Brown Students Read on Afghanistan

As part of their work as Research Assistants for Engaging Afghanistan, Steven Damiano (`12) and Amanda Labora (`13) reviewed key studies of Afghanistan.

  • Revolution Unending: Afghanistan, 1979 to the Present
  • Malalai Joya, A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice & Women and Nation-Building
  • The Colonial Present & Good Muslim, Bad Muslim
  • The Search for Peace in Afghanistan: From Buffer State to Failed State
  • Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia
  • Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad


  • Dorronsoro, Gilles. Revolution Unending: Afghanistan, 1979 to the Present. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2005.
    Reviewer: Steven Damiano

    Gilles Dorronsoro, a leading French scholar on Afghanistan, is currently a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.[1] A former political science professor at the Sorbonne, since 1988 he has been periodically visiting Afghanistan for research purposes. Interested in South Asia, he is fluent in both Persian and Turkish. During his first trips to Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, his Dari language skills were still developing and he was forced to rely on translators for his research (xiii).?? However with his continued focus on Afghanistan, he went on to embrace the extensive French, English, and Persian scholarly literature available on Afghan politics.? As part of his visits to Afghanistan, he tried to learn about local politics by interviewing ?people on the fringes of power.? (xiii)? By the time the Taliban came to power, he developed an extensive contact network that allowed him to interview people close to President Najibullah. ?Despite his relative prominence as a scholar on Afghanistan and his presence at the Carnegie Endowment, Dorronsoro is not a permanent member of the New York to DC Afghanistan focused think tank circuit.? In Dorronsoro?s crucial book for understanding the nature of the Afghan state, Revolution Unending: Afghanistan, 1979 to the Present (2005), the French Professor examines the political factors that have led to the destabilization of Afghanistan over the last forty years.? First published in French in 2000, the English edition is updated to fit the post-Islamic Emirate Taliban insurgency within the framework of twentieth century Afghan rebellions.

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    Malalai Joya, A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice. New York, NY: Scribner, 2009. 

    Benard, Cheryl et al. ?Women and Nation-Building.? Rand Center for Middle East Public Policy. Santa Monica, Ca: Rand Corporation, 2008.

    Reviewer: Steven Damiano

    Over nine years into the War in Afghanistan, U.S. Military leaders are still uncertain what role Afghan women should play in their counterinsurgency strategy. Despite the Bush and Obama Administrations? claims that the U.S. Government has helped to promote the status of women in Afghanistan, violations of Afghan women?s rights remain a too common occurrence. Although the sheer length of the war has led the American think tank community to increasingly focus their research efforts on Afghanistan, American foreign policy elites still express little interest in the country?s history or political situation. While the authors of the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy 2008 Report ?Women and Nation-Building? focus on how to promote Afghan women?s rights within the American military effort, their publication only furthers the creation of a dangerous discourse about the War in Afghanistan that makes the understanding of American security interests in Afghanistan and the challenges confronting Afghan women more difficult. The study?s authors, Cheryl Benard, Seth G. Jones, Olga Oliker, Cathruyn Quantic Thurston, Brooke K. Stearns, and Kristen Cordell focus on how the U.S. Government can use Afghan women to increase the legitimacy of the Afghan government. However, the Rand researchers never clearly state what they think are the U.S. Government?s national security interests in Afghanistan. Thankfully, Malali Joya, a former Afghan M.P. from Farah province who was kicked out of the Wolesi Jirga for criticizing her colleagues? participation in the mujahedeen Civil War, in her memoir A Women Among Warlords provides a timely refutation of the American foreign policy community?s assumptions about Afghanistan. Although Joya?s memoir cannot serve as a stand in for the full range of views Afghans have about the current war and their country?s political system, the ex-M.P. highlights the difficult tradeoffs Afghan women have had to make over the last thirty years.

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    Gregory, Derek. The Colonial Present. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004. 

    Mamdani, Mahmood. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. USA: Random House, 2004.

