Scholars suggest what books can help to explain Afghanistan

N.Y. Times invites experts to offer recommended reading

War On Terrorism

The World


The New York Times asked five experts for their pick of the best book on Afghanistan.

Larry P. Goodson, an associate professor of international studies at Bentley College and the author of Afghanistan's Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban.

Ahmed Rashid's Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, although redundantly subtitled, is my favorite reference on the Taliban movement. Richly detailed, the book grows out of Rashid's more than two decades of reporting from the region. No book provides as much insight into the Taliban movement's rise and success, including chapters on its religious ideology, organizational structure, heroin economy, policies toward women and shadowy support for Osama bin Laden and the "Arab Afghans."

His portraits of Afghan leaders whose names are now in the headlines are especially striking, with the recently assassinated Ahmed Shah Masud portrayed as a brilliant and vital "master of guerrilla warfare" adored by his men; the Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum as a "hard-drinking bear of a man" who has criminals crushed under tank tracks, and the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar as shy, reclusive and decidedly uncharismatic. This is a must read for anyone wanting to understand America's new war.

David B. Edwards, professor of anthropology at Williams College and the author of Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad.

It is worthwhile to recall three books that tell the story of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from the soldiers' point of view. Svetlana Alexievich's Zinky Boys (the term comes from the zinc coffins in which the bodies of Soviet soldiers were returned home) is a composite oral history of the war in the style of Studs Terkel. Afghan Tales by Oleg Yermakov is a collection of short stories dealing with the experiences of Soviet boys growing up at war, while The Hidden War by Artyom Borovik is a journalist's memoir that brings to mind the gritty irreverence of Michael Herr's Dispatches from the Vietnam War.

And if the incompetent commanders, elusive enemy, unnecessary fatalities and frustrated libidos, seem all too familiar to American readers, the stories remind us that there have always been human as well as strategic costs for those who have chosen the course of intervention in Afghanistan.

Barnett R. Rubin, director of studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University and the author of The Fragmentation of Afghanistan and The Search for Peace in Afghanistan.

The French scholar Olivier Roy has written several books that address various aspects of the current crisis. Afghanistan: From Holy War to Civil War analyzes how Islamic mujahedeen turned into ethnic warlords, paving the way for the rise of the Taliban. Anyone who wants to understand the danger of destroying the Taliban without a plan for political succession should read this book. The Failure of Political Islam generalizes this analysis to the whole Muslim world and also provides a unique account of the involvement of Arabs - including Osama bin Laden - in the Afghan war.

Sayed Askar Mousavi's The Hazaras of Afghanistan: An Historical, Cultural, Economic and Political Study provides a rare evaluation of Afghan society and history from the perspective of the Hazara ethnic group. This predominantly Shia group from the Central Highlands of Afghanistan has formed the country's underclass and been victimized repeatedly by Pashtun-dominated governments, including the Taliban. As Mousavi make clear, however, the Tajik elements of the Northern Alliance also fought and even massacred Hazaras in Kabul. This book shows both how problematic Afghanistan is as a nation and yet how committed to that nation's existence even its most oppressed ethnic group remains.

Margaret A. Mills, professor of Near Eastern languages and cultures at Ohio State University and author of Rhetorics and Politics in Afghan Traditional Storytelling.

Peter Marsden's book The Taliban: War, Religion and the New Order in Afghanistan succinctly reviews Afghanistan's history and complex ethic and linguistic map, then situates the rise of the Taliban in the context of Islamic reform and revival movements of the modern era and the emergent politics of the anti-Soviet and civil wars.

Benedicte Grima's Performance of Emotion Among Paxtun Women is one of the very few extended studies of Pashtun women. The Pashtun (or Pathan, or Pakhtun, or Paxtun) ethnic group predominates among the Taliban and in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province, where Grima conducted her research. Drawing on the words of Pashtun women who tell her their life histories, she argues that a powerful ethic of forbearance severely limits traditional Pashtun's women's ability to mitigate the suffering they acknowledge in their lives.

Ashraf Ghani, adjunct professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University.

In Three Women of Herat, Veronica Doubleday describes the lives of three ordinary women in the provincial city of Herat in the 1970s. She demonstrates the place of music in Afghan society and the aspirations of ordinary people for a decent life. The Fragmentation of Afghanistan"by Barnett R. Rubin is a monumental study of events from 1978 to 1995. He brings comparative knowledge, detailed empirical analysis and a graceful style to communicate the complexities of Afghanistan.

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