapter on reconstruction. Didn’t even touch the surface. Another book I would recommend is Sarah Chayse’ Punishment of Virtue. I don’t know who this Bob dude is, but there is an epidemic of cluelessness unfortunately. Thanks for providing an antidote.

Farhad March 26, 2010 at 3:30 pm

May I recommend two more must reads:

Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story
(Amazon link)

It provides an alternative account of what is normally written about Afghanistan. Some conservative reviewers have found it too “conspiracy-theory-centric” but the whole book is backed with recorded facts. You decide.

And for a much more detailed, alternative history of Northern Afghanistan, I would recommend Ancient Supremacy”: Bukhara, Afghanistan and the Battle for Balkh, 1731-1901 by Jonathan L. Lee. It does a wonderful job of debunking the standard 1800s British accounts that defined Afghanistan for more than a century and half.

Happy reading!

DE Teodoru March 26, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Thank you Farhad….I’m running for the second book and read the first. If anyone doubts their argument I suggest looking at what we did in Iraq. We divided Iraqis into those we brought and those we could get vs. those whom “our enemies” (???) control. From then on it was a matter of “stress testing,” never understanding that Muslims are particularly reactive to quality testing by outsiders on their own soil….been there, did that, paid to stop in blood and still obsessed by it!

We now have the COIN manual as prima fascia evidence of exactly how mediocre were those who designed our imperial wars, mere copy cats of schizophrenic militarists on 1000th our size. If you also read Petraeus’s PhD thesis you realize that the whole issue is how do you screw Muslims and Americans into mobilize through polarization. That is so uncharacteristic of Americans (read anything on Vietnam not written by budding neocons) and you’ll see how foreign Nazi and Soviet like polarization is this whole game we played since 2001. All I want is that we become American again in every way but in our bureaucratic bad habit of hiding behind scapegoats. Perhaps re-reading Woodward would set the scene (all 4 books). It’s kind of clear there without being deceptively simple.

DE Teodoru March 26, 2010 at 5:12 pm

One question: how deep do we want to get into the CULTURAL HISTORY of Afghanistan in order to understand what reckless surgeons were our Pentagoners?

Nobody March 27, 2010 at 6:45 am

Glad to hear you had a lovely time pontificating about Afghanistan, too bad no Afghan input. (Good lord, why bother….)

Re: reading lists and Karzai.

My theory is, most of these Afg books are wanks written by raging egomaniacs or hopeless masochists, probably both. Living there is bad enough, why on earth would you want to revisit the experience by picking up a pen? Only someone insufficiently scarred would be motivated to do that. Which, ipso facto, means they have nothing worthwhile to say. (And so they insist on saying it….)

Maybe Americans would be further ahead if a) they included Afghans in their discussions b) they dealt with their own issues rather than spending all their time whizzing on Karzai.

Yes, Karzai is corrupt. He is, no doubt. But you know what? The Americans are worse. Way, way, way worse. Horribly worse, by orders of magnitude.

Yes, the Karzai administration is brutal and incompetent. Americans? Hm. I’ll let you answer that.

Given Karzai’s faults, who else would you suggest? Seriously – where’s the alternative?

Abdullah? Hahahahahhahaha….couldn’t take a province other than his own. Er, Karzai won, by the way, by a landslide, even after a third of his votes were discounted.

Next question: what have the Americans been doing to prepare for Karzai’s replacement? How have they been investing in future Afg leadership? Answer: they haven’t. Hence, no alternatives.

Warlords? Alternatives?


Do you think, perhaps, that eight years – EIGHT YEARS – might be long enough to foster alternative leadership? But still no options? Hm, who’s fault is that?

Corruption. Americans are the worst, far worse than Karzai. Brutality. Americans are at least as bad as Karzai’s crew, possibly worse. Strategy? A loser from start to finish. Aid? Look to the Indians, who have always done it right, with not a penny wasted or stolen, now getting booted out. By the Americans.

Shut up about Karzai. No alternative is your problem, created by you. Corruption? Clean out your own house. Afghans? Try talking to them, stop killing them.

Remember, Afghanistan is your fault. Not theirs. Not anybody else’s. Yours. Shut up and own it.

DE Teodoru March 29, 2010 at 1:13 pm

NOBODY, I recall Saigon high level officials mocking with certainty: AMERICANS ARE TOO STUPID TO LEAVE. THEY CAN’T LEAVE….THEY’RE STUCK HERE!

My answer was that Americans are as “stupid” as they want to be and, when it costs them too much, they suddenly get very smart and without pity leave their “allies” stuck. A few officers got away with their wives weighed down with gold jewelry which they invested in coffee shops in VA or CALIF. Their kids are often West Point grads with distinction. Now that we’re on our way out no matter what; so, when you call for US OUT, where are you going to go?

DE Teodoru March 27, 2010 at 10:54 am

Nobody, please, go easy on our American “experts” whose sole income is from your wretched country at a time of mass US unemployment. It is NOT their fault because we did little to chage it– they only payed off Afghnas to change it theior way (so long as they didn’t interfere with the Chinese cat house in Kabul). Afterall, Afghanistan was a means, not an end. We murdered a lot of Afghans but you can’t call it mass massacre, yet. Wait until we have as many people to “protect” as in Iraq. Then any Afghani looking at a US vehicle will be at risk of arrest and disappearance. But so far we are protected from your charges by our total incompetence. McChrystal realized that the less he does and the more he talks about it the less there is to blame him for by July 2011. We’re throwing a lot of assets into Afghnaistan but that’s only sop to Defense contractors that will give officers jobs on their boards after they retire so nothing is asked of Afghnas to do but get rid of the evidence. WE ARE NOT REVOLUTIONARIES, WE ARE ONLY MASTERS OF BROKEN PROMISES WHICH AFGHANS CANNOT *LEGALLY* HOLD US TO BECAUSE WE WERE NOT *ODFFICIALLY* OF SOUND MIND WGHEN WE MADE THEM (the Bush-it Era). We really did not impose a Gov from outside because we’re still thinking that our firepower allows us to think that we are geniuses who saved Afghanistan so we can still leave filming our own victory parade out. Whatever regime makes that day sunny and keeps the goats off the parade route can take charge forever, as far as we’re conserned. WE don’t need to buy anyone there, we’re only renting until we leave on 7/11!!!!. If a glaring error in our theories comes up, why just blow it away as we don’t care because we suffer from severe anterograde amnesis at command level. Clinical demonstration of our national working memory deficit will get us aquited of ill-intent and ill-effect in ANY court in the world.!

