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Some Things I Read

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I read 43 books this year. 44, if you count the book I’m about to finish. For some reason, 2012 doesn’t feel like it was a particularly great year in terms of the books and longform articles that were published.

Jeevan Deol and Zaheer Kazmi edited a fantastic collection of essays entitled Contextualising Jihadi Thought. Anyone interested in that kind of thing should read it.

For a fun read about the Taliban pre-2001, check out Mohammad Kabir Mohabbat and L.R. McInnis’ Delivering Osama. As you can tell from the title, it covers some of the Taliban’s internal policy over bin Laden before the September 11 attacks. This is something I have written about together with Felix Kuehn, but this manuscript wasn’t published when we wrote our book. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys downloading old archive documents relating to Afghanistan till the wee hours of the morning, give this book a read.

I loved this profile of a complex character from Pakistan’s Sindh by Saba Imtiaz. Go read it now if you haven’t done so already.

Finally, I wrote about this one two years ago, but I have to mention it again since I’ve been revisiting its arguments for a new research project I’m working on: Noah Feldman’s Fall and Rise of the Islamic State. It remains one of the most lucidly-written books I’ve read on the aspirational statebuilding of Islamists and what happens when they start thinking about constitutional law.

Drop me your book recommendations in the comments below and I’ll see if I can get through 52 books in 2013…

UPDATE: I’ve now finished book #44 and think I’ll get to #45 before the year is over…

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

December 29th, 2012 at 1:08 am

Posted in Books,General

TalQaeda: the Timeline

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Long-standing readers of this blog will know that I have been working (together with my colleague, Felix Kuehn) to get to grips with the nature of the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda (and the various affiliates of both). To that end, we’ve written a book (‘An Enemy We Created‘) and a summary paper dealing with the post-2001 aspects for the Center on International Cooperation (who funded much of the research).

We reread most of the primary and secondary-source literature on the topic, and while going through compiled long lists of dates, names and places. The key dates from those lists made their way into this timeline. There are fewer entries post-2001 at the moment on the timeline, but I’ll get round to updating that soon hopefully. Please leave any feedback on the timeline in the comments below this post, or send me an email.

You can view the timeline at: www.anenemywecreated.com/timeline/

This timeline was created in Tinderbox, the software that I used for most of my research and database work. I have to thank Mark Bernstein and particularly Mark Anderson for their help with some of the technical issues in coding the site. I’d strongly recommend Tinderbox to researchers, journalists and other ‘information workers’. I’d be lost without it.

For those in London, I’ll be presenting on how I use Tinderbox in my day-to-day research work at a one-day event on May 28. Register here if you’d like to come along.

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

May 13th, 2011 at 11:57 pm

Helmand Refugee Appeal Update – Distribution Day

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Photo: © Philip Poupin

Thanks to the many kind donations of over a hundred readers of this blog, twitter followers and others, we completed the distribution of materials to those living in two camps in Kabul on January 18th and 20th. By the time we stopped taking donations, we’d raised $9118 from 124 individuals (see at the bottom of the post for a full list).

It’s easiest if I simply give the floor to Orzala, who organised the distribution with help from her brother, Sohrab:

“The story begins with me sitting at the library busy with my studies, while part of me is still thinking about home, people, news and everything else that is happening back at home. Alex sends me a report with some pictures published in a newspaper about the life of internally displaced people coming from southern Afghanistan and living in Kabul …

Staying in the UK for the last 4-5 months, Helmand has become a place I hear the most about, from politicians. I hear most often, success stories and how wonderfully everything works out there. From journalists I hear about war and their pictures of the UK forces in the field, yet the least can be found about the voices of people…. This story struck me in two ways: 1) I found a voice which I could identify with, given my own life experiences as a refugee running away from violence and war, so I couldn’t be passive about them. 2) I thought, I am in danger of being ‘spoiled’, living a comfortable life, warm heated, good shoes, good living conditions and everything I want available for me here, while I just read news about others in challenge and that I have become a typical ‘consumer’ of the news and information.

So I got back to Alex and told him, I am ready to help, if he is to support too, because of all deadlines and too many other priorities on my list. So the idea develops, I start contacting with various friends and organizations dealing with refugees etc. to get a picture about their numbers and also on what organizations are involved for assistance, as usual, the official response is bureaucratic, while a personal response recommends the best option as simply going there and doing it on our own.

