The struggle for Afghanistan may be the most important and challenging geopolitical and moral issue facing the United States and the world at large today. Its outcome will affect not only Afghanistan and its people but also the credibility of the United States and NATO, the global fight against terror and extremism, and the future stability of South Asia and the Middle East. Success would lead to the consolidation of a more successful Afghan state and a peaceful country that could serve as a land bridge for regional cooperation; failure would mean the tragic continuation of more than three decades of war, with Afghanistan as the playing field where regional actors such as al Qaeda, Pakistan, India, Iran, and others intensify their rivalry and discord. The books below illuminate the main factors that will help determine the struggle's outcome.

A Thousand Splendid Suns. By Khaled Hosseini. Riverhead, 2007.
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Khaled Hosseini's second novel -- following his best-seller The Kite Runner -- highlights the heart-wrenching plight of women in Afghanistan over the last 30 years. The book is a moving portrayal of the damage inflicted on ordinary Afghans and their social fabric by decades of conflict, layered on top of their own traditional society (which was transitioning slowly toward modernity). In Hosseini's depiction of the evil synergy between ignorance and extremism, one can see why progress in Afghanistan is both important and difficult to achieve.

The Places in Between. By Rory Stewart. Harcourt, 2006.
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Rory Stewart's account of his trek across Afghanistan in 2002 reveals the deep impact of decades of bloody warfare on Afghan society -- a legacy that pervades all aspects of everyday life and shapes political alliances. He captures the uncertainty that followed the downfall of the Taliban regime and vividly describes the social stratification that frames all human interactions. The clash between ancient and modern Afghanistan is a recurrent theme. The Places in Between is a first-hand exploration of some of the country's main contemporary challenges, including the limited power of the central government and the significant role of local leaders and informal networks and alliances.

In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan. By Seth G. Jones. W. W. Norton, 2009.
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RAND analyst Seth Jones focuses on the insurgency facing the Afghan government and the coalition led by the United States. He dismisses ethnic politics and stagnated economic development as factors motivating the various insurgent groups, seeing weak governance and religious ideology as more important. The reason for many of Afghanistan's problems, Jones argues, is the incompetence of Afghan governance -- including the failure to provide services and to crack down on drug trafficking. He notes how a coherent message and perceived success against the Soviets enabled al Qaeda other religious extremists to build support. Jones explains how the American strategy to leave a "light footprint" backfired, yielding "one of the lowest levels of troops, police, and finance assistance in any stabilization operation since the end of World War II" and causing a reliance on warlords. He presents the war in its historical context, beginning with Alexander the Great and the proven ability of Afghans to bring down strong empires. He implies that there was an opportunity to put Afghanistan on the right path after 9/11, but suggests that opportunity has been lost.

Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. By Ahmed Rashid. Viking, 2008.
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Ahmed Rashid's comprehensive study argues that the United States should have focused on nation building in Afghanistan after 9/11 and used whatever resources necessary. He documents Afghan President Hamid Karzai's rise to power and blames him for surrounding himself with less than capable people and not making more progress in combating drug trafficking. Rashid provides a detailed account of the regional context and interconnections of the Afghan conflict, insisting that "the key to peace for the entire region lies with Pakistan." He criticizes the United States for having relied too heavily on former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and documents the Inter-Services Intelligence's support for the Taliban, which he identifies as an extension of its geopolitical rivalry with India.

After the Taliban: Nation-Building in Afghanistan. By James F. Dobbins. Potomac Books, 2008.
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A former American diplomat, James Dobbins examines the first year of the current U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and describes how inter-agency rivalry, aversion to nation building, opposition to the presence of peacekeepers, and refusal to send more troops and commit more resources undermined U.S. efforts. He laments the quick loss of close coordination among the U.S. Department of Defense, State Department, and CIA that characterized the initial stages of the war. Dobbins offers unique insights into the 2001 Bonn Conference -- where he led the U.S. delegation -- and attributes the current difficulties in Afghanistan to what he regards as the mistakes made by the U.S. Department of Defense in the immediate aftermath of the invasion.

Reconciliation in Afghanistan. By Michael Semple. United States Institute of Peace, 2009.
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Michael Semple identifies two reasons for the breakdown of reconciliation in Afghanistan: the lack of sustained commitment to it and failure to learn from and tap into Afghanistan's rich historical and cultural tradition of it. Semple draws on hundreds of interviews to offer an in-depth analysis of the behavior of the main parties concerned with reconciliation in Afghanistan. The Afghan government, the international community, and the Taliban should all be held accountable, he argues. But Semple offers more than criticism, concluding with recommendations on how to further the reconciliation process. In contrast to their more politically organized Iraqi counterparts, he writes, the fragmented Taliban's failure to produce a political wing was one of the impediments to serious negotiations.

  • ZALMAY KHALILZAD is a Counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the President of Khalilzad Associates. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003–5, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq from 2005–7, and Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 2007–9.
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