On the other hand, Pakistanis have Obama over a barrel as bad as does Petraeus. Petraeus warned Obama: if you lose me my job I’ll make sure you’re the one everyone points at when they speak of Afghan defeat. It is ironic that a new president who bowed to military at operational level can be blackmailed by generals for their total screw-ups and cover-ups. But that’s american politics.

Read Petraeus PhD thesis for it clues you into why he is doing Iraq–>Afghanistan as he is and then read McChrystal report to see on how many cylinders is the strategy devised.

Lucky for us we screwed up so bad over a decade in Afghnaistan and Afghanistan has suevived. If we pull out right now, like Iraq, it gets sucked back into its natural ecology. And no one can blame that on US for we have changed nothing that was there before. Thatis a testament to how intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb we’ve been.

Toryalay Shirzay March 27, 2010 at 1:29 pm

Idi, esta mora kus kawoma!!haramzada!

Idi March 28, 2010 at 3:55 am

Zh kh ytm m.
T kh kn y.

Idi March 28, 2010 at 3:36 am

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Pthtc scm.

Nathan Hamm March 28, 2010 at 12:19 pm

There’s something so utterly charming about an angry, racist young man railing so strongly against the west in the tone and manner of a western radical from behind a keyboard in New Jersey…

Nobody March 28, 2010 at 1:55 pm

The one issue nobody’s paying attention to it seems to me is Iran, not that bogus waste-of-time nuclear issue, but the fact that all the major regional players now, from China to Russia to India, are coalescing around Iran, and it’s the U.S. departure that has triggered this. The United States is looking increasingly isolated. The Pakistan alliance is a mistake, sooner or later they’ll realise they’re being used, and then it’ll be game over.

Has anyone heard anything about India teaming up with Kyrgzstan and/or Uzbekistan on ANA/P training? There is a major recalibration of the US relationship in Delhi. There are going to be longterm consequences for what the US is doing. I don’t see how they can persist with their pursual of Nato expansion into Central Asia, especially since the Europeans are now, most openly, opposed. I view Petraeus on Israel in conjuction with this and come to the conclusion that the US withdrawal from Afg signals a complete withdrawal from this region, leaving chaos in its wake, which will create significant problems for the US here in future. It think the implications of this are profound both domestically for the US, and regionally.

Nobody March 29, 2010 at 12:57 am

Nathan, Idi called Americans congential liars, not because he’s racist, but because the overwhelming evidence tells anybody with a brain that that is what and who they are.

Your willingness to censor uncomfortable opinions is just another example of the pompous, self-absorbed and totally out of touch policy BS that is costing you this war.

You persist with indulgent, politically expedient fictions rather than hearing and understanding the uncomfortable truth about what you are actually doing there, about what is actually happening there. This is costing you the war, along with your soldiers’ lives.

Listen to what the man says. He says the Americans are liars. They are. I am telling you the Americans are corrupt and brutal, more corrupt and at least as brutal as Karzai, and or any Talib faction you care to mention. These are facts.

The Americans are in this mess is because they insist on engaging in pompous self-absorbed BS rather than getting down on the ground and getting their hands dirty. This type of war is dirty, dirtier than most. You can’t fight it from the air, and you certainly can’t fight it from the inside of a tank. The SF who advocate integration with the villages are correct, because that is where the Talibs are winning. It is the wrong strategy, always was, always will be. So how many more US soldiers have to die before American wakes up and realises it.

You should learn from the Afghan assumption of US mendacity. My theory is they know it’s the wrong strategy and have for a while. Which begs the question why they’re expanding it. That’s the question you would be asking Nathan if you were truly interested in running a well-informed and useful blog, rather than having a hissy fit because one contributor makes a comment you don’t like.

God forgive your leaders.

Nathan Hamm March 29, 2010 at 5:24 pm

“Afghan assumption?” Give me a break. He lives in Northeastern US and writes English like a native speaker with Rage Against the Machine posters on his wall. If it quacks like a duck…

He’s racist for the comment about “Hazara mongoloid fools” and other comments that were part of his track record. Go back through the many thousands of posts and tens of thousands of comments on this blog and look at how many people shit on me, Josh, and other authors. I rarely care. I start caring when people leave anonymous comments with baseless assertions that add nothing to the discussion. And even then, I let a lot slide. Because really, I could care less about other opinions. Challenging or uncomfortable ones are fine. Obnoxious ones are what really gets me deletion, banning, and disemvoweling-happy. I own the blog, and I guess all the power has gone to my head.

As for your comment, slow your roll. I think you’d find plenty of people, myself included, who might agree with you and engage you in discussion if you weren’t so preachy and stand-offish.

DE Teodoru March 29, 2010 at 1:24 pm

Mr. Foust….Nobody’s opinion you can find through out SE Asia. Now, if he has a point, it has spread through Central and South Asia as well as Middle East. Does it not worry you as you look at China’s finesse?

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