I visited Kabul for a short time (even shorter because I was delayed in London for three days on account of the snow!) and most of you will have read my account of a visit to the first camp at Char Rahi Qanbar.

Just a day before leaving Kabul, I learnt that there is another camp, with refugees from (mainly) Helmand and also other southern provinces, around 300 families living in a far more desperate situation, as they get much less attention than the bigger camp in Charai Qanbar. Perhaps so far no report or anything is being published about this other part. I found the situation in some ways harder for them. With conversations I’ve had with around 10-15 men from village, some young, middle aged and some elderly, they all shared their sufferings and why/how they made it to Kabul…

I had to explain who I was and what brought me to see them. I’ve told them about the newspaper and the fact that some of the people who came visited them, read about their situation on the newspapers, decided to provide an urgent assistance, which is only for one time and is meant to at least keep them warm for part of winter if not for whole winter. They were very friendly and said thanks to anyone who is ready to support them in this hard time. One of them told me, we are not used to beg, if people come and help us, we’re grateful, otherwise, we just sit here. Another shared what I exactly also hear in camp one. ‘They are not giving us jobs here [he meant job as in daily labor], they say we look like Taliban’ he smiles. ‘It is not my fault to have the same clothes as the Taliban’!

The wakeel [elder] of the camp provided us with a list, he says there were 250 families before, now another 50 have joined very recently. They are all coming from areas where the military operations are going on. We write up the names of the additional 50 families, the names are given by 5 men who represent the families.

Choosing what to distribute:

The original appeal asked for charcoal, because some of the residents of the first camp mentioned this, and I too was thinking this is the best option working to keep tents warm. However, we faced some challenges: the challenge was the much larger number of refugees in camp one: 870 families in camp one and 300 in camp two. This meant our only charcoal option could not work for mainly financial reasons. We’d have needed at least $2000 to provide them with 50 kgs. On the other hand, we also realised that camp one is already receiving this package of winter assistance from a German NGO which also includes wood as part of that support. Residents and elders of camp two said they had not received this help so far. On the day I visited them, I saw bags of wheat being off-loaded in the camp; we could not 100% verify who brought it (some said it was the Afghan Ministry of refugees, others said it was Aschiana), but I observed they did have wheat for all families.

Taking this situation into account, we decided to provide the families of camp one with 5 kgs of cooking oil, which is one of the top two priorities for food right after wheat, and provide the residents of camp two with 25 kg of charcoal each. The goal for us was to contribute to every family at both camps. The whole decision on what to distribute is result of discussions among the camp residents, men and women whom I visited and spoke with.

Organizing the distribution:

My absence from Kabul made it bit challenging to organize the distribution, but nevertheless, thanks to my brother (the co-founder of Kabul Dreams, Afghanistan’s first indie rock band) who agreed to take the responsibility, it all went smoothly.

Our photographer friend, Philip Poupin, had kindly agreed to be present there as witness and also take photographs of the whole process so that it is documented. Also, Abaceen Nasimi, Alex’s friend, was there to observe the distribution.

Although initially I was thinking to put together a team of volunteers who could help with the distribution (as I had done in previous distributions of this sort), in the process, we found that it would be easier to involve the people themselves. One day before the distribution, Siddique visited both camps, verified the lists for final and identified all representatives for distribution. In camp one they have been pretty well-organized in this way: for the entire camp there were two wakeels. Each wakeel, then, has 10-15 representatives who each represents 5-10 families. The fact that in both camps refugees themselves volunteered to help with distribution confirmed my old message once again: people in difficult situations should not be seen as subjects, or helpless victims; if you give them hope and an opportunity to act, they can be active agents for a better life. This is far too small an example, but it can perhaps lead into a big one, some day!

Similarly, in camp two, people were far more organized than camp one. There were literate men among these refugees who had prepared a much better organized list of all families in the camp. Each 5-10 families (mostly related) were represented by one slightly elderly man. These representatives all gathered and identified how many families they represented. Based on this list the charcoal sacks were distributed among the representatives who would immediately carry them to the tents. If we (I mean myself here) were to organize this distribution, it would take us weeks and we would still miss some families. In a lucky coincidence, some people from the Ministry of Finance had gathered money and bought rice, grains and cooking oil that was being distributed among the families in camp two on the same day after our charcoal distribution was done.

