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The Best Books by Foreigners on Afghanistan

recommended by Sandy Gall

War Against the Taliban by Sandy Gall

War Against the Taliban
by Sandy Gall


The veteran reporter and frequent visitor to Afghanistan tells us about the country he loves, and the Westerners (and Central Asian conqueror) who wrote engagingly about it.

War Against the Taliban by Sandy Gall

War Against the Taliban
by Sandy Gall

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Could tell us when you first went to Afghanistan and about your subsequent involvement in the country?

I’ve been a journalist all my working life. I first joined a local paper in Scotland and then after six months I joined the Reuters news agency and started to travel the world as a correspondent. I did that for 10 years, mostly reporting from Africa and the Middle East. In 1963 I joined Independent Television News and started travelling the world again, this time as a television journalist. I ended up doing a lot of wars, which is almost inevitable if you are a foreign correspondent. I covered the Vietnam War and the wars in the Middle East.

I really became interested in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979, which pretty well came out of the blue. There was some sympathy – mainly in Kabul – for the Soviet-backed regime, but on the whole Afghans were opposed to it. Hence you got the mujahideen and a nationwide opposition to the Soviets. I first went in 1982, when there was actually very little being reported from the country, as the Soviets had clamped down on journalists. The only way you could really see the war was to go in with the mujahideen, which meant walking or riding a horse through very wild and mountainous country. So I took a camera crew into the country to make a documentary. I spent about 10 weeks there. Whatever its faults or merits as a documentary, it did draw people’s attention to what was happening and how the Soviets were ruthlessly bombing the country.

I went again a couple of years later to film [resistance leader] Ahmad Shah Massoud, who later became famous when he was assassinated by Al-Qaeda a couple of days before the 9/11 attacks on the United States. He was a dashing young guerrilla when I met him, and determined to fight the Russians come what may. I went to see him again in 1986 and 1989. By this time I was well into the Afghan story and I had also started a charity for disabled Afghans, which is still running today. I have been going back almost every year and have written several books about the country and my experiences there.

Your latest is called War Against the Taliban: Why It All Went Wrong in Afghanistan. In a nutshell, why has the battle against the Taliban gone wrong?

Very largely because of the invasion of Iraq by the Americans. They invaded Afghanistan – with the help of the British – to get rid of the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks. The invasion was pretty successful. A lot of the Taliban leadership did escape to Pakistan, but as a movement it was completely dislocated. However, after they invaded Iraq in 2003, the Americans became completely distracted. Very few resources were allocated to Afghanistan – they considered it a job well done, that the war was won. This turned out to be very wrong. The war in Iraq went so badly, and the United States suffered so many setbacks, that they became completely obsessed by Iraq and gave up thinking about Afghanistan. It was in this period of complete separation from the Afghan problem that the Taliban started reorganising, regrouping and coming back. Various diplomats in Kabul knew what was happening and told the Americans, but they just weren’t interested.

That was the main reason I think it all went wrong. There are other reasons too. The Afghan government under [President] Hamid Karzai has proved to be inefficient and corrupt and has alienated so much of the population. A lot of Afghans are simply fed up with them. The other important thing is the influence of Pakistan and its intelligence agency, the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence]. They and the army – which virtually runs Pakistan – have been very pro-Taliban from the start. Everyone is wondering what is going to happen when the Americans pull out their combat troops in 2014 and whether the Taliban is going to come back. In my view this very much depends on what Pakistan does. If Pakistan continues to support the Taliban, I think we are going to have a tremendous mess there and quite possibly a civil war.

These are the reasons I think we are in the mess we are in today and it’s hard to see a conclusion the West can be happy with. But that’s the way that it is. We’re involved now in this countdown to withdrawal, which I have no doubt will go ahead.

Pakistan’s alliance with the Taliban is more than a political one, isn’t it? They are regarded by many Pakistanis as fellow Pashtuns and their only real ally in Afghanistan against what they perceive as Indian interference in the country.

Yes, the Pashtun connection is very strong. Pakistan does want power in Afghanistan and influence over the Afghan government because they are paranoid about India. It’s the conflict between India and Pakistan that’s really the reason for the trouble. India is not blameless. They are much bigger and have a larger army. The Pakistanis are afraid of India – they have lost three wars against them. The dispute over Kashmir has been a trigger and India has been continually reluctant to make any concessions. Until the Indians and Pakistanis sit down and negotiate a settlement – or they are brought to the table and made to negotiate – this will just go on. It’s in everyone’s interest that they negotiate some sort of deal over Kashmir, free Afghanistan from being a pawn in the conflict and allow it to get on with its own life. That’s the only hope.

Let’s take a look at your book choices now. Why A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush?

Well, it’s terribly funny. I think Eric Newby is one of the best travel writers Britain has ever produced. I love reading this book. I’ve read it two or three times, and each time I fell about laughing. He writes terribly well. Evelyn Waugh actually wrote the preface to this book thinking it was by another Eric Newby, and ended up admiring this one. The book is about Newby and his young diplomat friend who went off on an expedition to Afghanistan [in the 1950s] with the intention of climbing Mir Samir – the highest mountain there – although neither had any experience of mountaineering or had even used a rope before. But they were young, fit and enthusiastic and they very nearly got to the top.

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I think it’s one of the funniest books in the English language. It’s also about a breathtaking expedition – they were terribly brave. Newby wrote some marvellous books, but I think this one is his best.

There’s a wonderful episode in it when he bumps into the rather more serious explorer Wilfred Thesiger. At one point Thesiger turns to Newby and says: “England’s going to pot. Look at this shirt, I’ve only had it for three years, now it’s splitting.”

The whole Thesiger meeting is very, very funny. When Newby and his friend blow up their inflatable mattresses, Thesiger says: “You must be a pair of pansies.” It’s a wonderful end to the book – Thesiger striding up the path towards them and then they all camp out together. I’ll defy anyone to read this book and not find it both enchanting and hugely funny. Several laughs a page and beautifully written.

How much has this part of Afghanistan changed since the 1950s, when this book was written?

It’s still much the same. They went up the Panjshir Valley, which I know very well because that was where Ahmad Shah Massoud was and we filmed him there. So I would say it has changed very little since Newby wrote his book. There is a nice new tarmac road running through the valley that the Americans have built, but basically the people are the same.

Your next choice divides opinion. Thesiger, I believe, thought it was nonsense while Bruce Chatwin described it as a “sacred text beyond criticism”.

I think it’s one of the classic books about travelling in Afghanistan. Robert Byron is an intellectual – unlike Newby, whose genius is in the way he can see the funny side of everything. Byron is more serious, but they complement one another in a way. Byron goes to places like Herat to look at the minarets. He says the citadel’s minarets were “the most beautiful example of colour in architecture ever devised by man to the glory of his God and himself”.

The purpose of his journey is to search for the roots of Islamic architecture, isn’t it?

Yes, that’s exactly right and Herat figures as a highlight in the history of Islamic architecture.

He didn’t much like the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, did he?

No, he wasn’t impressed. I think that’s rather strange since I think Bamiyan is magnificent. Although the buddhas have been destroyed, the place to me still has enormous power. There is talk of restoring them. Whether they will do it, I don’t know. This book is a wonderful diary and very amusing. There are lots of wonderful conversations with people he meets on his journey. Byron is a good travelling companion. It’s fun to travel with him and hear what he has to say, although he is quite a snob.

Yes, he comes across as an aesthete who likes gossip and is happy to express often quite outrageous opinions.

Yes. That’s true when it came to the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Of them, he says: “Neither has any artistic value. But one could bear that; it is their negation of sense, their lack of any pride in their monstrous flaccid bulk, that sickens.” It’s very extreme and I wouldn’t agree with any of that at all. But it’s quite entertaining to read, even though you end up thinking what a frightful snob he is. But the book is a must for anyone thinking of travelling to Afghanistan and that part of the world.

Perhaps you can tell us a little about Louis Dupree, author of your next choice, who used to work closely with his wife Nancy, who I believe still lives in Kabul today.

He was an American anthropologist and historian who became fascinated by Afghanistan. He spent every summer in the country with his wife Nancy. She’s still alive and has a considerable Afghan archive which she recently moved from Pakistan to Kabul University. This archive has been her life’s work, plus she wrote some excellent guidebooks about Afghanistan, which are fascinating because they describe the country before the Soviet invasion.

