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The best books on The Afghanistan-Pakistan border

recommended by Gretchen Peters

The award-winning journalist and author says she laughed out loud when she read Greg Mortenson’s line that if he was killed in Pakistan, he knew it would be in a car accident and not by a terrorist

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Tell us about your first book choice, The End of Poverty.

I think Jeffrey Sachs gives a fascinating and very basic new way of looking at development. Essentially, we all benefit when the poorest people are better off. This is as opposed to the maniacal way of thinking that says if India and China are as rich as us there will be a global disaster. His research shows that this is simply not true. It’s a readable book because he weaves his journeys around the world into the argument of the book and it’s filled with very gripping stories of people living in desperate conditions in different places.

It opens talking about Malawi…I was horrified to read that the government of Malawi put together a thoughtful and innovative plan to treat their huge population of Aids patients, and the international community kept cutting back and saying they didn’t have enough money. So they left them to die, when there was a carefully costed plan and something could have been done. Sachs shows a kind of out-of-the-box thinking that proves how richer nations will benefit when the poorest nations are better off.


Because it reduces insecurity, disease and overpopulation. Educated people have fewer children in general and richer countries are more stable and less likely to be a threat. It’s win-win. I don’t understand why more people don’t get that.

It’s sounds like a compelling argument. Why don’t they see it?

Well, there has always been this feeling that if, for example, China and India, become powerful, it will weaken powerful nations in the West. It’s a sinister mentality because, in fact, there is enough for everybody. The difference between the way wealthy people live compared to the way the poor live, even in poor countries – there is no reason for that. Sach’s book is engaging because it is not particularly sentimental. It’s written in a way that very clearly lays out why wealthy nations will benefit. It’s cold hard economic analysis explaining why moral economic policy makes sense. This idea is effectively the basis of counterinsurgency strategy being implemented in Afghanistan: that the best weapons don’t shoot. You won’t beat the Taliban and al-Qaeda by killing them all, but by making them irrelevant because you provide a better alternative. It is the same essential point. And it’s the basis of Three Cups of Tea as well.

This is by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.

Right. Having lived in Pakistan, a lot of what is written resonates with my experience there – one that people who haven’t lived in Pakistan often find it hard to understand. When I tell them I lived there with my children, who are now two and four, they say; ‘How could you do that?’ as though everybody there is a Kalashnikov-wielding fanatic. Before we left I took the children up to the Himalayas and it was a lovely journey, hiking. At the high altitude I found it hard to carry Sophia, my younger daughter, so the tribesmen would come and carry her for me. The people are welcoming and friendly, and I laughed out loud when I read Mortenson’s line that if he was killed in Pakistan, he knew it would be in a car accident and not by a terrorist. Americans often said to me, “Aren’t you afraid about living in Pakistan?” And I’d answer, “Yes, you should see how they drive.” But in other ways it was completely safe. I lived in Islamabad and when we left, and I’d packed up the house, it took me half an hour to find the house keys to return to the landlord because I’d never used them.

What does Greg Mortenson do in Pakistan?

He builds schools in the mountain areas of the Himalayas and he is now working in Northern Afghanistan, primarily building schools for girls. Contrary to popular belief, I found that Afghan and Pakistani parents do want to educate their girls, but only as long as it’s safe. His book has been a bestseller in the US, and several books from the region, like The Kite Runner, have really captured public attention. I think people are intrigued by Afghanistan and Pakistan. Post 9/11 I think a lot of Americans thought people in these areas were all savage fanatics and these books are perhaps beginning to change that perception.

What do the three cups of tea refer to?

In the mountain areas, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, there is a saying that when you meet someone you drink three cups of te the first when you are still strangers; by the second you are friends, and by the third you are family. It is striking the way you are welcomed into people’s homes and lives if you make the effort to travel to see them. It is a very friendly part of the world. I went to a refugee camp after 9/11 where people were living in tents and boiling grass to make tea and at least one family offered to let me sleep in their tent. Obviously, not everybody is nice. They have their problems…but my overall experience was very welcoming.

I love your next choice, the 9/11 Commission Report. Is this a good read?

Well, it looks like this huge dense government report with the US Government seal on the front and it’s 550 pages long. You can buy it at bookstores – I bought mine in Pakistan. But the first chapter especially is a real page-turner. It’s striking for the sheer amount of information acquired and the brutal honesty with which it treats the mistakes made in that period leading up to the attacks. It’s extremely readable and I think Americans should take responsibility and educate themselves. It seems a quite clear-headed report to me and I didn’t feel outrage when I read it. I was impressed by the analysis of what led up to the 9/11 attacks – it’s more like a truth commission really, a catalogue of what went on, without trashing any particular one political party or government agency. I have an interest in the subject, but still I think it’s very readable.

Why are you so interested in the region?

I first went to Pakistan in 1996 as a junior reporter for Associated Press. There were two foreigners in the AP bureau in Pakistan at the time. Before, I’d been in Cambodia, working at The Cambodia Daily and I was struck by how affected Cambodia still was 25 years after the Khymer Rouge, and still struggling to recover. When I was offered the AP job and it was clear the Taliban were about to take most of Afghanistan, I felt it was something I couldn’t pass up reporting on.

