Books That Will Help You Understand Afghanistan The conflict in Afghanistan dominates headlines, but many people seek a deeper understanding of the country and the war the U.S. is fighting there. In the first of a series of suggestions for an Afghanistan "reading list," Washington Post special military correspondent Tom Ricks shares his recommendations, ranging from a collection of Afghan proverbs, to a history of the CIA's involvement in the country.

Books That Will Help You Understand Afghanistan

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Today we begin what we hope will become a series of conversations about reading lists for Afghanistan. We plan to talk to policy makers and members of the military and aid workers.

Our first guest is Tom Ricks. He's a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor for Foreign Policy magazine. He joins us in just a moment, but we want you to join us too. What have you read that has helped you understand Afghanistan? Give us your suggestions at 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tom Ricks joins us now from his home in Silvers Spring, Maryland. Nice to have you.

Mr. TOM RICKS (Center for a New American Security): Thank you.

ROBERTS: First of all, when you made up your list, who was your audience? Who was it aimed at?

Mr. RICKS: Every day I get notes from people in the military or American civilians who are going to Iraq, saying, hey Tom, you used to live in Afghanistan, you spent time there - what do I really need to read here? And so I actually wrote up my standard note, which I'd send all the time to people, maybe varying and according to what position they might have when they got there, but - and then eventually I just posted it on my blog, which is The Best Defense on

ROBERTS: So it's a good starting place for virtually anyone looking to learn more.

Mr. RICKS: Yeah, I think so. It's a little bit unusual also. I don't begin with "The Kite Runner," which everybody seems to recommend. I have not read "The Kite Runner." I've actually stayed away from it because it's about the same era when I lived in Kabul, 19 - late 1960's, early 1970's. So I just don't want it to affect my own memories of the place.

ROBERTS: You do, however, recommend one of the histories of Afghanistan that is on a lot of people's list, that's Steve Coll's �Ghost Wars.� Why that one?

Mr. RICKS: Because Coll's �Ghost Wars� is the basic introduction to American involvement in Afghanistan. It's how we got - is the beginning of how we got where we are today, which is aiding Mujahideen, who were fighting the Soviets in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Unfortunately, some of the people we were aiding then are now the people killing our troops in Afghanistan.

ROBERTS: So it's a military history, a political history.

Mr. RICKS: It's a political-military history really most of all about intelligence and espionage, and about how the CIA came to the aid of the Afghan resistance.

ROBERTS: Do you think its lessons are largely specific to Afghanistan or would you recommend it as a general foreign policy book under almost all circumstances?

Mr. RICKS: Oh, I think it's a terrific foreign policy book. It won the Pulitzer Prize for history. It's as much about Pakistan, I think, as about Afghanistan, and that's a good place to start because the question of the future of Afghanistan is inseparable from the future of Pakistan.

I love Afghanistan. I think it's a wonderful country. I would go there on vacation. That said, Afghanistan is important to the American interest really for one reason, which is we don't want Pakistan to collapse and an unstable Afghanistan threatens to undercut the future of Pakistan.

ROBERTS: Which is presumably the reason that you have included Ahmed Rashid's �Taliban.� There are so many Taliban books. Why that one?

Mr. RICKS: I think it's the best of them. I think it's the best book I've read about the Taliban. Ahmed Rashid is just a terrific Pakistani journalist who knows all these people, has known them for - from decades at this point and really have a feel for Afghanistan. It's - if you want to understand the Taliban, that's the point of departure.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Nate(ph) in Traverse City, Michigan. Nate, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

NATE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

ROBERTS: Sure. What book made you understand Afghanistan better?

NATE: James Michener wrote a book, I can't remember if that was in the �60s or �70s called �Caravans,� and I - it left me feeling like Afghanistan, or Afghanistan, or - I think that's how they pronounce it in the book - is a place I'd like to visit. Of course, that's going back a couple of decades before all the modern struggle and strife, and definitely not anywhere I'd want to go now after reading stuff by Khaled Hosseini and stuff like that.

ROBERTS: Nate, thanks for your call. Tom Ricks, have you had the three months it takes to wade through a Michener book to read everything?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKS: I read the book, �Caravans,� when I lived in Afghanistan. I really liked it. I think Michener gets a bad rap as sort of a tourist novelist. As the caller points out, he captures a time in Afghanistan. It really was a crucial time. The book is about the late �40s, the 1950s in Afghanistan and that was really the beginning of a golden era in Afghanistan. It's a mistake when people say, oh, these people have all been fighting each other for centuries. Yes, the Afghans are a proud and sometimes violent people. Guess what, so are the Americans. In fact, when I tried to describe Afghanistan to people, I describe where my father grew up in rural Wyoming and how comfortable he was when he worked with Afghans, because he found them essentially Clint Eastwood with turbans on. That's your typical Afghan tribesman. And �Caravan� captures that.

When Afghanistan is kind of emerging from the dark ages, it's a peaceful country, there's a lot of economic growth and the Russians and the Americans are competing to give it aide. And what Michener focuses on in that novel -interestingly, because it relates to today's events - is the building of an American airport down in Kandahar, which is now a big American base down there, and the building of dams. Those dams on the Helmand River are a major reason that Afghanistan now can export opium from Southwestern Afghanistan.