One challenge as it seems was the fact that among distributors no woman was involved, so there may not be pictures of women from the camp. It is simply something we are not supposed to push for, given that most of the refugees are coming from areas where women are still covered and it is a sensitive matter. And women themselves prefer not to be in pictures either.

We would like to thank you all for being so generous in supporting this very important cause. This assistance maybe be too little to be sustainable or help the refugees, but at least a message is conveyed there that not all outsiders agree with the bombings and killings of civilians; not all outsiders are passive readers of the news and looking at their situations and… so, THANK YOU ALL who contributed to this little mission to be a success. We tried our best to make sure that each can of oil and each bag of charcoal entered into each family tent, and that’s best we could do. Our hope is to see them one day back into their fields, orchards and their own little houses.”

And I would like to add my own heartfelt appreciation for all those who donated and helped out in various ways with this appeal. I must admit I was initially skeptical that we would be able to raise the money; I had assumed others were as weary with the progress of the war as I am and that such a small effort, reaching relatively few people, would find little traction. As it turns out, we raised considerably more than our original target and were thus able to contribute in a more extensive way than originally imagined. We all need hope in these difficult times; the generosity of strangers demonstrated here fulfils our need.

[Update/Edit: It occurred to me (and I had some emails) that people might not want their names displayed here, so I took the list of donors down.]

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

January 21st, 2011 at 6:21 pm

‘An Enemy We Created': the website

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You can read more about An Enemy We Created on the book’s website. It went online tonight and contains an outline of the argument along with advance praise from several analysts and scholars of the region. This is the book Felix Kuehn and I spent the past year working on.  Go take a look:


Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

January 10th, 2011 at 12:06 am

UPDATED: An Appeal

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It’s easy to talk in the abstract about war. The dead become numbers, the displaced are statistics, and slowly we begin to forget about the people who live through it all. Afghanistan is a case in point. Tens of thousands of words of commentary are written every day, but very few of these seem to accurately bring these day-to-day particulars across. Earlier this month, I read an article by Josh Partlow in the Washington Post on the situation for those who have fled the conflict in Helmand — U.N.-speak = IDPs — for an area near Kabul City. It was a detailed, movingly-described account of some of these ‘particulars’ of their lives:

“For those who have escaped Afghanistan’s worst violence, some things are hard to forget: the sight of a woman’s hair entangled in the mulberry branches, her legs strewn far away in the dirt. Or the sounds they heard as they hid in an underground hole, counting the bombs to pass the time, praying the American troops would leave. Some of those Afghans have tiptoed in the footsteps of neighbors to avoid the mines. They’ve been hit with shrapnel and tied with flex cuffs, threatened by the Taliban and frightened by the coalition, seen relatives shot and homes destroyed. And so they left Helmand province and made their way to this dirt lot on the outskirts of Kabul, where month by month the settlement expands with those who have come to wait out the war. “In a situation like this,” said Sayid Mohammad, a Helmand native who has spent the past year at the refugee camp, “how could I ever go home?”” [Read the full article here]

There’s nothing new or particularly special about this group of refugees from Helmand, but for some reason this piece said something to me. It’s easy to become passive consumers of the news coming out of Afghanistan, particularly when it’s often so frustrating to read. I first read the article in London, a place where everything is taken for granted: warmth, walking on the snow, heating in the house, electricity, water, you name it. But if you allow your imagination to drift, imagine living away from home, in a place far colder than what you’re used to, in tents and makeshift huts on account of a war taking place in the villages, one that you have seen sweep through with random but seeming deathly certainty and claim your friends and family. For another account of life in the camp, watch the documentary account made by Alberto Arce here.

