Category Archives: Afghanistan

Reading Afghanistan: The Great Gamble by Gregory Feifer

Some of might remember a post I did last July called “Books I’ve Desperately Wanted to Read.” In that post I featured 15 different books I’ve been wanting to get my hands on for a long, long time. One of those books Gregory Feifer’s, The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan has been on my to read list since 2009, when it was first published. After years of making no effort whatsoever to read The Great Gamble, Christmas morning six months ago I decided to treat myself by buying it and a few other books off Amazon. Honestly, I can’t remember exactly when I decided to finally sit down and start reading it, but when I did I immediately took a liking to Feifer’s 2009 book. Once again, I had one of those “why did I wait to so long to read this?” kind of moments I always experience when reading an excellent book I should have read years ago.

The Great Gamble is Feifer’s detailed and highly readable account of the Soviet Union’s costly and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to install and sustain a friendly regime in neighboring Afghanistan. A former NPR Russia correspondent based in Moscow, Feifer made good use of his home abroad and the journalistic connections that came with it to interview those who fought in Afghanistan. Living in Moscow he was also able to utilize Soviet-era archives to help show what USSR’s aging leadership was thinking when it decided to roll across the border two days after Christmas in 1979. Fearing Afghanistan’s latest dictator might withdraw the fractious and horribly impoverished country from the USSR’s orbit of client states, the Soviet inner circle somehow authorized (actual written documentation either no longer exists or was never written down) the invasion as a quick surgical strike by Soviet special forces. Eliminate Afghanistan’s leader, put in the USSR’s chosen successor and go home. Funny how these kind of military operations never exactly go as planned. A decade later a bloodied and disillusioned Red Army would limp home after accomplishing little if anything. On top of that, in one of history’s more striking ironies, several years later the same  global superpower that invaded Afghanistan would collapse like a house of cards.

The Great Gamble is an excellent book. Reading Feifer’s accounts of Soviet troops winning individual battles only lose the overall war, shows the near impossible task of defeating a force of motivated insurgents, especially when those insurgents receive international backing including bases in a neighboring county. Personally, my favorite part of The Great Gamble was Feifer’s account of the lack of coordination and communication between different elements of the USSR’s intelligence and elite military services. Soviet spies tried to poison Afghan President Hafizullah Amin once, and when unsuccessful tried again. Ailing and fighting for his life, different elements of Soviet intelligence dispatched a doctor who ultimately saved his life. But alas, it was all for naught when right after that a squad of Soviet commandos stormed the Presidential palace and killed him.

Like I said before, The Great Gamble is an excellent book. So much did I enjoy it there’s a good chance you’ll see it included in my year-end best of list of outstanding nonfiction.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Area Studies/International Relations, History

Reading Afghanistan: The Places in Between by Rory Stewart

I was no stranger to The Places in Between, or its author Rory Stewart when I decided to grab a copy from my public library. You see, years ago, a dear friend of mine after returning from a shopping trip to Powell’s Books informed me she’d bought a copy and asked if I’d heard of it. (At the time I’d hadn’t. But I was vaguely familiar with one of his other books, The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.) As for Rory Stewart, I was introduced to his writing when I read the foreword he wrote to Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East. Since I thought it was one of the best  forwards I’d ever read, I welcomed any opportunity to read more of Stewart’s stuff. Needless to say, when a copy of The Places in Between came available, I grabbed a copy.

You gotta admire a guy like Stewart. Mere months after the US has toppled the Taliban, he arrives in Afghanistan. Alone and in the middle of winter, this fearless (or crazy, depending on how you look at it) Scotsman sets out to walk across the country, from Herat to Kabul. The locals think he’s either insane, or worse some sort of spy. At the start of his trek, he’s  confronted by several  “government” agents, probably with Iranian connections. After explaining his intended mission, one of his interrogators responds incredulously  “there are no tourists.” Reminding him it’s winter and the high mountain passes are covered with tons of snow he adds “you will die, I can guarantee. Do you want to die?” Undeterred, Stewart proceeds to hike across north-central Afghanistan usually accompanied by a few Afghans. But always on foot. And always at the mercy of the hostile elements, both natural and human.

