Reading Afghanistan

I’ve been doing some reading on Afghanistan.  I am so glad I wasn’t born there.  I’m going to read more, but ugh, I need a break.

The first book I read was A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaleed Hosseini, who also wrote The Kite Runner.  It reminded me a little bit of One Hundred Years of Solitude.  It’s intergenerational, it’s about a community, and it’s discontinuous – there are large spaces in time between the salient events which are conveyed.  The style is also a little bit like the magical realism of Garcia Marquez, except that all the events really happened, and what makes them seem magical is how surreal they are.  How surreal and awful.

The book is a fictional account of the lives of two afghan women, ranging from the 1960s through the Soviet invasion and resulting (US supported) jihad, the subsequent civil war, the rise of the Taliban, and finally the invasion of Afghanistan by the US.  The story starts in Herat, but mostly takes place in Kabul.  It’s a very first-person account, and I found it gut wrenching to read.  In the same way that Fight Club was hard to watch, because the violence is so personal, and mild enough that you can actually relate to it, the domestic violence and degradation is cringe inducing.  For some reason, the most horrible scene – the one that really stuck with me, and forced me to put the book down for a while, was when Rasheed forces Mariam (his wife) to chew pebbles until her molars crack, because (he claims) her rice is not cooked well enough.  It’s not all like that.  There are caring, loving men, and happy children too.  But also a hail of rockets from the Mujahideen and public executions.

Ironically, it seems that the Soviet occupation is now remembered by some (who are not Communists) as the most recent golden age, when there was a government, and law, and functional infrastructure, and education for everyone (in the cities anyway).  It’s hard not to wonder what the country would be like today had we not intervened to arm the jihadis in the 1980s.  Perhaps Afghanistan would be more like Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, which sadly seem idyllic in comparison.  Would the collapse of the USSR have still happened?  Perhaps just been delayed a bit?

The second book I read, which I think was given to me (or left here) by Arjun, was The Taliban Phenomenon, written by a retired Pakistani general named Kamal Matinuddin.  It looks at the rise of the Taliban movement over 1994-1997.  When the Taliban took over, they were welcomed.  In fact, that appears to be mainly how they took over.  Despite the fact that the majority of the population in Afghanistan don’t agree with their extreme views of Islam, and despite the fact that theirs is a largely ethnic movement, composed almost exclusively of Pashto tribesmen, and wary of any other ethnic group retaining arms, the Afghans were so desperate for the fighting to end after nearly two decades of war, that they accepted the first credible leadership to appear.  Local militias defected to their cause, and they were able to take control of most of the country without much of a fight, because people believed that they were for law and order, and that while harsh, they were at least impartial and fair.  Any government, no matter how bad, is better than violent anarchy.  They were never able to take the northern part of the country, because there, the warlords and population were not Pushtuns.  Abdul Rashid Dostum (an Uzbek) and Ahmad Shah Massoud (a Tajik) were also backed by powerful neighboring nations, and had what amounted to real armies in the region.  The “northern alliance” was really the former afghan communists (Dostum) and non-Taliban Islamists (Massoud, since assassinated by Al Qaeda suicide bombers posing as journalists).  But really, everyone’s alliances shifted so often as to become virtually meaningless.  Everyone except the Taliban.  Their purity was a lot of their attraction.  Pure, but impractical.

It’s interesting to see these things through the lens of another country – the author is a Pakistani general after all.  He has to state up front the relationships between a lot of the players, but he never mentions the bitter hatred between Pakistan and India, even though it’s implied in his words.  It’s taken for granted.  The alliances by the end of the book line up as: the US, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan (relatively pro-Taliban), vs. Russia, China, India and Iran (anti-Taliban).  Of course, that changed abruptly after the book was written.  But these things are fluid, and non-linear.  He offered five scenarios for the future (in 1998), all relatively linear extrapolations of the past, and all completely wrong.  That’s the problem with history.  The most likely paths are the only plausible ones to predict, but the number of unlikely paths – which all sound crazy if you predict them – actually, I think, make up a greater proportion of the overall probability distribution.  Or, as Nassim Taleb has said, the future has always been crazier than we thought.

We still have no idea what we’re doing.  And maybe we never will.

In any case, I’m going to keep reading: Ghost Wars (a Pulitzer winning history of the CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan), Sleeping with the Devil (the basis for the film Syriana, about the US relationship with Saudi Arabia), and Charlie Wilson’s War (also about our involvment supporting the jihad against the Soviets) are all on the list.  Something about Pakistan would also be good, given its current existential crisis…

2 thoughts on “Reading Afghanistan”

  1. Although you've already read a history of the Taliban, I would highly suggest "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia" by Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist.

    I am currently working on Rashid's "Descent Into Chaos" which discusses the current geopolitical climate. I find Rashid's analysis compelling, and based on the current administration's stance on Pakistan, I presume Obama does as well.

    "Charlie Wilson's War" brings out a lot of the ironies in our relationship with this region.

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