So I decided together with a long-standing Afghan friend and respected NGO-practitioner — she used to run HAWCA — to try to find some way to contribute to bettering the lives of these refugees at the camp. Orzala explains more:

“We contacted the UNHCR office to find out about the numbers of refugees and how we can make sure that our possible help is going to reach the neediest. Their formal response was, it can happen through government or NGOs working with refugees. A good friend who also is part of an international organisation involved in the field advised small scale donations and funds to go through private initiatives rather than the formal ones. Additionally with my experience in the past, I believe the winter will be over if we follow the lengthy procedures. I visited the site itself a couple of days ago to talk with those living there and also to get a realistic sense of how many people were living there. A representative stated that there were 870 families living there at the moment, and we got an idea of what other organisations were working there as well (Aschiana, the World Health Organization, the Afghan Ministry of Public Health along with Welt Hunger Hilfe). It seems, however, that there is a shortfall in terms of the amount of assistance being provided, as well as the speed that this is happening.”

So in the short-term what we want to do is — at the suggestion of those from the camp, but also an idea Orzala had had beforehand — to raise some money to provide charcoal. People are accustomed to using this in the winter; and it’s neither heavy nor particularly expensive. 50 kilograms of charcoal costs about $20 and so to be able to provide around 20 kg of charcoal to everyone will cost just under $7000. I know it’s easy to just close this page and move on to something different, but I hope you’ll be able to donate something — perhaps $10 or $15 — via the paypal button below so that we can try to ensure that this group of people have at least some warmth to rely on when the snows come in Kabul.


Since the donate button doesn’t display a running total, I’ll do that myself here on the blog, and will of course keep you all updated with how things go once we have raised our target amount.

Final total raised: $9,118 from 124 people.

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

December 28th, 2010 at 6:11 pm

Real People as Agents

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I was reading in the first volume of Taruskin’s history of music — all right, procrastinating from overdue PhD chapters — and came across this useful and timely reminder:

Statements and actions in response to real or perceived conditions: these are the essential facts of human history. The discourse, so often slighted in the past, is in fact the story. It creates new social and intellectual conditions to which more statements and actions will respond, in an endless chain of agency. The historian needs to be on guard against the tendency, or the temptation, to simplify the story by neglecting this most basic fact of all. No historical event or change can be meaningfully asserted unless its agents can be specified; and agents can only be people. Attributions of agency unmediated by human action are, in effect, lies — or at the very least, evasions. They occur inadvertently in careless historiography (or historiography that has submitted unawares to a master narrative), and are invoked deliberately in propaganda (i.e., historiography that consciously colludes with a master narrative).” (Richard Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, vol 1, p.xviii)

It’s good to be reminded of this when thinking about most things, but especially when discussing ideology and influence with regard to the war in Afghanistan and the identity of the various groups fighting. People have thoughts; ideas do more than just ‘emerge’. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else, but I think writing on the nature of the Taliban, for example, could become a lot clearer if we stuck to the agency of real people rather than abstractions.

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

December 22nd, 2010 at 11:09 pm

Posted in Afghanistan,Books,General,PhD

Tagged with ,

Deedee Derksen picks her 2010 books

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This is a guest-post by Deedee Derksen, a Dutch journalist just out with a good book on Afghanistan that helps deflate many stereotypes commonly believed.  It’s only out in Dutch at the moment, but I’ll bet an English version will come out before not too long…