Reading The Places in Between you learn quickly Afghanistan is one hell of a rough place. Think of it as wall to wall grinding poverty. There’s no infrastructure worth speaking of and thanks to the country’s mountainous terrain most population centers are terribly isolated and thus insulated from the reach of any central government. Instead warlords and chieftains rule individual pieces of the country. Theses are the men Stewart must win over if he’s going to make it across Afghanistan alive.

My only knock on The Places in Between is a slight oneStewart’s habit of including so many passages of medieval travelogue might have gone a bit too far. But alas my complaint is a minor one, and should not defer anyone from reading this very good piece of travel writing.

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Filed under Afghanistan, History, Islam

Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century

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I’m probably not alone in assuming when people rebel against the establishment they’re usually thought of as progressives or modernizers. These individuals see the old order as being, well, old. Sick of dealing with antiquated governance and out of step leaders, such agents for change want to move forward by bringing about needed reforms or even wholesale revolutions. What then do you make of those who, when taking on those in power, look not to the future for inspiration but to the past?

That is the question asked and answered by Christian Caryl in his 2013 book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. It’s a book that’s been on my list to read for several years, ever since I read about it on Goodreads. I felt myself drawn to Strange Rebels because I came of age during this time. Of the many events he recalls, so many of them I watched unfold on the evening TV news. Not long ago my book group opted to read it and I couldn’t have been happier. I’m also happy to report it’s an excellent book.

To Caryl, 1979 was a pivotal year like few others. Britain elected its first female Prime Minister, an avowed conservative who moved the United Kingdom away kicking and screaming from a pro-union, Socialist-style system to free-market, Chicago School of Economics-oriented nation. On the other side of the globe, Deng Xiaoping sought to modernize China and raise living standards by bringing the nation into the global economy through embracing capitalism. In an age when many forward thinking intellectuals thought little of religion, especially conservative Catholicism, Pope John II believed the moral and intellectual strength of Christianity could bring about the end of Soviet oppression. Also in opposition to Soviet-sponsored oppression were the Mujahideen of Afghanistan, who had religious motivations of their own, drawing from their Islamic heritage. Lastly, in neighboring Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini and his fellow revolutionaries established the world’s first Islamic Republic. By doing so they abruptly ended the Shah’s attempts to make Iran a modern, Westernized (albeit authoritarian) nation.

Through Caryl’s eyes these strange rebels share striking similarities. Thatcher and Deng felt the only way their respective nations could prosper was to embrace free market reforms and lessen the state’s role in the economy. Khomeini, the Mujahideen and John Paul II all had religious motivations to replace the old order with one more in line with those beliefs. Both John Paul II and Khomeini’s religious views were shaped by their philosophical studies: John Paul II augmented his Christian beliefs with modern European philosophy while Khomeini was heavily influenced by Platonic thought, as well as the writings of the Red Shia Ali Shariati. Even though they were Sunnis and not Shias, the Afghan Mujahideen fought to defeat the Soviets and their Afghan allies and eventually set up their own version of an Islamic Republic. And just like Khomeini and his like-minded ruling clerics took inspiration from the Red Shia Shariati, the Mujahideen modeled themselves after the Muslim Brotherhood, which in turn shares similarities with Marxist vanguard parties.