The Helmand River is the biggest river in the world that simply runs into the desert and evaporates. It evaporates in a big swamp along the Afghan-Pakistan - Afghan-Iranian border. The Americans built the dams to preserve some of that water so it could be used for irrigation. Now it irrigates very large opium fields in Southwestern Afghanistan. So in a way we helped create the present narco-economy that dominates Afghanistan and has corrupted its government.

ROBERTS: We have an email that says, I found �A Thousand Splendid Suns� and �Three Cups of Tea� very insightful and moving. You said you hadn't met - read �The Kite Runner.� Did you read his next book of �A Thousand Splendid Suns?�

Mr. RICKS: I have. And in fact, I've kind of stayed away from both those books - just - all three of those books, actually. I don't know why �Three Cups of Tea,� because so many people have recommend it and told me you really did help them. I've got it sitting right here on my Afghan bookshelf. It's just - I haven't gotten to it. I'm a little bit wary.

ROBERTS: We've talked a lot about nonfiction, but you also include a Rudyard Kipling short story.

Mr. RICKS: Yeah I think Kipling is really undervalued today because, you know, he was an imperialist pick. That said, he was a terrific writer with a real understanding of South Asian culture and to a degree, I think, what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan culture. I remember reading the short novel, �Kim,� who now is in Afghanistan, and saying wait a second, this is what I do. I go down, I'm a teenager, I go sit and wear local clothes and go sit in the bazaar and talk to people. And it's kind of a shocking recognition for me. The short story I recommend is �The Head of the District,� which through the wonders of the Internet you can actually find online and printout.

It's called �The Head of the District� and it's a gruesome pun. And it's a short story that is very relevant to today's events. It's about how you use tribal power to oppose religious power. It's also about terrorism and it's also about what happens when you put in Westernized locals to govern but they don't enjoy the trust or respect of the locals.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Danielle(ph) in West Savile. Welcome to the program.

DANIELLE (Caller): Hi, thank you for having me.

ROBERTS: Good. We need you to turn down your radio because you're on a little bit of delay there.

DANIELLE: Is that better?

ROBERTS: Much, thank you.

DANIELLE: Okay. I have called in to mention a book - it's actually a young adult novel called �The Breadwinner.� I'm an English teacher and we're constantly trying to find ways to help children connect with what's going on in the world. This is, you know, a fiction story but it's about a girl whose father is taken away by the Taliban and she has to dress up as a boy to earn money for her family.

Mr. RICKS: Did this become the movie �Osama?�

DANIELLE: I haven't heard of that movie.

Mr. RICKS: There's a terrific movie that has very much the same theme as that. And I was going to recommend that. Beyond books, the movie �Osama� should be seen by anybody who wants to understand Afghanistan, very much the same story. And it really makes you understand what the nature of repression under the Taliban was. How pervasive it was. It really was a form of religious totalitarianism.

ROBERTS: Danielle, thanks for your call. Let's hear from Taylor(ph) in Raleigh, North Carolina. Taylor, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

TAYLOR (Caller): Hi, thank you very much. I was just calling to recommend a book called �Operation Anaconda,� in which it analyzes the early years of the U.S. involvement. Well, I guess the 2002 onward involvement in Afghanistan. It kind of takes a view from, you know, top down how we initially tried to wage this war and I just thought it was very informative, somewhat technical, but I can take my comments off the air.

Mr. RICKS: I don't know the �Anaconda� book. Do you know who wrote it?

ROBERTS: I'm sorry, he just hung up.

Mr. RICKS: Another book on the Anaconda battle, which is a major battle, really the biggest conventional battle the U.S. forces fought in the war, at least so far. The battle was in the spring of 2002, and I was there for the end of it. A very good book on that is called �Not a Good Day to Die,� and it's by Sean Naylor - N-A-Y-L-O-R - who is a very good reporter for the Army Times.

ROBERTS: We have a recommendation from Ken(ph) in Pittsburg by email, recommending a new book out this summer by David Loyn called �In Afghanistan.� He says it does a very nice job showing how the British and Soviets faced the same problems with trying to subdue the decentralized tribal governments of Afghanistan. The British never tamed the country despite a century of trying. The Soviets were even more callous and ignorant than the British.

Mr. RICKS: Yeah, I mean, I think that's a little bit of a rap because I'm not sure if the British ever really tried to tame it. They wanted Afghanistan as a buffer zone between English-controlled India and the Russian empire. They knew that it was a good idea to stop at the mountains, and as we see now, those mountains down on the Pakistan border are a very turbulent area.

Another good book on the same subject that I just found really enjoyable to read as well, is called �The Great Game,� by Peter Hopkirk - H-O-P-K-I-R-K. Just a lovely account of the early Western explorers and spies going into Afghanistan and the gruesome fates that happened to many of them.

ROBERTS: We have another vote for �The Great Game,� by Peter(ph) in Baton Rouge via email. My guest is Tom Ricks. We are talking about a reading list of books that help you understand Afghanistan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's hear from Kevin(ph) in Tallahassee. Kevin, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

KEVIN (Caller): Yeah, hi. Nice to be here. Can you hear me?

