Afghanistan, often referred to as the ‘graveyard of the empires’, is often written about but is constantly misunderstood, and the same goes for the Taliban.
The Taliban’s return to power has unleashed a flood of information online, both accurate and inaccurate, about Afghanistan, its history, the Taliban, and the role of the US, Pakistan and several other powers in what is happening today.
But explaining the Taliban or Afghanistan’s history can’t be done through just Twitter threads and articles.
Here is a list of books on both the Taliban and modern Afghan history (with one book that goes further back in time) that might help broaden your understanding of the country and the conflict.
Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001
The book mainly focuses on the CIA role’s in creating jihadist opposition in Afghanistan against the communist Soviet invasion, by forming a large network, which recruited fighters from Arab countries to fight the Soviet invasion.
Steve Coll, the writer of the book, who is an American journalist, explains how the US intelligence paved the way for the September 11 attacks by funding and arming a jihadist network in the name of fighting for the Afghan mujahideen.
The book also recounts the story of mujahideen in training camps across the Afghan-Pakistan border, which was effectively used by Afghan fighters to fight the Soviets. The camps were established by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence under the guidance of Washington.
Coll is also the author of Directorate S: The C.I.A and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The New York Times summarised it as, ”In each chapter of this very long but engrossing book, Coll takes a deep dive into some particular facet of the conflict. Readers will eavesdrop on contentious policy debates conducted at the highest levels in Washington. They will also accompany soldiers and spooks in the field.”
An Enemy We Created
The book was written by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, two researchers, who speak Afghanistan’s native Dari and Pashtu languages as well as Arabic. The book aims to bring some enlightenment on the so disputed-topic: ideological and political connections between Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The authors argue that the two groups are distinctly different from each other for a variety of reasons. But the Western bias toward both Islam and Afghanistan has created a problematic perception, identifying both groups with each other and leading to the 2001 US invasion of the country as part of Washington’s War on Terror campaign.
Van Linschoten is also co-editor of My Life with the Taliban, which recounts Mullah Zaeef’s personal experiences with the Afghan group. The author is also co-editor of a translated volume of Taliban poetry, The Poetry of the Taliban, which delves into the group’s little known cultural quirks.
A Political And Diplomatic History of Afghanistan, 1863-1901
This comprehensive study was done by Hasan Kakar, an Afghan historian and professor of Kabul University. The book explains the centralisation efforts of the late Afghan monarchy under Sher Ali Khan and Abdur Rahman Khan in the 19th century.
According to Kakar, the Afghan monarchy’s centralisation policy led to the emergence of the modern nation-state of Afghanistan. But under the pressure of the Great Game to control Central Asia from outside powers like Russia and Britain, the Afghan state was cut down to size, the book explains.
No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes
Anand Gopal, the book’s writer, is one of the few journalists who embedded with the Taliban. The book is a well-documented failure of the US Afghan policy, which transpired across several American administrations.
The book explains how America’s War on Terror was cursed from the start with the invasion of Afghanistan despite the fact that top Taliban leaders offered a surrender to Washington.
Gopal chronicles one US failure after the other, among which the establishment of a corrupt Afghan government is the worst, preparing conditions for the Taliban’s return, according to the journalist.
The book’s title is taken from a Pashtun proverb: “There are no good men among the living, and no bad ones among the dead.” Gopal’s book is based on three Pashtun characters: a Taliban commander, a tribal strongman and a village housewife.
In the book, Gopal explains how the housewife’s husband became one of the victims of the Afghan warlord whose crimes were enabled by Americans. One of the most compelling aspects of the book is the way it chronicles the life of the Taliban commander.
Mullah Cable or Akbar Gul is an ordinary Afghan man like Zaeef, the writer of My Life with the Taliban. Like Zaeef, he wants to come back to his old life, opening a phone-repair shop after the US invasion. But corruption in the local administration and a continuing American presence makes him angry like Zaeef, forcing him to join the Taliban.
Gopal’s portrayal of Mullah Cable exhibits an important element of the Taliban’s political base, which is about many ordinary Afghans, who want to return to normalcy but are forced to fight due to a US-backed corrupt regime’s unfair conduct enabled by warlords across the country.
