Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Recommended Reads from AAN Writers and Readers: The search for context, deeper understanding, surprise and good stories

AAN Team AAN Guests 20 min

We thought we would start the new year by asking AAN writers and friends to recommend books about Afghanistan. The books they reviewed were diverse – fact and fiction, classics and newly-published and written in English, Pashto and German. Two were books that the reviewers felt helped make sense of why the Islamic Republic and its foreign backers failed, both written well before 2021. Three are accounts of journeys, from the 1930s, 2010s and after the 2021 fall of Kabul, all far more than travelogues. The memoirs of a United States airman who listened in to conversations from insurgents far below, gathering intelligence in order to target them, reveals the danger of realising your enemy is human, while a novel brings out the humanity of those living through an earlier phase of the war – the devastating fight over Kabul in the 1990s. We hope you enjoy these reviews as much as we did. 

Rosita Forbes, ‘Forbidden Road. Kabul to Samarkand’, 1937

It was one of those finds. I had never heard about the book before, never saw it in a footnote or referred to elsewhere, but then discovered a story from a world long gone. 

“The frontier you wish to cross is generally regarded as closed,” is what Rosita Forbes was told at the Soviet embassy in London when she earnestly started planning her trip to Samarkand, “through Afghanistan.” It is the 1930s and her wish to travel had been generated by seeing refugees from Soviet Turkmenistan, fleeing collectivisation, in Mashhad, Iran. 

Finally, the journey happens. Forbes, an English travel writer, who had driven an ambulance in the first world war, travels through Afghanistan, a country then in the middle of – underreported – reform. The take of historians is usually that ‘reformer-king’ Amanullah’s abdication in 1929 was followed by half a century of stagnation. But Forbes speaks about then prime minister, His Royal Highness Sardar Hashem Khan, as “Asia’s wisest politician” and describes passing through “amazed villages lectured” by radio broadcasts in “Pushtu” on “agricultural reform, trade, sanitation, and the suppression of unnecessary murder.” She sees an Afghanistan with the potential for change – although the few glimpses into women’s life are sobering. 

The road to Samarkand, described in the second half of the book, leads her through Kabul, a city with (you hear echoes of Babur) “a beauty like nothing else on earth.” She travels to the Khyber Pass and Jalalabad, and Herat and Bamyan, with the old bazaar at the feet of the Buddha statues still existing, and Charikar and Duab and finally Mazar-e Sharif, “the mecca of Central Asia.” To get there, she has made ‘a little detour’, mainly by lorry, squeezed in between male passengers and the driver. In a black hat, shawl, overcoat and sunglasses. And lipstick, if one of the ‘76 half-tone illustrations’ in the book does not deceive me.

“We lunched in the middle of [a] Ghazni street under the lovely long walls of her fortress.” road to Mukur, she describes villages with “excellent rest-houses with clean beds, tea, and a pilau for the ordering.” (70 years later, this writer still found pilau there.) “To travel with Afghans is a pleasure,” Forbes writes: “With seventeen Afghans on the post lorry,” mind you, on the way back from Kandahar to Kabul, “we had no food for eight hours, and were half frozen by sleet and wind.” In Kabul, the passengers all said farewell. “It was a good day. I had enjoyed it.” So did I, this very unexpected book.

Rosita Forbes, ‘Forbidden Road. Kabul to Samarkand’, 1937, EP Dutton & Co, New York, 289pp, (second-hand, found online)

Reviewed by Thomas Ruttig, a co-founder of AAN.

Jamaluddin Aram, ‘Nothing good happens in Wazirabad on Wednesday’, 2023

This moving debut by Jamaluddin Aram is an ode to life in the midst of war. His novel tells the story of a neighborhood in Kabul in the early 1990s (Wazirabad, for those who don’t know it, is next to Kabul Airport and was a ‘prize’ greatly fought over) and presents a fascinating cast of characters. There is the Kite-Seller and Bonesetter, the Widow, the Electrician, three militiamen and a young calligrapher called Seema; the men are mostly named by their work or profession, while the women are mostly defined by their familial positions and relations. However, the novel takes us beyond these titles and the stories of the women are detailed and layered – as they provide for their families, questioning and subverting the norms, or skillfully navigating a world where the stakes are set against them, to survive and pursue their hearts’ desires. 

