If there has been any upside to the war in Afghanistan, we can say that at least it has led to a barrage of books on the country. Kind of makes you wish the US would invade Turkmenistan next.
Downside is that quite a lot of these books are as much about the US as they are about Afghanistan, and a lot of books would not have seen the light of day if it wasn’t for the war.
I can’t say I have read all of these books (yet), but I spent some serious time digging and compiled some expert opinions together with a heap of user reviews to come to the following list of the best books on Afghanistan. It became a mix of contemporary books and older writing, by lesser known authors as well as the more famous ones.
Good travelogues and historical accounts of Central Asia that include Afghanistan can be found in the Central Asia books section.
History, Culture and Politics
If you only read one thing about American policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, let it be this book. Rashid is also the author of the authoritative Taliban.
Scratch that. If you only read one book on American policy in Afghanistan, let it be historian and master-storyteller Dalrymple’s retelling of the British defeat in Afghanistan in 1842. After documenting the story of Britain’s invasion and retreat, he draws a shocking amount of parallels with the situation in the early 2000’s.
The best of the new crop of histories of Afghanistan, it does a great job of informing the reader about the many tribes of Afghanistan, the rulers, conflicts, economies,… while lightening up the narrative at the same time with interesting asides and comparisons, making this a juicy history. A drier, fact-dense history is Martin Ewans’ Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics.
Although this is a guidebook from the 70’s, this remains one of the most complete and interesting looks at Afghan culture and history by an accomplished archaeologist and anthropologist, discussing otherwise rarely mentioned parts of Afghanistan.
This book, about the 1980s arming of the mujaheddin by a rogue US Congressman, often comes recommended as it is a fascinating story. It is quite tendentious and not so historical, though nothing can detract from the baffling story and personalities.
Written in the 1970s, it remains a classic. Afghanistan gives the reader an insight in life in Afghanistan from the Stone-age until the Russian Invasion. At 700 pages, this is the best and most complete introduction to Afghanistan.
This bestseller from 2002 will probably stand as one of the defining pieces of reportage of the period in Afghanistan. Seierstad stays with a bookselling family and records the shocking events she sees. In the same vein are the books by Hamida Ghafour and Cristina Lamb.
“I had given up on earlier and more ambitious schemes and was prepared to make an ally of uncertainty, with which luck so often finds a partnership.” Jason Elliot is a truly gifted writer with a real love of Afghanistan and an extraordinary story to tell.
Cataloguing his 2002 walk across Afghanistan in the months following the toppling of the Taliban, The Places in Between shows the beauty of the country and the people of Afghanistan. By turns harrowing and meditative, Stewart’s trek through Afghanistan in the footsteps of the 15th-century emperor Babur is edifying at every step, grounded by his knowledge of local history, politics and dialects.
Levi, a professor of poetry/archaeologist/Jesuit priest, travels with a young Bruce Chatwin to uncover Afghanistan’s cultural treasures in the late 60’s. A classic of times gone by.
A travel writing classic from the 50’s. With typical dry British wit, the eccentric Newby details his adventures in Afghanistan.
Another classic from Nancy Hatch Dupree, the authority on Afghanistan. The Road to Balkh is a book about a travel in peaceful times, when Afghanistan was the most developed country in Central Asia, one that saw many tourists on the Hippie Trail to India.
A sobering literary statement to the horrors of war set against the backdrop of the Soviet destruction of Afghanistan. Also recommended from the same author: The Patience Stone, an unapologetic novel about a woman’s life post-Taliban.
An epic novel spanning 30 years of the Afghanistan conflict. At times grim, Aslam writes with a powerful voice and manages to convincingly portray the psychology of extremely different characters.
The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
The New York Times bestseller, adored by millions. Also adored by millions: 50 Shades of Grey, Dan Brown, Britney Spears. People need to read more. This is worse than a Turkish soap; riddled with cliches and foreshadowing and a clunky, sickening plot. I’m not linking to this.