I love reading autobiographies and biographies.  A few I’ve read this year convey profound belief, be it in: a.    creating the best rock band in the world (Keith Richards) b.    establishing the best Islamic Emirate in the world (Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef) c.    writing the best books in the world (Somerset Maugham, Patricia Highsmith) d.    great reporting (Martha Gellhorn, Hugh Pope) e.    himself (Tony Blair) Keith Richards and Mullah Zaeef share more than their belief. They’re both icons of their time, or at least wingmen to icons. They were both part of a band that made headlines the world over. They both know a thing or two about the dangers of drugs and loose women. And they were both once wanted men – though the hordes of semi-naked girls and English bobbies after Richards probably weren’t quite as menacing as the war on terror justice unleashed on Mullah Zaeef. Both excellent autobiographies offer rare insights to lives otherwise closed off, and often misrepresented.  Anyone doing anything Afghanistan related should read Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef’s memoir (My Life With The Taliban, ed. Alex Strick van Linschoten, Felix Kuehn), which provides a unique insider’s view on the Taliban movement. Keith Richard’s book (Life, co-author: James Fox) may not be as vital to world peace as Mullah Zaeef’s, but it’s nonetheless a lot of fun to read. For all the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll stories (and there are many), what struck me most was that Richards is, above all, an ambitious, hardworking guy. Two biographies of writers that appeared in 2009, which I read in 2010 and which are unlikely to be bettered, are The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, by Selina Hastings, and Beautiful Shadow – A life of Patricia Highsmith, by Andrew Wilson.  Somerset Maugham’s short stories are among my favourites (as are those of Alice Munro, mentioned elsewhere on this blog), and this biography gives an account of the tortured, and often quite unpleasant, genius behind them. Like Maugham, Patricia Highsmith was a loner, according to the beautiful biography by Andrew Wilson.  I read her series of Tom Ripley thrillers again after reading about the author. They’re amoral, and gripping from the first page. Terrific. Martha Gellhorn’s reporting on the Second World War is some of the most interesting. As a woman, she wasn’t permitted to embed with the American troops. So while reporters like Ernie Pyle and Gellhorn’s husband Ernest Hemingway were embedded, and thus subject to official censorship, Gellhorn wrote freely about the horrors in Europe (Gellhorn: a Twentieth-Century Life by Caroline Moorehead).  Now women reporters can go embedded, many consciously choose to work independently, like Minka Nijhuis from the Netherlands in Iraq and Afghanistan. Her beautifully written and very moving book on Burma — Birma. Land van Geheimen (2009) — won a well-deserved, and prestigious, Dutch award in 2010. Many foreign correspondents find it difficult to convey to their editors images or impressions that contradict stereotypes at home. This is especially so in the Muslim world, as Hugh Pope explains in Dining with al-Qaeda.  Pope, after thirty (!) years reporting across the Middle East, has some tremendous stories to tell – and he does so with much empathy and wit.  A great read. I also liked People Like Us by the Dutch former-correspondent Joris Luyendijk, a Dutch book on Middle East reporting which was published in 2006 but translated into English in 2009. Luyendijk rightly shatters any lingering belief in objective coverage of the Middle East. I haven’t yet started Tony Blair’s eulogy to himself. Judging from the bits I’ve read here and there, I don’t have high expectations. Not only does it beg for a good edit (I assume he made the fatal mistake of writing it himself as it reads like a column in Good Housekeeping). But Blair’s take on civil liberties would make Dostum blush (read Dave Eggers’s wonderful Zeitoun, also out this year, for the sharpest antidote to Blair’s call for the suspension of Habeas Corpus). Perhaps just as offensively, Blair expresses no remorse over Iraq, and lumps all Islamists together, conflating Hamas and Hizbollah with al-Qaeda, and portraying them as an existential threat, the gravest ever faced by mankind, perhaps with the exception of Gordon Brown. And all this from one of most successful politicians of our times and the man currently entrusted to bringing peace to the Middle East. Now that’s a great piece of fiction.

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

December 22nd, 2010 at 4:27 pm

The Best Books of 2010 (UPDATED)

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It’s the end of the year again — so fast! — and I thought it’d be worth taking a moment to reflect on what I’d read over the past year. I also managed to rope in a few friends in to provide their own roundups for the sake of variety.

I allowed myself to include long-form journalism as well as books, since this year saw two really fantastic examples of that; of course there were many, many more, but the two below really stood out.

For non-fiction, I came to Noah Feldman’s Fall and Rise of the Islamic State a few years after it was published, but found it both interesting and lucidly written, as fine an example for how to explore these issues of ideology and political aspiration in Islam as I know. Students and scholars of political Islam take note.

Matt Aikins notes how a new round of Iraq memoirs are being released, and at the top of these (although it’s only half-memoir) must be Wendell Steavenson’s The Weight of a Mustard Seed. She tells Iraq’s story through the voice and life of a relatively senior figure from within Saddam’s armed forces, interspersing it with her own efforts to to research that same story. It’s beautifully written — like her previous book on Georgia — and, along with Anthony Shadid’s Night Draws Near, is always something I recommend to people on Iraq. David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers tells the story of the American military’s struggles post-2003, again powerfully written.