It’s one thing to show what these leaders had in common, the hard thing is to convince the reader the things they did in 1979 in no small way shape our world. To his credit, Caryl pulls it off. Thanks to Deng’s reforms, China is now a world power, especially economically. The political/economic system of Britain looks nothing like the dark days of the early 1970s. (As an example, Tony Blair’s Labor Party was not your grandfather’s Labor Party.) ideological heirs to the Mujahideen like al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram fight to impose their will throughout the world as political Islam has become the dominant ideology for protest in the Muslim world, eclipsing Pan-Arabism, Arab Nationalism and Communism. Before 1979 Islamic Republic was an alien concept. Thanks to Khomeini, even many Sunnis find it an appealing one. (Even if they use the term Caliph.) An unwinnable war in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the USSR. It was the churches, both Protestant and Catholic, that provided safe places where dissidents and their allies could organize against the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

Strange Rebels is an excellent book. Consider it highly recommended.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Iran, Islam, Middle East/North Africa

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms by Gerard Russell

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle EastIf you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’re probably aware a number of the great books I’ve been featuring I learned about through the NPR program Fresh Air. Be it Lawrence Wright’s expose on Scientology Going Clear, Keith Lowe’s magnificent history of early post-World War II Europe Savage Continent or Doug Saunders’ intelligent and well-reasoned look at Europe’s Muslim population The Myth of the Muslim Tide I have the good people at Fresh Air to thank for bringing these terrific books to my attention. Now, I’m happy to say there’s one more book I can add to that list: Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East.

Back in October of 2014 I heard Russell’s interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.  Listening to the program, I was fascinating by what Russell had to say about the Middle East’s small and increasingly endangered religious communities. Vowing to someday read Russell’s book, I quickly added to my “to read” list on Goodreads and kinda forgot about it. But about a month ago, feeling ambitious and in need of fresh reading material for an upcoming vacation I bought a copy off Amazon. Taking advantage of my time off I quickly made my way through Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms all the while enjoying Russell’s rather excellent book. On top of that, I was even able to talk my book club into reading it. And they enjoyed it too!

If anyone should write a book about the disappearing religious communities of the Middle East, it should be Gerard Russell. Fluent in Arabic and Persian, Russell spent years in the troubled region as a diplomat for both the British government and the United Nations. He’s also highly knowledgable of the area’s history and religions, including the beliefs, practices and philosophies of ancient times. For his book he traveled the entire length of the Greater Middle East, from bustling streets of Cairo to the isolated mountain villages along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. With communities like the Copts, Mandaeans and especially the Yazidis suffering persecution at the hands of Islamists, these beleaguered practitioners of ancient faiths have been leaving the Muslim world in droves. As a result, Russell’s travels took him thousands of miles away from the Middle East to newly established exile communities in London, Michigan and even Nebraska.

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is a great book. In order to serve up a rich, detailed and readable treatment of the subject matter, Russell skillfully manages to incorporate ancient history, politics, travelogue, philosophy and religion. Therefore, I have no problem recommending this excellent book.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Christianity, Current Affairs, History, Iran, Islam, Israel, Middle East/North Africa

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

9781594488276_p0_v1_s192x300You gotta like a guy who gets his first book published when he’s 80 years old. Heck, just living to the ripe old age of 80 is impressive enough, but getting your debut work of fiction published at an age when many people are entering an assisted living facility is an amazing feat.

Last week, after dropping off a few books at the public library I took a lazy waltz along the shelves in hopes something might catch my eye. Seeing the non-Western name Jamil Ahmad on the spine of a book I was quickly intrigued. After inspecting it, things started to look familiar. Then I remembered author Jamil Ahmad and his book The Wandering Falcon being featured on NPR a few years back. Well heck, good enough for NPR, good enough for me. So I grabbed it.

Even though The Wandering Falcon isn’t a novel but a collection of short stories, with all the stories sharing a common character. Tor Baz, the orphaned love child of a renegade couple shows up in all nine stories, even if in passing. As the stories shift forward and backward in time, we see Tor Baz young and old, as well as from varying perspectives.

What I really liked about The Wandering Falcon was Ahmad’s ability to capture the people and environment of the rough and tumble borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Seeing this region through Ahmad eyes, it’s a world perhaps best described as harsh and unforgiving, but at the same time rich and colorful. As I read these stories, I found the writing reminiscent of mid-century American writer Paul Bowles and his descriptions of North Africa.