Tell us more about Louis Dupree’s book.

This book has everything about Afghanistan – I call it the bible. You just need to look at the chapter headings. First of all he talks about the land and the various geographical areas and water resources. He then talks about the people and the various ethnic groups and languages and goes on to write about Afghan poetry, folklore and music – he’s very perceptive and knowledgeable about Pashtun poetry. There is also a large section devoted to history. He starts in prehistoric times before moving on to the spread of Islam and then finishing up in the 20th century. He has historical passages about all the great conquerors and then he goes through the various emperors and rulers right up to the last king, Zahir Shah, who didn’t die all that long ago [2007]. The book ends with the communist revolution in 1978.

You have the whole of Afghanistan here – all the customs, the history and the different areas and ethnic groups. If you want to know anything, you just need to refer to the index and it’s there. It’s a fantastic travelling companion too – although quite heavy.

The book was published in the late 1970s – does it feel dated?

It is still very relevant. If, for example, you want to read how the Durrani Empire was created or about the Anglo-Afghan wars, he’s got wonderful accounts of these. He’s a very good historian and writes very well. He did an awful lot of research, so it’s very reliable.

Next we have the memoir of Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire. Please tell us more.

He was the first Mughal emperor. He was born north of Afghanistan in the Fergana Valley in today’s Uzbekistan. He spent most of his life fighting. When he was a young and up-and-coming princeling he tried to capture Kabul but failed. He captured Delhi in 1526. He then returned to Afghanistan and captured Kabul.

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He always said he wanted to live in Kabul and have it as his capital. He thought it was the most marvellous city in the world and had the best climate anywhere, especially compared with Delhi, which was hot and sticky. He spent as much time as he could in Kabul and he is buried in the city. You can still visit his tomb. Mughals loved gardens, so not only does he have a lovely marble surround to his tomb but it is set in these lovely gardens. Every time I go to Kabul I visit them. They have recently been restored by the Aga Khan, as they fell into a state of disrepair.

He doesn’t just talk about his own life in his writing, does he? He also had a deep interest in history, geography and people.

Yes, he talks about everything. He was a remarkable character. Apparently, every river he came to – including the Ganges – he insisted on swimming across. He was a very good swimmer. He was also enormously strong and it is said he could run up a hill with a man on each of his shoulders.

Next is an extraordinary diary that recounts the dramatic unfolding of the West’s first intervention in Afghanistan. Please tell us more about A Journal of the Disasters in Afghanistan, 1841-1842.

Lady Sale was the wife of a very senior British soldier called Brigadier Sale during the first Anglo-Afghan war. They were in Kabul when the whole thing collapsed. The British commander was William Elphinstone, who, it was said, was mostly laid up with gout and couldn’t really function – it’s no wonder that we made such a mess of it. Lady Sale watches all this and this book is her diary of all the things that went wrong. She also could have called her book, “Why It All Went Wrong in Afghanistan”. She largely blames the incompetence of the senior British staff. Elphinstone was unwell for much of the time and she didn’t think much of his number two, who was called Shelton. The book is really a very caustic view of what was going on. She really did know the inside story.

She was wounded and taken captive, wasn’t she?

Yes, when the British did withdraw from Kabul, the Afghans demanded hostages and Lady Sale became one of them. She was a virtual prisoner, but she survived and was eventually released. She was a very tough old bird.

The Times said she was “the soldier’s wife par excellence”.

I think that’s absolutely right. Her husband was pretty thick but very brave. But I think she was even tougher than him.

May 28, 2012

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Sandy Gall

Sandy Gall

Sandy Gall is a Scottish journalist and author. He was a foreign correspondent for Reuters and ITN, and began reporting from Afghanistan in the early 1980s. He has written a number of books about the country. His latest is War Against the Taliban: Why It All Went Wrong in Afghanistan

Sandy Gall

Sandy Gall

Sandy Gall is a Scottish journalist and author. He was a foreign correspondent for Reuters and ITN, and began reporting from Afghanistan in the early 1980s. He has written a number of books about the country. His latest is War Against the Taliban: Why It All Went Wrong in Afghanistan