Tell me about The Punishment of Virtue by Sarah Chayes.

This is by a former National Public Radio reporter who moved to Afghanistan after 9/11 and stayed. She is completely immersed in the community and is unflinching in her account of what has gone wrong here, especially as regards political corruption. She very accurately captures the simple nobility of the Afghan people and gives a brilliant portrayal of living in these communities. People are amazed that I, as a six-foot blond woman, was allowed to move around so freely in the border areas but I was always, well, not always but almost always, well-treated. The friendliness is tremendous and I rarely had problems. In fact I was lucky because I had access to women – that 50 per cent of the population that my male colleagues did not have access to.

I find that one gets treated as an honorary man in those situations. It’s surely not as free for a woman from that community?

Of course, that’s true, but there are a lot of misconceptions about that too. I’ve had meetings with male Taliban officials, Pashtun leaders about women wearing burkhas and not being allowed out. I’m not saying I support their view but they really believe that they are protecting the women. The horrible brutality that has taken place there makes them think that covering up their women and having them protected by men when they go out in public is vital to keeping them safe. A lot of the rigid laws that exist are little bit more understandable once you live there. I’m not saying I support them, but to me the greatest urgency is to expand educational opportunities for girls so that they can become part of the workforce. The offence to humankind is not the veil but the fact that women don’t get access to education. The burkha or veil, I believe, should be a matter of personal choice. It’s not one I understand or a choice I would make, but it is an issue that is overblown. In the West, we see the veil as a sign of a woman’s persecution or submission, but many Muslims see as a sign of Western women’s degradation that they are draped half-naked over a car in advertisements.

Both are true, aren’t they?

Probably. I have friends who go out in tube tops and short shorts and I think they look ridiculous, but it’s up to them. I have friends who choose to wear the veil too, and I take the same attitude. For me, the key issue is access to education and freedom to work. Again, if you speak to the male community leaders – and I’m not letting them off the hook – they say it’s not safe to let the women out to work and this is to some extent understandable in the really insecure areas. We must help change that by extending rule of law.

Presumably in rural communities somebody has to look after the children, so it’s not as though the women are not working. They are just not paid.

Yes, they are certainly working. But in some ways it might be easier for them to go out and work in the community, in schools and health centres, than it is for Western women, because in South Asia families tend to live with their large extended families. Again in the Sachs book he talks about the sweatshops of Bangladesh and women who walk two hours to work and are paid paltry wages and then walk two hours home. Outsiders tend to think of this as terrible but, in fact, when he interviewed the women they were delighted to earn a salary that they control. In Afghanistan and Pakistan my experience is that women want these opportunities for their daughters and we would do ourselves a favour to listen to them.

Your last book, Descent Into Chaos, is less optimistic.

This is a thorough analysis of how Western policy towards the region has made things worse since 2001. It is pretty bleak. Rashid joked to me while he was writing it that the working title was, What A Fucking Mess. This is an extensive analysis – he has tremendous contacts in Western governments and in the Pakistani and Afghan governments and he details what a difficult situation this is. I think his work is very readable and I like his bestseller on the Taliban too. It’s the kind of thing that a regular person with no explicit knowledge of the region can pick up and read through and it’s going to make sense. It’s over 400 pages so it isn’t a light read but it is organised well and written in a way that takes you through the issues. It’s such a complex region, even more so than the Middle East because there are so many factors.

What are they?

There are wider geo-political struggles like the rivalry between India and Pakistan, the long-standing tensions between Iran and the US. He discusses how these geo-political issues are played out in Afghanistan. Then there is the drugs trade, which plays a role in the destabilisation of Afghanistan. Rashid walks you through the policies that have failed here. He paints a bleak picture but, again, he ends on a note of optimism. The Pakistani people came out on the streets in 2007 to protest at the firing of the Supreme Court Chief Justice and ended up unseating Musharaf, and then they elected a moderate political party. In my experience, Pakistan is a country of moderates at its core that is being destabilised by a minority of extremists, who are increasingly funding themselves though enormously profitable criminal activity.

Obviously you feel it is important that we understand what is going on there.

It is vitally important to the West to understand what is going on there. Every terror attack that happens in the world has some link to the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Drugs are the largest moneymaker for the Afghan Taliban, but the various extremist groups operating in the border areas also make money from kidnapping, extortion and gemstone smuggling and all sorts of other illicit activity. They behave more like Mafiosi than holy warriors. People think they are fanatics living in caves, and while this may be true of some of the foot soldiers, at the top of the chain of command is an enormous amount of criminal money and it is clear that some of them live very well. In my research I would hear of rich warlords and insurgent commanders spending the weekend living it up in Dubai in ways that hardly make them look like pious Muslims. But, to be honest, there is no real sign that anybody is living like Pablo Escobar, so there is a real concern here – what are they going to do with all this money?

October 25, 2009

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Gretchen Peters

Gretchen Peters

Award-winning journalist Gretchen Peters has covered Pakistan and Afghanistan for more than a decade, first for the Associated Press and later as a reporter for ABC News.

Gretchen Peters

Gretchen Peters

Award-winning journalist Gretchen Peters has covered Pakistan and Afghanistan for more than a decade, first for the Associated Press and later as a reporter for ABC News.