From Afghanistan, Elizabeth Rubin’s New York Times Magazine profile of President Karzai was simply one of the most compelling and interesting pieces of writing that I’ve read from the post-2001 period. You must read this if you haven’t already. Looking across the border, Jane Mayer wrote an absolutely devastating New Yorker piece on the drone strike campaign in Pakistan. I’m surprised it hasn’t received more attention. If you haven’t read it, stop what you’re doing; print it out and make time.

Reconciliation has been one of the most misused buzzwords of 2010. For a different perspective, look no further than Ed Moloney’s Voices from the Grave. This is an edited/commentary-rich oral history of two figures from Northern Ireland, published earlier this year now that both voices have died. It shows the inner machinations going on behind the scenes — including some amazing accounts of prison dynamics and the hunger strikes — and every pundit and politician seeking to involve themselves somehow in the debate must read this book as a historical and contextual corrective.

I didn’t get the chance to read much fiction this year on account of work, but Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story (reviewed in the New Yorker here) was definitely the most memorable. Time will tell whether it will last, but my sense is that this was something special.

There were countless numbers of books that I wanted to read but didn’t find the time. They will be priorities in 2011:

– Alice Munro’s short-story collection, Too Much Happiness

– Priya Satia’s Spies in Arabia (described to me by Matt Aikins as follows: “It’s about the cultural environment of Edwardian-era British secret agents in Arabia – their dissatisfaction with Western modernity, their search for some pre-modern, inscrutable purity in the ‘vast desert’ with its ‘timeless inhabitants’, the intuitionist methodologies they developed in response to a ‘mysterious Orient’ that scientific empiricism could not fathom, their cultivated literary mystique and ambitions, their habits of dressing in Arab garb and living so as to ‘become one with them’ – and the complex relationship this had to the military and political imperatives of empire and war.”) Who wouldn’t want to read that?

– Nir Rosen’s Aftermath (although I’ll have to read his earlier Iraq book first…)

– Two books on Kashmir: Arif Jamal’s Shadow War and Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night.

– Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, an account of the killings and deaths in central and eastern Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.

– Mary Kaldor’s The Ultimate Weapon is No Weapon

– Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, on the financial crisis and how it happened

– and (although I reckon this’ll keep me going into 2012) Richard Taruskin’s magisterial Oxford History of Western Music. It’s five volumes, but Taruskin is one of the truly great living musicologists and cultural scholars of our day. It’s been out for a while but Oxford University Press have recently issued a paperback version selling at just under £60 on Amazon. That’s a bargain if ever there was one.

Here are some selections from Matt Aikins, intrepid journalist and the talent behind Harper’s profile of General Razziq, The Master of Spin Boldak:

Every year it seems as if there are more good books being published and less time to read any of them. 2010 was no exception. There is a sort of ‘second wave’ of in-depth reporting coming out of the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts. Joshua E. S. Phillips’ chronicle of torture by US soldiers in Iraq, None of Us Were Like This Before, is among the best. It’s unflinching in every sense of the word: neither from incendiary portrayals of the depravities US military might inflicted on innocent Iraqis, nor from a nuanced and empathetic understanding of the torturers themselves, in many cases ordinary Americans who found themselves swept up, beyond morality, by forces within and without that they could hardly comprehend. Finally, two of my favorite reads from 2010 were not actually published in 2010. Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side is astonishing not only for its comprehensive indictment of the expansion of executive power under Bush, but for how well-written and engrossing it is. And Out of Afghanistan, Diego Cordovez and Selig Harrison’s out-of-print account of almost a decade of negotiations leading to the Geneva Accords, (which paved the way from Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan) should truly be a must-read for every Afghanistan expert. It’s extremely relevant right now.

And these from Anand Gopal, by far and away the best-connected and most interesting writer on the insurgency in Afghanistan (just see his paper on Kandahar if you need convincing):

