Five books that help explain what is happening in Afghanistan

History books updates

In the past few weeks Afghanistan has experienced dramatic upheaval as the US withdrew its last remaining troops from the country, ending a two-decade-long military presence triggered by the 9/11 terror attacks.

Intelligence agencies had warned that the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani could collapse within months of the American departure under pressure from the Taliban — Islamist militants who ruled Afghanistan under strict Sharia law from 1996 until they were driven out by the US-led invasion in 2001.

In the event, Ghani fled — and the Taliban seized Kabul — two weeks before the last US troops were gone, bringing an ignominious end to Washington’s political and military intervention there. Afghans now face uncertain prospects under the renewed rule of the Taliban, which itself is under fire from the extremists of the Afghan affiliate of Isis.

Here are five books to read to understand Afghanistan’s troubled recent history, complex ethnic politics, the ill-fated US war effort and what may lie ahead.

Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History

Thomas Barfield

This work by anthropologist Thomas Barfield takes readers from the pre-modern era through the initial years of the US’s ill-fated invasion. He highlights how decades of war in the late 20th century undermined Afghanistan’s institutions and social fabric, fuelling cycles of increasingly brutal conflict in a country riven with ethnic-divisions.

The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2014

Carlotta Gall

In this eyewitness account of America’s war in Afghanistan, journalist Carlotta Gall focuses on the subversive role of neighbouring Pakistan — and its Inter-Service Intelligence agency — in nurturing Islamist extremist groups, even while Islamabad posited itself as a US ally in the war on terror.

No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and the War through Afghan Eyes

Anand Gopal

In a masterpiece of narrative non-fiction, journalist Anand Gopal offers an intimate look at the conflict, tracing the lives of three Afghans: a Taliban commander, a US-backed warlord and a university-educated village housewife trying to maintain neutrality. Through their stories, Gopal offers a devastating indictment of how the US botched its Afghanistan project.

Dancing in the Mosque: An Afghan Mother’s Letter to Her Son

Homeira Qaderi

This memoir by Homeira Qaderi, a professor of Persian literature, recounts coming of age in Afghanistan amid conflict and conservative social ideals in the 1980s, then living under the harsh rule of the Taliban. Raw yet lyrical and nuanced, her book is framed as a searing letter to the son snatched from her arms aged just 19 months. A wrenching choice marks the denouement of the story.

The Islamic State in Khorasan: Afghanistan, Pakistan and the New Central Asian Jihad

Antonio Giustozzi

A leading expert on Islamic insurgency, Antonio Giustozzi explores the emergence of a local affiliate of Islamic State in Afghanistan over the past several years — its distinctive aims and strategies, and its complex, troubled relationship with the Taliban, now set to rule Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.

Amy Kazmin is the FT’s South Asia bureau chief

What books have we missed? Share your recommendations below and join our online book group on Facebook at

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