ROBERTS: Yeah, we can. Go ahead.

KEVIN: Okay, yeah, I recommended �The Best and The Brightest,� by David Halberstam.

ROBERTS: Which is not actually about Afghanistan.

KEVIN: Right, that's exactly my point. I just feel like it was such an incredible story, well told, and we're doing it all over again. And it's more important for us Americans to understand our government and ourselves first, then later we can understand Afghanistan and its people. We need to know ourselves first and our government.

Mr. RICKS: It's an interesting thought. I have a lot of respect of respect for David Halberstam. But as a writer, I don't find it particularly good. He is incredibly repetitive. When I read Halberstam's books, I feel like getting out a pencil and editing them and cutting one out of every three sentences. I actually think his book �The Best And The Brightest,� which was his masterpiece, speaks more to the American experience in Iraq than in Afghanistan, the hubris especially.

The last line, or close to the last line of �The Best And The Brightest,� - and he's talking about the American officials, running - at the White House, they were smart men but they were not wise men. They were fools. And that really may captures for me the feeling of us going into Iraq, which I think was the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy. I actually think the invasion of Afghanistan, even though I lived there and I love it, I think the invasion of Afghanistan was the right thing to do after 9/11.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Mark(ph) in Jackson, Michigan. Mark, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MARK (Caller): Thank you. Mr. Ricks, I thought your book �Fiasco� was a real revelation.

Mr. RICKS: Thank you very much.

MARK: Yes, sir. I would recommend the book by Malalai Joya �A Woman Among Warlords.� Malalai Joya was the youngest female member of the parliament in Afghanistan and has been pursued by the warlords in their parliament ever since she was elected.


MARK: And she maintains that the warlords that we've installed there are just as misogynistic as the Taliban. So, I would recommend that book and I would even hope that you might invite her on the program.

ROBERTS: She is actually been on the TALK OF THE NATION. She was on a few years - few weeks ago, if listeners want to through our archives and take a listen. Malalai Joya is her name. Thank you so much for the recommendation, Mark.

Mr. RICKS: I haven't read that book. I feel like we're playing stump the chump here.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKS: I haven't read that book. But it does remind me actually of another movie I saw recently and just loved. It's a documentary. It's called �Afghan Star.� And it's about the guy who put a TV show on in Afghanistan, TV is a new medium for that country, put on a TV show based on �American Idol.� And it's picking the new Afghan star. And it's really just a heartbreaking story in many ways because there's a woman, who is a competitor, who is treated horribly because she is very mildly provocative.

She shows her face, for example, things like that. She jiggles around a little bit when she dances, but a terrific movie. I recommend that people get that on Netflix: �Afghan Star.� You know, put that and�

ROBERTS: Yeah, the filmmakers were on TALK OF THE NATION too. You can listen to them here�

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: �in our archives as well.

Mr. RICKS: You had them on?

ROBERTS: The filmmakers yeah. We are on the show.

Mr. RICKS: Well, I have a lot of sympathy for that guy. He had to flee the country.

ROBERTS: I want to get to two other things on you list, before we run out of time here. John Masters' �Bugles and a Tiger.�

Mr. RICKS: Yeah, this is kind of a real life, sort of Kipling story. Masters went on to become a pretty famous novelist, wrote �Bhowani Junction� and then a kind of trashy bunch of novels about England. But his memoirs, his autobiography, I think, is one of the best military autobiographies ever written. The first volume of his autobiography is �Bugles and a Tiger.� It's about being a young lieutenant on the Indian-Afghan border, back in the 1930s, going out and fighting everyday against the Pashtuns and then coming back at night and drinking Champagne and playing whist.

What really struck me is that at the end of the book - or at the end of the episode where they are fighting the Waziristan war, the Pashtuns they have been fighting come across the border really upset after the peace agreement. And they say, where are our medals? And he said well you were the enemy. You don't get medals. They say, well, you gave medals to our cousins who fought with you, the Pashtuns who were allied with you. And he says, yeah, well, they were our allies. And the Afghans got very upset. They said, you couldn't have had a good war without us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKS: Very much the Afghan spirit which is, you know, guerrilla warfare is their national sport.

ROBERTS: You also recommend any collection of Afghan proverbs?

Mr. RICKS: Yeah, I love Afghan proverbs. And it's important to understand them because they are big part of the culture there. A good place to begin is in Louis Dupree's book - last name's spelled D-U-P-R-E-E. Dupree wrote a book called �Afghanistan,� which is more of an encyclopedia than everything else. It covers everything from how much rainfalls you get to the proverbs and literature and so on. But it's a good point especially because we tend to refer very casually to illiterate Afghans. Sure, a lot of Afghans are illiterate but guess what, the typical illiterate Afghan knows more poetry and more proverbs than I would say 99.5 percent of Americans do.

ROBERTS: Tom Ricks, we are out of time. Thank you so much for taking the time today.

Mr. RICKS: You're welcome.

ROBERTS: Tom Ricks is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. You can read his suggested reading list for Afghanistan on our Web site,

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.

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