    Reviewer: Amanda Labora

    Both The Colonial Present by Derek Gregory and Good Muslim, Bad Muslim by Mahmood Mamdani are books written by academics in response to 9/11 and the events that followed, with special attention to the actions of the American government and media. Geared towards the general public, both books attempt to contextualize 9/11 historically and politically?as opposed to culturally?and rectify what each author independently refers to as a state of ?historical amnesia? in America. Though neither book focuses solely on Afghanistan, both authors include a substantial discussion of American support for the mujahedeen during the Cold War in order to illustrate how American foreign policy ?adventures? came to haunt the U.S. in the post-9/11 world. Through their comparisons of Afghanistan with other countries?Iraq and Palestine in The Colonial Present and Indochina and Nicaragua among others in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim?Gregory and Mamdani demonstrate that American involvement in Afghanistan is best understood as one of many American campaigns launched in pursuit of imperial?or as Gregory would argue?colonial goals. Consequently, despite the fact that neither book offers a comprehensive history of Afghanistan, they each provide a distinct lens through which to understand Afghan history. This review, through a separate discussion of each book, will focus on contributions of these two works to the study of Afghanistan.

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    The Search for Peace in Afghanistan: From Buffer State to Failed State
    by Barnett Rubin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.
    Reviewer: Amanda Labora

    Barnett Rubin?s monograph The Search for Peace in Afghanistan: From Buffer State to Failed State (1995), the focus of this review, is the second of a two-volume study of the origins, structure, and outcome of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. According to Rubin, the two books, when read together, ?are meant to advance the integration of [comparative politics and international relations] into a common study of politics and to provide an integrated view of the interaction among different levels of political organization, from village elders to the U.N. Secretariat, in one of the century?s most violent conflicts.? Whereas The Fragmentation of Afghanistan (2002) traces the creation and development of the modern Afghan state?from its creation as a buffer state between Russia and Britain in the early 20th century?to its eventual ?failure? following the Soviet withdrawal and subsequent American disengagement from Afghanistan, The Search for Peace in Afghanistan examines the actions of the international system itself and how the failure of international cooperation left Afghanistan without a stable, legitimate central government or the capacity to establish one.

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    Rashid, Ahmed. Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. New York, NY: Viking, 2008.
    Reviewer: Steven Damiano

    Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, has made a career warning about the threat of Islamic extremism in Central and South Asia. He has been reporting on Pakistan and Afghanistan since the 1970?s and regularly writes for liberal American media outlets such as the New York Review of Books. During the end of nineties and the years immediately after the overthrow of the Taliban, Rashid, along with his close friend Barnett Rubin, advised Lakhdar Brahimi, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General to Afghanistan, and Brahimi?s successor Francese Vendrell , on how to bring peace to Afghanistan (54-55). Rashid first rose to fame in the United States with his timely pre-September eleventh book, Taliban (2000), where he details the religious fundamentalist movement?s rapid takeover of Afghanistan. As a crusader for democracy in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Rashid has earned both the ire of Pakistani military leaders and Afghan warlords. The Dari translation of Taliban made him a person non-grata in Afghanistan until the American backed overthrow of the Islamic Emirate. In his latest book Descent into Chaos (June 2008) Rashid describes the rise of the Taliban insurgency and the increase in extremism in Pakistan during President Musharraf?s reign. Rashid argues that after the collapse of the Taliban, the Bush Administration should have focused more on creating a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan than on how to invade Iraq. Though in the book Rashid calls for nation building and an increased foreign troop presence in Afghanistan, in subsequent writings he has been skeptical of President Obama?s troop escalation.

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    Edwards, David B. Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad. Berkeley, Ca: University of California Press, 2002.
    Reviewer: Steven Damiano

    Despite the abundance of scholarship produced on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, few scholars have focused on the life stories of the leading Afghan insurgents and PDPA government officials. David B. Edwards, a Professor of Anthropology at Williams College, in his irreplaceable book Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad (2002) uses the experiences of communist, Islamists, religious, and tribal leaders to examine the radical changes that occurred in Afghan politics during the late 1960?s and 1970?s. After Mohammad Daud became President, Edwards worked in Afghanistan as an English teacher at a U.S. Government funded language school (10). At the time, he struggled to grasp the new political divisions that were forming in Afghan society. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Edwards conducted two research trips in Peshawar as part of his dissertation work. Knowledgeable of both Pashto and Dari, he interviewed most of the major leaders of the seven Peshawar basedn Tanzim parties. From his time in Peshawar, he gained unique insight into the tensions that divided the different lay and clerical Islamist parties. In Before Taliban, he provides an unparalleled description of the formation and fragmentation of the Islamist parties from the last years of the Afghan monarchy up until the Soviet invasion. His goal is ?to place the history of the present against the history of the past in order to gauge what happened in Afghanistan and why the forces that in the first years of the war seemed between them to control the destiny of the country have all been destroyed.? (xviii)

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