My Life with the Taliban
The book is a memoir of Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former minister of the Taliban government established after 1996 when the group first took over Afghanistan. In the book, Zaeef, who grew up in a poor village in the Pashtun-dominated Kandahar province, explains how Afghanistan’s turbulent political history from one invasion to another landed him in the Taliban. The book is a testament to the crucial role Afghan rural life has played in the formation of the country’s political forces from the mujahideen to the Taliban.
Zaeef first joined the Afghan jihad in 1983 following the Soviet invasion of 1979, making acquaintance with various prominent figures like Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban’s first leader, who apparently died through natural causes after evading US capture for years after Washington’s 2001 invasion.
After the Soviets withdrew, Zaeef returned to his village, seeking a quiet life. Despite the Soviet withdrawal from the country, there was no consensus among the US-backed mujahideen forces on how to lead Afghanistan. As a result, chaos ensued across Afghanistan, leading to widespread lawlessness, which laid the ground for the Taliban’s rise to power.
Zaeef was one of the earliest participants in this process, which eventually led to the formation of the Taliban in 1994. In his memoir, Zaeff recalls his negotiations as a leading Taliban figure with different counterparts, ranging from the legendary mujahideen leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, to foreign oil companies.
During the September 11 attacks, Zaeff was the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan. Despite his diplomatic immunity, he was handed over to the US by Pakistan and spent several years in prison in the absence of any legal charges.
Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia
The book was written by Ahmad Rashid, a well-known Pakistani writer and an expert on Central Asian politics. The book recounts the story of the first Taliban and its rise to power in the background of developments taking place across Central Asia following the emergence of independent states from the former Soviet Union.
In his book, Rashid emphasises one of the crucial aspects of the Taliban, which is its Pashtun-dominated political character. That emphasis has become a common discussion item of understanding the Taliban since the publication of Rashid’s book in 2000.
Pashtuns are the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan and the second biggest ethnic group in Pakistan. They were also instrumental in the establishment of the Durrani Afghan Empire in the 18th century. The empire, whose capital was Kandahar, covered large areas of Central Asia from parts of Iran to Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India.
Rashid is also the author of Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia — another book that shows the transnational nature of the conflicts in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History
This book is one of the best studies written about Afghanistan’s history. Thomas Barfield, an American anthropologist at Boston University is the writer of the book.
The book provides a brief history of the war-torn country from times of the Mughal Empire to the Taliban resurgence. Barfield gives an important insight on why the country is prone to conditions of the civil war.
According to Barfield, Afghanistan was relatively an easy territory to be governed prior to the foreign invasions of the British and later the Soviets. Before the invasion, the country was led by a small dynastic elite, which ensured balance of power among different ethnic groups.
But the foreign invasions forced the rulers to mobilise local forces to fight the occupiers. While the tactic was successful to kick the occupiers out from the country, it also weakened the central authority in favour of local forces, which were increasingly controlled by warlords.
The book also shows how this decentralised political structure also eventually led to the emergence of the Taliban, which seeks to control the country through a centralised religious authority.
The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan
Graeme Smith spent years living in Afghanistan as a journalist, a political affairs officer with the United Nations, as well as an analyst with the International Crisis Group. He’s won multiple awards for his journalism including an Emmy for his multimedia series ‘Talking to the Taliban.
In his book on the US war on Afghanistan, Smith reveals various elements of Afghan quagmire from widespread corruption across the Afghan government to murky opium trade and brutal conduct of NATO forces. The writer also shed light on the importance of Afghan tribalism, which has long been the main determinator of local power across the country.
Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthouse: The True Story of a Woman Who Risked Everything to Bring Hope to Afghanistan
There are also books on how some Afghans bravely fought to bring some civility and humanity during the country’s suffering under different foreign occupations and civil wars.
Suraya Sadeed’s book is one of them. Sadeed left her homeland for the US after the Soviet invasion. But when she returned to Afghanistan for a visit, she witnessed the country’s destruction, which motivated her to help people in whatever means are available. She eventually set up an underground girls’ school in the capital despite many hurdles in the middle of a brutal war.
The book is about Sadeed’s story and her humanitarian work across Afghanistan.