This novel is unexpected and refreshing in its language and structure. While written in English, the book incorporates Persian poetry, local proverbs, sayings and elaborate curse words and phrases with ease and grace, immersing us in a particular place and time. The structure is nonlinear, interweaving the stories of all the characters and integrating gossip, rumors, predictions and dreams, giving a surreal quality to the storytelling. The book tells stories of love, hate, faith, doubt and survival with tenderness for a community suffering poverty and living in the shadow of the war but not defined by either.

Jamaluddin Aram, ‘Nothing good happens in Wazirabad on Wednesday’, 2023, Simon & Schuster, 299 pp, ISDN 978-1668009857

Reviewed by Shaharzad Akbar, a human rights activist in exile who misses home and loves books. 

Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, ‘Connecting Histories in Afghanistan’, 2008

While in Herat recently, I re-read Hanifi’s ‘Connecting Histories’ that explores the economy and society of the country in the 19th-century and its relations with colonial British India, through a lens of trade, literacy and state building at a critical and turbulent period of history. 

Drawing on official and oral historical sources, Hanifi describes how British hopes of a subservient ‘frontier zone’ that might enhance their economic interests were thwarted by successive Afghan rulers who, while relying on handsome subsidies, gradually expanded their bureaucratic infrastructure in order to retain a monopoly on transnational trade in key commodities that depended in large part on nomadic communities for secure transport. The author documents how control of commerce enabled Abdul Rahman Khan (r 1880–1901) to invest in measures that he deemed essential for a ‘modern’ and independent state, while still making the case for increased subsidies. 

The book has particular resonance in the aftermath of the most recent foreign engagement, when a culture of entitlement seemed to prevail among many Afghan politicians and officials whose legitimacy derived largely from financial and material support provided – often unconditionally – by outsiders. Just as in the 19th-century, such assistance was portrayed as a bulwark against an ever-shifting set of perceived threats to both donor nations and their allies in Kabul. By contrast, external aid has, since 2021, been employed as a means to pressure the current administration, whose response is to maximise locally-generated revenue and question the manner in which much ‘humanitarian’ assistance is provided. Hanifi’s book serves as a reminder that tension between Afghan leaders and their foreign backers is nothing new. Since 2021, this tends to be portrayed as primarily a tug-of-war over control of external aid with the administration in Kabul, but may also be about the current leadership’s assertion of a right to determine the longer-term vision for Afghanistan.   

Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, ‘Connecting Histories in Afghanistan’, 2008, Columbia University Press, 282 pp, ISDN 0804774110

Reviewed by Jolyon Leslie, who has lived and worked in Afghanistan since 1989 and is currently engaged in building conservation in the old city of Herat.

Ian Fritz, ‘What the Taliban told me’, 2023

This is the memoir of a US airman who deployed to Afghanistan after having learned Farsi and Pashto. In 2011, at the age of 22, he began flying hundreds of hours on ‘Whiskey and U-boat gunships’.[1]The Airforce-speak for variants of the C-130 military transport plane. This was the time of the US military’s ‘capture or kill’ operations and of ‘the surge’ when President Barack Obama pushed US troop numbers up to more than one hundred thousand to break the Taleban insurgency.[2]The surge in troops began in December 2009, peaked in summer 2011 and numbers returned to 70,000 in by summer 2012: see a timeline from the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. For … Continue reading Fritz’ job was to listen in to Afghans speaking on their walkie-talkies far below – and use that information to kill them.

He offers an entertaining, very personal, worm’s-eye view of the war. He is smart, well-informed and writes with insight about contending with strange languages, cultures and comms systems.  

His perch gave him a rare window on the war. Most of us could only really see it from the single angle our particular perspective permitted, but occasionally you get a clear look from a different angle, and it makes your eyes go wide. Fritz shares his double vision with the reader, of the enlisted member of the US armed forces, and the man listening in to the conversations of fellow human beings. That was very hard on him.  