After reading The Wandering Falcon, I’d like to read more works of fiction set in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And why not? The two nations are always in the news and will probably continue to be as Afghanistan slides towards anarchy, Pakistan remains unsettled and the overall region of South Asia rises in significance as the Indian Ocean takes center stage among world policy makers. Therefore, expect to see more books like The Wandering Falcon featured on my blog.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Area Studies/International Relations, Fiction, History, Indian Subcontinent

About Time I Read It: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

9780609809648_p0_v1_s260x420If you’re like me, there’s nothing like finally reading a book that for years you’ve been wanting to read. And if you’re like me, the only thing better than that is when you finally do read it, it’s even better than you had hoped. That, my friends is how I felt when I finally got around to reading Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.

I’ve been wanting to read Weatherford’s book for over decade, ever since it was published back in 2004. Sadly, I never got around to doing so, even after I received a copy as a Christmas present several years ago. Even with this prized book in my possession I’m embarrassed to say it just sat on my desk gathering dust. But with 2015 shaping up to be the year I tackle the many ignored and unread books of my personal library perhaps it’s no surprise I finally picked up Weatherford’s book and read it.

As the book’s title hints, this isn’t just the story of Genghis Khan. Yes, his incredible rise from impoverished Mongol horseman to emperor of Eurasia is all here. But Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is much more than that. If any leader could be called an enlightened despot than Weatherford’s Genghis Khan would be him. Under his rule religious toleration abounded, ethnic communities and local customs were respected and international trade flourished. His empire was also the first to promote such modern concepts like universal literacy, paper money and diplomatic immunity for ambassadors and envoys. With an empire stretching two continents and served by a meritocracy-based civil service, state-run postal service and rule of law (not to mention an aversion to torture as a tool for justice and means of state control) Genghis Khan’s kingdom was not only impressive but by today’s standards much a head of its time.

Some have criticized Weatherford for painting too rosy of picture of Genghis and his empire. Others have questioned his book’s historical accuracy. Frankly, I don’t care. It’s well-written and fun to read. Much like Thomas Cahill did with his books How the Irish Saved Civilization and Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea:Why the Greeks Matter Weatherford has the ability to make  history enjoyable and fascinating. Therefore, I highly recommend Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, Current Affairs, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Islam, Japan, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

Immigrant Stories Challenge: In the Sea There are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda

From time to time we hear of memoirs and other nonfiction books that were supposedly true, but after closer scrutiny turned out to be mere fabrications. While those literary incidents occasionally make headlines, we seldom hear about works of fiction that are closely based on real events. Recently, I discovered one of these relatively rare books during one of my library visits when I stumbled across a copy of Fabio Geda’s In the Sea There are Crocodiles. Geda’s slim but satisfying book is a novelized account of young Enaiatollah Akbar’s five-year journey from Afghanistan to Italy.

The story begins in pre-9/11 Afghanistan when Akbar and his mother are forced to flee their impoverished village by the ruling Taliban. Members of the persecuted Hazara ethnic group, Akbar’s mother eventually realizes that life under the murderous Taliban is no longer an option and the two of them flee to Pakistan. After his mother leaves him, he risks his life traveling across Southwest Asia and the Balkans until finding sanctuary in Italy. Along the way he encounters human traffickers, desperate migrants, corrupt officials and more hardship and death than any boy should ever experience.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt that Geda’s book embodies a number of paradoxes. Billed as a novel, it’s based on the true life account of Akbar’s harrowing journey across five countries and two continents. (Interspersed throughout In the Sea There are Crocodiles are fragments of interviews between Akbar and Geda.) Told in the third person, nevertheless the world is seen through the eyes of the novel’s tween protagonist. While some have labeled the novel a piece of young adult literature, I found it more than suitable for a grown up audience. Lastly, in spite of the misery, injustice and horror Akbar suffered on his long journey, he never seems to lose his youthful optimism and trust in humanity. It is for primarily for these reasons that I have no problem recommending this surprisingly good book.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, Indian Subcontinent, Iran, Islam, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey