Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Essential reading: an Afghan primer

July 6, 2010

Want to read up on Afghanistan but don’t know where to start? Here is a personal top 10 selection that will quickly make you a dinner-table expert as well, hopefully, give you great reading pleasure:

1. Descent into Chaos: How the War Against Islamic Extremism is Being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, by Ahmed Rashid

descentAhmed Rashid is an acknowledged expert on the region who won international recognition with the publication of the best-selling “Taliban” just before the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.  Descent into Chaos examines what has happened since and predicts what will happen if we carry on down this path. Drawing on the highest level of (frequently named) sources in government and the military across the world, Rashid paints a grim picture in highly readable style while never seeming to entirely lose hope.

2. Where men win glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman,  by Jon Krakauer

where-men-win-gloryPat Tillman played for the Arizona Cardinals  in the NFL until the events of Sept 11., 2001 caused him to rethink his life, and he gave up a multi-million dollar professional career and joined the army, with his brother, becoming a member of an elite Ranger unit. Tillman rebuffed all efforts to turn him into a poster boy for the war effort, but when he was killed by his fellow Rangers in a “friendly fire” incident in Afghanistan in 2004, the U.S. administration quickly awarded him a Silver Star, saying he had won it in battle — an embarrassing cover-up that was quickly exposed. Don’t expect a biography of a xenophobic jock. Krakauer instead paints a picture of a  complex man who didn’t need his exploits varnished to be considered a genuine hero.

3. An Historical guide to Afghanistan, by Louis Dupree and Nancy Hatch Dupree

dupreeFirst published in 1972, the most peaceful period of modern Afghanistan’s history, this gem of a guide is familiar to anyone who has browsed the dusty shelves of a Kabul bookshop, where it can still be found (probably in bootleg form). While dated, it provides a zeitgeist lesson on the country’s past. Kabul is described as somewhat cosmopolitan, where you are likely to see women walking in skirts. The American husband and wife team (Louis died in 1989) are considered national treasures in Afghanistan.

4. Afghanistan: A military history from Alexander the Great to the Fall of the Taliban, by Stephen Tanner

tannerA textbook in how history repeats itself, with variations on a theme, and how nobody seems to learn from it. Highly readable and anecdotal — particularly the early chapters — Tanner provides a concise account of why Afghanistan has always been strategically important despite its lack of exploited  natural resources. A great primer on what makes Afghanistan a nation and the Afghans its people, despite the geographical and ethnic diversity.

5. Afghanistan: A companion and guide, by Bijan Omranji and Matthew Leeming

afghanompanionThis is a modern take on the Dupree classic and the sort of guide that you can dip in and out of or read great chunks at one sitting.  The authors draw on their own travel experiences and freely from historical sources to provide a modern guide to the country. It is lavishly illustrated with up-to-date pictures and centuries-old drawings

6. War, by Sebastian Junger

war-sebastianThis doesn’t pretend to explain what is going on in Afghanistan or why U.S. forces are fighting an increasingly bloody conflict against the Taliban, but instead sees the war from the perspective of the soldiers on the frontline. Junger, of Perfect Storm fame, spent a year on-and-off living alongside a company of U.S. troops in the Korengal Valley.  The company suffered terrible casualties and is the subject of an award-winning documentary feature Restrepo, that the author made with Tim Hetherington.

7. Historical dictionary of Afghanistan,by Ludwig W. Adamec

More encyclopedia than dictionary,  it contains a good chronology of Afghan history but is best known for its thorough descriptions of Afghan names, places and events throughout history. How can you resist entries such as this: “Nanawait (mediation or protection) is a vital element of the Pashtun code. It is the obligation to afford protection to anyone in need or assist in mediation to help the weaker in a feud who seeks peace with someone he as injured.”  It was this code that the Taliban used to justify the sanctuary they gave to Osama bin Laden.”

8. The A to Z guide to Afghanistan Assistance, by the AREU

Now in its 8th edition, this guide by the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit is the closest thing you can get to a half-decent telephone directory in Afghanistan, listing organisations involved in aid and development across the country. It also has handy sections with maps, key documents such as the Afghan constitution, and an A-Z that untangles the mass of abbreviations and acronyms that pepper every conversation in the country.

9. Afghanistan: Lifting the Veil, by Reuters journalists

Published after the fall of the Taliban, this coffee table book is beautifully illustrated with scores of pictures by Reuters’ award-winning photographers and contains chapters by its journalists on everything from the Soviet occupation to the refugee crisis.

10.  The Great Game: The struggle for empire in Central Asia,by Peter Hopkirk

The grand-daddy of them all, the Hopkins classic has been overtaken by events but remains on all Afghan reading lists.

(This list is by no means exhaustive and the author welcomes comments and suggestions)


This is an excellent list, but with a subject area as big as Afghanistan clearly it can only scratch the surface. If I was to add a single title to the ten above then it would be An Ordinary Soldier, by Captain Doug Beattie of the Royal Irish Regiment. The book was a bestseller in the UK. When he first went to ‘Afghan’, Beattie was a man of a certain age (40) and surely one of the oldest troops to serve on the front line. He had previously made his way up through the ranks of his regiment have started as a lowly Ranger (a private), later acting as Regimental Sergeant Major to Colonel Tim Collins (whose eve of battle speech in Iraq 2003 made it onto the wall of the President in the White House). Two things make Doug’s book stand out. His insight – as a thoughtful and passionate individual – into the chaos of battle, and his illumination of the relationship between British (and coalition) troops and the Afghans they are supposed to help. To say this relationship is fractious would be an understatement. An Ordinary Soldier concentrates on Doug’s Afghan experiences in Helmand in 2006. But his experiences of the War on Terror did not stop there. He returned for a second tour in 2008. And went back for a third time in 2010. Whatever you might say about him, you cannot criticise either his commitment to his colleagues and the Afghans, or his bravery (bravery which was rewarded with the Military Cross).
I should declare an interest. I met Doug in Afghanistan in 2006 whilst I was there as a journalist. He was inspirational. I would like to think that his decision to write the book was down to me. Certainly I encouraged him to do so. You could understandably say I was biased towards this book. But when judging whether it is worth reading you might also want to consider this comment from the Daily Mail: “Of the battalion of courageous tales to emerge from the Iraq and Afghan conflicts, this extraordinary account of ‘an ordinary soldier’ is one of the finest.”

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