For a small country in an isolated region, Afghanistan seems to have played a rather large role in recent world history. However, despite reading the frequent news stories, analyses, opinions, and even talking with people who have been there, I often feel I didn't really know much about the country. But reading A Brief History of Afghanistan helped me learn more about the 'true' Afghanistan beyond the attention-grabbing headlines.
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Initially A Brief History of Afghanistan covers the country's fractious history and it's formation as a nation in the mid 18the century. The fact that the country lies at the crossroads of restless Central Asia and has often been a graveyard for empires and invading forces, seems to have created its primary identity as a fiercely independent nation where its people mostly want to preserve (for better or worse) centuries-old customs and traditions. But at the same time the authors point out that a national identity for Afghans is often trumped by tribal and/or regional identification that sometimes provoke violent clashes.
One big difficulty that Afghanistan deals with is that various ethnic groups inhabit the country, and there is no unifying language, culture, lifestyle, or tradition beside the religion of Islam. The Pashtuns are the most dominant, but not a majority. At the same time Uzbeks, Turkmen, Tajik, and Hazara cultures are prominent in some regions but they may feel like foreigners if they travel within the country.
The book also points out that Afghanistan's rugged and semi-arid landscape creates barriers within the country. Fertile valleys exist here and there, but much of the country is too mountainous, too dry, and too isolated to inhabit. But these isolated regions also have aided groups like al Qaeda in gaining a foothold with the country and turning it into a safe haven for terror groups.
The latter part of the A Brief History of Afghanistan deals with more contemporary issues within the country, much of what has been calamitous. The authors provide bite-sized overviews of the various political developments within the country. Coups, revolutions, the Soviet invasion in 1979, the rule of the Mujahideen provided one horrendous event after another. The result was the rise of the Taliban, who imposed a medieval-style rule over the country and let terror groups like al Qaeda flourish. The last chapter of the book deals with the U.S. invasion in 2001, the fall of the Taliban, and recent attempts to establish a more modern Afghan society, with human rights and economic development.
One criticism of the book is that the early chapters read like a High School social studies text. The basic facts and figures about the country are spelled out in a rather dry and simplistic manner, such as this description of New Years (Nawruz):
Special food is prepared for Nawruz. Women spend all night cooking, singing, dancing, and playing the daira. They bake colorful cookies…and prepare special dishes…. [p 24]
Who knew life in Afghanistan was one big party?
Although I have a much better understanding of Afghanistan after reading this book, I still find it hard to get my hands around the country. Contradictions such as Afghanistan being the world's largest producer of poppies for heroin production collide with the country's strict Muslim customs. The fact that the country has existed for well over two centuries seems at odds with its odd-lot collection of ethnic groups and lack of unifying culture. Also, how does such an isolated land filled with centuries-old lifestyles command such attention on the world's stage?
The book has several appendices and an extensive index, which indicates that the authors put a lot of work into researching this rather small book (about 250 pages with a large typeface). Also, there are several dozen black and white photos scattered throughout the book. Overall I'll recommend A Brief History of Afghanistan to anyone looking for an overview of the country, which undoubtedly will be in the forefront of our news for many years to come.
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