The core of the narrative is how Fritz’ comms monitoring got him seeing his ‘targets’ as humans and the war itself differently. It made him suicidal. He did quit in time to save himself, but had a hard time getting the people around him to even understand what the problem was. He describes how the same thing happened to most other specialists in his  role. Fritz went on to become a medical doctor.   

I had expected more about the Taleban in this book, given its title, but it really only offers glimpses of them: he condemns them, but likes them. Fritz only deals with the politics of the war on a very abstract level, focusing on the stupidity and wrongness of it.  

Ian Fritz, ‘What the Taliban told me’, 2023, Simon & Schuster, 304 pp, ISDN 978-1668010693 

Reviewed by Roger Helms, who has been involved in Afghanistan since the 1980s when he worked on cross-border aid projects from Pakistan. He features in AAN largely as our map-maker.

Lillias Hamilton, ‘A Vizier’s Daughter: A Tale of Hazara War’, 1900

Hamilton, a prolific journalist as well as family doctor to the Afghan king, Abdul Rahman Khan (r 1880–1901) wrote what reads now like historical novel, in 1900. That was only a few years after the events which give it its setting, the brutal suppression by the ‘Iron Amir’ of the Hazara uprisings of 1888-1893. The author gives a fictionalised account of real events, saying she wrote about what had been seen and heard by people that she spoke to. They included Gul Begum, the heroine of her story. 

Gul Begum is the daughter of an arbab, a Hazara landowner, who was a minister – vizier – in the self-governing Hazarajat before the war. Beautiful and wise, her father was really proud of her. When Hazaras lost their lands and property after defeat in the fight against Abdul Rahman Khan, Gul Begum was among the women and children taken captive and sold as slaves, while her father disappeared. In a complicated but compelling story, she tries to escape a forced marriage to a colonel in the amir’s army. Whether or not she escapes her fate, the reader will need to find out. 

I found the book realistic and exciting, and with everything narrated simply and fluently, in a way that any reader could easily understand. Hamilton was an outsider, a British woman at a foreign court, but also an insider, family doctor to the royal family. Her account feels authentic.

Lillias Hamilton, ‘A Vizier’s Daughter: A Tale of Hazara War’, 1900, Gale and The British Library, 430 pp ISBN 978-1535800402

Reviewed by Rohullah Suroush, a researcher with AAN.

Barnett R Rubin, ‘The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System’, second edition 2002

Of the books about Afghanistan that I have read over the years, and they are quite a few, there is above all one which gave me a major piece in the puzzle of why everything turned out the way it did in that agonised country – Rubin’s ‘The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System’. The main focus of the book is how the Afghan political elites, including the state, as well as civil society and later the armed opposition groups during the Soviet occupation, became increasingly dependent on foreign assistance from competing international powers. It was a development which began in earnest during the reign of Abdul Rahman Khan (r 1880-1901) and which ultimately led to the collapse of the state and the fragmentation of Afghan political and social society in the beginning of the 1990s. Although it is not covered in the book, the same conditions came to characterise Afghan political life in the coming decades and was an important cause to the downfall of the Islamic Republic in August 2021.

Barnett R Rubin, ‘The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System’, 1995 (second edition 2002), Yale University Press, 420 pp, ISDN 0300095198

Reviewed by Anders Fänge, a Board Member of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA), SCA Country Director for 17 years during different periods between 1983 and 2011 and UNAMA Field Director 2001-03.

Whitney Azoy, ‘Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan’, 1982

Books published on Afghanistan that adhere to at least a minimum academic standard are not known as enjoyable reads. That is not their purpose; they should instead have rigorous analytical standards and be of value in helping you to understand Afghanistan, either as a whole system or one of its smaller components. Reading these books does often feel like a chore. But on occasion — a rare occasion — there is a book that offers both high quality analysis and is an enjoyable read. Whitney Azoy’s 1982 classic about buzkashi is one of those few.

Whitney Azoy first came to Afghanistan at the beginning of the 1970s as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer. He later resigned from the State Department and enrolled in an anthropology PhD programme. He returned to Afghanistan for fieldwork and departed in 1978, as did most foreigners. The result of his fieldwork was a PhD dissertation on the horse-riding sport of buzkashi, a project that was later published in 1982 as a book. In 2012, a 3rd edition by Waveland Press was published that included two new chapters and 30 more years of buzkashi in Afghanistan.

Buzkashi, a sport with deep Turkic cultural roots and historically popular in northern Afghanistan, and often described as horseback polo with a dead goat (or calf), is usually considered at most to be an entertaining game to play or watch once the temperatures drop. However, the game as a metaphor for politics and power competition in Afghanistan is a rich one. There is so much in this sport that can, once analysed, offer insight into how Afghanistan works. It is a metaphor, not strict engineering schematics, so it does take some literary license to make the metaphor work. Azoy goes beyond that simple comparison and observes everything around buzkashi as part of the broader game – from powerful local elites to the lowliest of social outcasts who are present on the sidelines. The importance of buzkashi was not lost on the national government, and they eventually introduced it in Kabul in a sanitised and controlled version for public consumption.

The book has, throughout the text, engaging characters and vivid scenes of people angling for position – both on and off the field. It is as valuable a read now as it was when it was first published. I consider it mandatory reading when considering a short list of introductory texts to Afghanistan.

Whitney Azoy, ‘Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan’, 1982, University of Pennsylvania Press, 152pp, ISDN 978-0812278217 

Reviewed by Christian Bleuer, a researcher with two decades of experience in Central Asia. He is currently updating his Afghanistan Analyst Bibliography (2019); to be published by AAN in 2024.

Muhammad Ismail Yun, ‘What was Not Said in the Palace’ (in Pashto), 2017 

This book was written by Kabul University professor and owner of Zhwandun TV station, Muhammad Ismail Yun. He also worked as the Head of Cultural Affairs in the Security Council for about two and a half years during the second Hamed Karzai presidency, sitting in the Arg, Afghanistan’s Presidential Palace. 

Before that, Yun worked as an elected first clerk (munshi) in the Emergency Loya Jirga and member of the secretariat (dar al-insha) in the Constitutional Loya Jirga and as a campaigner for Karzai in the 2009 presidential election. He had established good relations with Karzai during his jobs in the Jirgas and been able to have many meetings with the president. He said he accepted Karzai’s offer of a job at the Security Council on the understanding that he would not only be a government employee, but the voice of the nation. 

Yun provides short biographies and character sketches of all those who were in the palace during his time there, what he observed and heard, including in special meetings with the president, whom he said he met more than ten times. 

He mostly speaks about the demands of the various powerbrokers. As a staunch Pashtun nationalist, it is not surprising that Yun mainly highlights those coming from the Northern Alliance – Shura-ye Nizar – whom he says were able to get Karzai to accept their demands and work for their interests. He also describes how it was individuals working in the palace, rather than the rule of law which prevailed, and how the neighbouring countries were also able to put pressure on Karzai, obliging him, he said, to accept their proposals concerning the internal affairs of Afghanistan. An example he gives of something which actually took place in Karzai’s first term, before Yun got his palace job, was what Yun calls the ‘unnecessary pampering of minorities’, when the districts of Panjshir and Daikundi were promoted to the rank of provinces in 2004.[3]These decisions were, however, immensely popular with local people who felt they had been neglected by successive central governments. People in Daikundi, for example, one of the poorest and most … Continue reading He says that after making scores of arguments to Karzai against this promotion, the president told him: “I was very much forced to – Iran forced me a lot.” Yun believes that, as there was no parliament at the time, these decisions were unlawful. 

“I understood from my first meeting with him,” Yun says of Karzai, “that anyone could spend time with him. His social behaviour was very good, but his political behaviour was full of ‘dealings’, and he obeyed force.”

People outside the palace, writes Yun, kept asking: What’s going in the palace? While people inside the palace were asking each other: What’s the gossip (sar-e chowk)? The real situation, he contends, was unknown not only to the people outside, but also even to those working in the palace. Yun claims to have been the voice of the nation when speaking to those in power, a sane voice in a place of chaos and an observer of that chaos and of what ‘really went on’ behind the scenes. The detail he gives, the accusations he makes and the stories he tells are all interesting. He was also, of course, an individual with interests as well. 

Muhammad Ismail Yun, ‘De Arg Nawayalai, 2017, De Afghanistan Mili Tahrik [the National Movement of Afghanistan]

Reviewed by Ali Mohammad Sabawoon, a researcher with AAN.

Matthieu Aikins, The Naked don’t Fear the Water’, 2022

I find it difficult to read books about Afghanistan, partly because so few compare with my experience of the country and its people. Most are still written by non-Afghans with an outsider’s view, some of them downright orientalist. Of course, I belong to this group of outsiders, although I have lived and worked in the country for many years, so feel entitled to criticise. So, it’s rare that books come along that pique my interest, but Matthieu Aikins’ book, “The Naked Don’t Fear the Water”, did pique my twin interests – Afghanistan and refugee studies. It is also written by someone I met during my time in Afghanistan and respect deeply. 

This non-fiction book tells the story of a journey made in 2016 by Matt with his Afghan translator, driver, ‘fixer’ and friend, Omar, to reach Europe in search of a better future: the aim was to experience first-hand and chronicle the dangerous journey many refugees and migrants take to escape poverty, economic uncertainty and conflict.

It is written in the sort of beautiful and compelling prose that I have never been able to master. It is an important book that has come at an important time – when the discussion of forced migration is once again dominating politics, and when the humanity of the refugee is too easily lost or forgotten. If you read it carefully, it also tells us how differently some countries welcome ‘outsiders’ – like Matt – who was welcomed by Afghans and Pakistanis with open arms and friendship, in stark contrast to the way most Western countries approach refugees, which is increasingly hostile and suspicious.

For the journey – described by one reviewer as “a modern version of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’”[4]See the review by Terry W Hartle for the Christian Scientist Monitor, ‘An Afghan refugee risks everything: A tale of danger, hope, courage’, 14 March, 2022. – Matt had to “leave behind the passports that allowed me to move so easily through this world of borders.” There are many such reflections along the way, reminders of the enormous privilege that comes with a ‘respectable’ passport that enables easy border-crossing. Hopefully, readers will keep these differences in mind – and not simply be swept up by the incredible journey. The majority of refugees, lack such a privilege; Omar fittingly observes that his only possession is luck.  

Matt tells us early on that he is making the treacherous and risky journey in part to give something back for all that Omar made possible for him in Afghanistan since they first met when both were about 24 years old: “I was confident that we would leave Afghanistan together, no matter what. Our trip would close a circle, for there had been a reciprocity in our motion, it seemed to me, since the day we met.” Matt does sometimes wonders if it was this reciprocity – or brotherhood – that drove him to make the journey, or whether, perhaps, it was the great story. The truth perhaps is a bit of both, friendship and story become blurred. After all, the book is written by Matt, not co–written with Omar, and while it tells Omar’s story, it is from Matt’s perspective, and in many ways, it is really Matt’s story. 

When I recently reread the first 50 pages of this book, I was struck by two things. Firstly, this story is underpinned by male privilege – it is unlikely that a woman could have had quite such an experience or written such a story. At the least, the story would have been drastically different. Mostly though, Matt is aware of his various privileges, reflecting, for example, on how he  can pass as an Afghan while also holding Canadian and US passports: “My ancestors came from Japan and Europe, but I look uncannily Afghan: almond eyes, black hair, wiry beard, describing the reaction of an early tea house acquaintance: “He’s a foreigner! But why does he look so Afghan?” Elsewhere, he experiences racism because of that appearance, so the privileges it brings is highly contextual: “With my dark hair and Asian eyes, I had crossed a color line somewhere over the Atlantic. In Europe, I was no longer included with the whites. I got called a Paki in England; in France, I was arabe. But as I travelled into central Asia, it was like walking toward a mirror; in northern Afghanistan, with its mix of Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks, I’d found my phenotype. People saw their face in mine.”

Matt was able to slip in and out of these two apparent identities, passing as Afghan when it suited, and calling on his Canadian-American identity when it suited, such as entering Afghanistan with the two litres of alcohol allotted to foreigners, in an exchange with the border police: “‘Brother, are you telling me you’re not Afghan?’ ‘No sir,’ I’d say, scrambling around the let with my passport before the cop could snatch the bottles. ‘Look at my name, I’m not even Muslim – sorry’.” Most refugees, including Omar, don’t have this privilege, to take on different identities, although Omar did try – and fail – to pass as a non-Afghan on his refugee journey.

The second surprise for me when re-reading the book for this review also came early on, when Matt tells his story of throwing a big party in Kabul, with alcohol and drugs flowing freely. I wondered why this had to be included in a story about displacement. Was it there to show the decadent lives of many Westerners in Kabul (not all, possibly not even a majority of us) and to remind the reader why the Taleban might feel that the West had corrupted Afghans? Did he mention this, along with other earlier stories of first going to Afghanistan, travelling on local transport and staying in small hotels and guesthouses, hanging out with some questionable characters, smoking hashish and occasional opium, as honest truth-telling of his own coming of age as journalist, or unnecessary bravado? These are the parts I stumbled over – perhaps, because I wondered how much of an Indiana Jones or Lawrence of Arabia mentality there was in the many Western men who worked in Afghanistan, especially as I had not pegged Matt as one of them. There is always a danger in such great stories, even when written with great sensitivity and finesse, that they appeal to readers on a different level than intended – to those in search of a good adventure story.

In the end, Afghanistan and Omar gave Matt what he had wanted since graduating from college in 2006 – great stories: “I wanted to be a writer and thought I’d find in the world the material I lacked within myself.” And while Matt has delivered an insightful and empathetic story about Afghanistan, Afghans and displacement, and the global dilemma of how to humanely address forced displacement, I could not help but wonder how the story would have been told differently if Omar had not been the protagonist in Matt’s story, but the author of his own story. What would Omar have told us about the experience of the failed Western state–building project in Afghanistan that squashed his hopes of a better future, how he felt about working for the Western military and Western journalists, ‘fixing’ their stories and fame? How did Omar experience the trip – and what was he thinking when Matt got annoyed at him being homesick and lovesick and wondered to himself: “What kind of protagonist was he?”

I enjoyed the book, despite the occasional discomfort at some passages, but also wondered if I would have liked it more had it been co–authored or written from Omar’s perspective. Does it take a Western author to draw attention to the plight of refugees? There are, after, all excellent first-person narratives written by refugees, such as Behrouz Boochani’s acclaimed autobiographical book ‘No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’,[5]Picador Australia, ISBN: 9781760780852. and I think we need more of these books, especially from Afghans, where the authors are the protagonists of their own story, not someone else’s. I can’t wait to review such a book next time. 

Matthieu Aikins, ‘The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees’, 2022, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 384 pp, ISDN 978-1913097851

Reviewed by Susanne Schmeidl, a critical peace scholar-practitioner. She has worked for nearly three decades in academia and the non-profit sector, much of it in Afghanistan.

Christoph Reuter, ‘We Were Happy Here: Afghanistan after the Victory of the Taleban – A Road Trip’, 2023 

“We met Taleban who offered, with a flirtatious smile, to carry our luggage,” but also “local commanders who held us for hours, time and again, just because they could.” 

This book by veteran German journalist and occasional AAN author Christoph Reuter provides a deep look into a period in Taleban-ruled Afghanistan that might well be already over – the immediate aftermath of the re-establishment of their Emirate. Chaos reigned in many places, allowing access to areas that had been off-limits for reporters – and most Afghans – for at least a decade. Given the subsequent consolidation of the Kandahar-centred Taleban leadership’s power and increasing control of Afghan and international journalists,  Reuter’s freedom to move, his ability to make a ‘road trip’, as the book’s subtitle calls it, might already be a historical anomaly. 

“Suddenly, we were able to travel everywhere,” the author says and takes us to 18 of the (now) 33 provinces of Afghanistan: to Nuristan where former government employees try to survive as hunters, to Zaranj in Nimruz province where desperate Afghans try to break through the border to Iran and to Daykundi where an accusation of ‘Taleban land-grabbing’ turns out to be the work of a Hazara landlord. Reuter also takes the reader to Ghormach in Badghis province where a farmer ploughs a field that has seen no rain and is not even his own, and for a walk through Kabul’s terror victim cemeteries. The road trip is completed by glimpses of Kabul in the dramatic time just before and then after the collapse of the Islamic Republic. Reuter had been in Kabul just before the collapse, not anticipating – like everyone – that it would come so soon. 

Reuter also takes us back to the pre-August 2021 Kabul bubble, with parties where German diplomats and aid officials shared thoughts on ‘how it really looks in the country,’ a reality which they did not share in their official reporting. The Afghan government’s narrative of difficult but incremental ‘progress’ had to prevail – until it was too late. Reuter laments that, in German, there is “no plural for ‘self-delusion’.” It is a great line.

The book, however, is much more than pure reportage, let alone travelogue. A chorus of Afghan voices permeates the book, from Baridad, the farmer, to Afghan parliamentarian Raihana Azad, from the Taleb who apologised for his boss’s rudeness, to Muhammad Yassin, an aircraft mechanic who was sitting on an evacuation plane in August 2021 about to leave Kabul airport. Reuter had sneaked onto what was a private evacuation flight, only to be forced off it at gunpoint by the US military. It was Yassin, the Afghan about to go into exile, who provided the quote for the book’s title: “We were happy here.”

Reuter slips in a good amount of – sometimes dead-pan – analysis. He draws from two decades of Afghanistan exposure, from not just flying in from time to time, but from spending years in the country. For some of them, he was the only German journalist permanently based in Afghanistan. He carried out pioneering investigations, including an early report into one of the many US ‘wedding bombings’, in 2002 in Uruzgan province, the result of a local US ally covering up his men’s looting of a village. 

In Kunduz, Reuter and photographer Marcel Mettelsiefen visited each family of the 90 people who had been killed in the German-ordered bombing of two fuel tankers highjacked by Taleban in 2009. The tankers had got stuck in a sandy riverbed during a dark Ramadan night and the insurgents had called the inhabitants of a nearby village to syphon off the fuel and get the tanker afloat again (they failed). Meanwhile, a German commander – fed disinformation by a sole source (an NDS employee who augmented his earnings with a  German salary) that all the people assembled there were ‘Taleban’ – ordered an airstrike. Reuter called it “the gravest order to kill the Bundeswehr [German armed forces] issued in its history.” His investigations – recalled in this book – brought the incidents back to light, the horror fresh again, after all these years.

Some parts of the book were published as reportages in English on Spiegel magazine’s website (see here; here and here). The book deserves to be translated in its entirety.

Christoph Reuter: ‘Wir waren glücklich hier: Afghanistan nach dem Sieg der Taliban – Ein Roadtrip’, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2023, 336 pp. ISBN 978-3-421-07005-0

Reviewed by Thomas Ruttig, a co-founder of AAN.

Edited by Kate Clark

References

References
1 The Airforce-speak for variants of the C-130 military transport plane.
2 The surge in troops began in December 2009, peaked in summer 2011 and numbers returned to 70,000 in by summer 2012: see a timeline from the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. For more on the ‘capture or kill’ operations see this AAN report by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, ‘A Knock on the Door: 22 Months of ISAF Press Releases’, published on 12 October 2021.
3 These decisions were, however, immensely popular with local people who felt they had been neglected by successive central governments. People in Daikundi, for example, one of the poorest and most isolated areas of Afghanistan, believed that splitting from Uruzgan and gaining a status as a province would bring them more attention, services and funding.
4 See the review by Terry W Hartle for the Christian Scientist Monitor, ‘An Afghan refugee risks everything: A tale of danger, hope, courage’, 14 March, 2022.
5 Picador Australia, ISBN: 9781760780852.

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