In 2010 we finally saw some quality Af-Pak books hit the shelves, three of which are indispensable. Antonio Giustozzi’s Decoding the Taliban: Insights From the Field contains selections from some of the most careful and learned observers of the Afghan insurgency; if you don’t have time for the whole book, read Tom Coghlan’s take on Helmand. Giustozzi’s other release this year, Empires of Mud, is a fascinating study of warlordism in Afghanistan, a much-abused term that warranted the close attention. My Life in the Taliban by Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef provides a rare glimpse into the mind of a senior Taliban figure. In particular, the descriptions of life during the anti-Soviet insurgency in Kandahar are an important contribution to our understanding of the country’s history. Outside of the South Asia field, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks gives a compelling look at the intersection between genetics, medical research, race and class. It traces the story of a poor, cancer-ridden African American woman and her unlikely (and unknowing) contribution to medical science: a cell sample that has been used to study cancer for decades. Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom looks at Bush-era American suburbia. I don’t think it quite lived up to its hype, but it is an important and enjoyable read nonetheless. Finally, for the mathematically inclined, I recommend Oded Goldreich’s P, NP and NP-completeness: The Basis of Complexity Theory, which gives of a good overview of the P-NP problem in computer science, which made the news this year for almost getting solved.

And these from Naheed Mustafa, a friend and journalist who is hopefully soon starting work on a great project she has up her sleeve:

I always feel like I’m six months to a year behind in my reading. I end up doing so much reading for work that I can’t get around to reading the things I want. But certainly there are worse problems one can have. I do read a lot of long form journalism and some of the pieces I especially enjoyed have already been mentioned above (Elizabeth Rubin’s profile of Hamid Karzai) and Jane Mayer’s drone piece. Daniyal Moinuddin’s collection of short stories In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was compelling and on the whole I thought it was an eloquent presentation of the fading of the traditional landowning class in Pakistan’s Punjab. The other two books I finally got around to reading and am happy that I did: Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb and The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill – both Canadian writers. Neither was published in 2010 but, like I said, I’m always behind. There are several long form pieces I’d suggest as well. Two from Basharat Peer who I think is one of the most phenomenal journalists of our time and has an eloquent, literary style of writing: Kashmir’s Forever War in Granta 112: Pakistan and The Road Back from Ayodhya in The Caravan. The third is an astonishing portrait of Roger Ebert written by Chris Jones for Esquire entitled The Essential Man. Jones’ attention to detail and the tiny cues he picks up are brilliant. Roger Ebert wrote a response to Jones’ profile (on the whole positive) that you may want to read to get some sense of the process (I’m obsessed with “process”). Also, another Esquire piece called Eleven Lives by Tom Junod about the oil workers who were killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion back in April of this year. My last recommendation is actually a short excerpt from a memoir my dear and lovely friend Rahat Kurd is writing. It’s about growing up Muslim in Canada. The essay was printed in Maisonneuve magazine: Things That Make Us Muslim.

Your suggestions and recommendations are welcome in the comments below.

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

December 18th, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Open Letter: The Response (UPDATED)

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After a slow beginning, the open letter to President Obama that I co-signed has finally started to get some media coverage and blogger/commentator reaction. I’m listing here all the different places it’s shown up so far, and I’ll try to keep it as up-to-date as possible.

Note, too, that the list of those who have signed continues to grow as word about the letter spreads. We are now over 50 names.

Reprints of the Letter

Main/Official Site

War is a Crime.org

The Guardian @ Comment is Free

The Daily Telegraph

Jean Guisnel translates the letter into French

‘War in Context’ blog republishes part of the letter

The official Afghanistan Operation blog of the British Ministry of Defence reprints part of the letter and links to the Daily Telegraph reprint

The UK’s Stop the War Coalition reprints the full letter

Anthony Loewenstein reprints the full letter

E-Ariana (a news wire service) reprints the full letter

Comment and Explanation from those who signed

Gerard Russell explains why he signed over on his personal blog

Four of those who signed answer some questions posed to us by a blogger/journalist

Gilles Dorronsoro was on BBC World Service Radio (no link available)

Daniel Korski explains why he signed (on his blog at The Spectator)

Joshua Foust explains why he signed (and why he’s changed his mind on negotiations) over at registan.net

I explain on BBC World Service a bit about the context of the open letter (44:23mins in)


“No decisive victory one year into Afghan surge” – Associated Press (republished elsewhere, including at NPR.org)

“US surge in Afghanistan ‘not working'” – The Daily Telegraph (UK)

“Afghan insurgents kill six foreign soldiers” – AFP posted on Khaleej Times

“Obama “Must Talk to Afghan Taliban”” – Asharq al-Awsat (reposting AFP)

“Des experts internationaux appellent Obama à négocier avec les talibans” – AFP posted on Le Monde website (in French)

“Obama must talk to Afghan Taliban, experts say” – AFP published on Emirates 24/7

“Academics, experts appeal to Obama to back Taliban talks” – Myra MacDonald writes a piece for Reuters about the letter, quoting extensively.

“6 Nato soldiers killed” – The Morning Star Online

“Letter to Obama calls for change in Afghan strategy” – Daily Times (Pakistan)

“Pak intelligentsia urges Obama to change Afghan strategy” – AfghanistanNews.net (needless to say, we are not the ‘Pak intelligentsia’)

Allvoices runs a news piece on the letter

Pakistan Today, a newspaper, outlines the main points of the letter

The Century Foundation feature Praveen’s critique of the letter on their Afghanistan page

Dawn newspaper (Pakistan) features the letter

France 24 cover the letter on their website news wire

Blogging and Analysis

Malou Innocent mentions the letter and part-quotes it in a piece entitled “Spinning Us to Death” – The National Interest

Tim Mathews disagrees (reposted here), but finds some common ground here and there

Max Boot strongly disagrees

“Top Analysts Blame American Intransigence In Not Talking To Taliban” – Steve Hynd agrees over at NewsHoggers.com (reposted at Rethink Afghanistan

“Commentary: Vietnam syndrome?” – Arnaud de Borchgrave comments (mostly sympathetically) for UPI.com

Christian Bleuer mentions the letter, but declines to comment

Ann Marlowe sees an opportunity for satire in the open letter

Paul Pillar cites the open letter in the context of the strategic review and wonders why there hasn’t been more criticism

Tea and Politics cites the letter and equates talks in Afghanistan to ‘negotiation with the Nazis’

Robert Naiman suggests the ‘progress’ cited in the strategic review may not be all it seems, citing the open letter (@ the Huffington Post)

The ‘Obama Blog’ suggests the US president is ignoring the ‘Afghanistan-Pakistan reality’

‘The Lift’ blog on ‘legal issues in the fight against terrorism’ cites the letter in a post

Jason Ditz of antiwar.com cites the letter in a post about ‘bleak metrics’

Hugh Pope updates a post about Deedee Derksen’s new book ‘Tea with the Taliban’ and cites the letter

The Council on Foreign Relations cite the letter in an analysis brief looking at the post-Holbrooke strategy

Compatible Creatures blog cites the letter in a discussion of Holbrooke’s alleged last words

Jayshree Bajoria (Council on Foreign Relations) cites the letter in a post on her Huffington Post blog

Small Wars Journal’s forum (Small Wars Council) mentions the letter and kicks off a very frank discussion

Praveen Swami (The Daily Telegraph) disagrees with the suggestions contained the letter

Columbia University Press’ blog cites the letter

‘American Everyman’ cites the letter

Dr Mohammad Taqi (Daily Times, Pakistan) cites the letter and suggests both it and the strategic review misconceive the environment

‘Rehmat’s World’ cites and quotes part of the letter

Afghan Reactions

KabulPress.org disagrees with the letter (in Dari, and interesting as one of the few Afghan reactions so far — aside from those Afghans who have already signed the letter)

8am or Hasht-e Sobh daily newspaper also disagrees with the premise of the article (also in Dari)

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

December 14th, 2010 at 3:57 am

An Open Letter to President Obama

with 2 comments

I’m very privileged to be able to add my name to this letter — signed by some very smart people who’ve been working in and around Afghanistan for many years.

We have been engaged and working inside Afghanistan, some of us for decades, as academics, experts and members of non-governmental organizations. Today we are deeply worried about the current course of the war and the lack of credible scenarios for the future. The cost of the war is now over $120 billion per year for the United States alone. This is unsustainable in the long run. In addition, human losses are increasing. Over 680 soldiers from the international coalition – along with hundreds of Afghans – have died this year in Afghanistan, and the year is not yet over. We appeal to you to use the unparalleled resources and influence which the United States now brings to bear in Afghanistan to achieve that longed-for peace.

Read the rest up at the website www.afghanistancalltoreason.com and note that the list of signatures is growing and being updated as more people learn about the letter. Please support this initiative by forwarding the text of the letter onwards.

Written by Alex Strick van Linschoten

December 11th, 2010 at 5:06 am

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