Essential reading on Afghanistan's social, economic, and political development

In the current issue, I write about Afghanistan's shaky future as the country tries to overcome years of violence and a devastating dependence on opium trade. The books and testimony below help to illustrate a place whose history is fraught with tragedy--but where a cautious hope for a better life is beginning to take hold.

Sarah Chayes, The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban (Penguin, 2006).
As the Taliban fell in late 2001 Sarah Chayes was covering Afghanistan for NPR Subsequently she worked for an Afghan NGO doing reconstruction work. Living in Kandahar for four years Chayes saw the Pashtun part of the Afghan story often overlooked by international journalists who tend to settle in Kabul. The key theme of Chayes's angry, fluidly-written book, The Punishment of Virtue, is her gradual realization that, despite his many personally admirable qualities, President Hamid Karzai would not rein in the regional warlords: "Instead of protecting the people from the warlords, curbing them, or removing them from office, Karzai seemed to be waltzing with them."

James Dobbins, testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, January 30, 2007.
Ambassador James Dobbins is the United States' foremost expert on nation-building, having served as the Clinton administration's envoy to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and then as President Bush's envoy for Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban. Now at RAND, Dobbins has articulated better than anyone why the nation-building effort in Afghanistan was seriously impaired by the lack of funding for reconstruction. Dobbins explained that history in his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in January.

Gilles Dorronsoro, Revolution Unending. Afghanistan, 1979 to the Present (Columbia University, 2005).
For an authoritative account of modern Afghan history read Gilles Dorronsoro's Revolution Unending. Written by a French political scientist Revolution Unending is by no means an easy read, but it convincingly shows that the conflicts between ethnic groups in Afghanistan over the past three decades were not inevitable. It "was not 'ethnicities' that made war," Dorronsoro writes, "but political organizations with ideological objectives." One of those organizations was, of course, the Taliban. Dorronsoro correctly points out that, "The Taliban's seizure of power was among other things a class struggle, in which the urban bourgeoisie were for the moment the losers."

Edward Girardet and Jonathan Walter, editors. Afghanistan: Crosslines Essential Field Guide (Paperback).
This book is the best and most up-to-date guide to Afghanistan squarely aimed at the journalists, aid workers, and diplomats posted to the country.

William Maley, Rescuing Afghanistan (Hurst, London 2006).
The Australian academic William Maley has written a concise primer about the various problems of Afghan political, social and economic life since the fall of the Taliban. In Rescuing Afghanistan Maley describes a number of approaches to fixing some of those problems. Similarly, the American academic Barnett Rubin in an article entitled "Saving Afghanistan" in the January/February 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs argued that Washington must increase resources for Afghanistan and rethink its approach to Pakistan, which provides sanctuary to the Taliban in its tribal regions.

Peter Bergen is contributing editor to The New Republic and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know.

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