After 20 years of military occupation and combat, the United States is planning to pull out of Afghanistan. This decision grows more controversial by the day. It might feel like everyone has a hot take on it right now. Looking at the two decades of U.S. involvement and the decades of diplomatic disarray, there is so much to take in. Cable news, documentaries, and teachers can help you learn more about this. Sometimes, however, it’s best to turn off all your screens and open a book (or turn on your e-reader or hit “play” on your audiobook).
To help, we’ve compiled a list of books that provide a range of context and first-person insights into what was (and is) actually going on in Afghanistan. After all, Afghanistan is a country with a heritage that predates the U.S., so learning about the country outside of the “War on Terror” is important. Whether you’re for or against the Afghanistan War — or you’re still developing your thoughts — these books can help guide you to a more thoughtful, well-rounded opinion.
1. ‘Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden — From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001’ by Steve Coll
You may be wondering, “how did the U.S. end up having enemies in Afghanistan in the first place?” Ghost Wars by Steve Coll answers that and so much more. This Pulitzer-winning text outlines the U.S.’s relationship with Afghanistan, including the CIA’s lesser-discussed work in the 1970s.
Covering nearly everything prior to September 11, 2001, this work of journalism has become required reading for those looking to understand the conflict in Afghanistan. This subject wasn’t being taught in schools while it was happening, and is hardly a focal point of American History today, so there’s a lot to take in here. But it’s a great place to start to understand the conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East at-large.
2. ‘Taliban: Islam, Oil and the Great New Game in Central Asia’ by Rashid Ahmed
Rashid Ahmed’s Taliban: Islam, Oil and the Great New Game in Central Asia covers the group that’s dominating a lot of the discussion surrounding Afghanistan. The Taliban’s beliefs center around a strict interpretation of Sharia Law, which is part of the Islamic tradition. (Don’t worry, the book will dive deeper into that topic if you’re unsure of what that means.)
The group was not a political force until the mid-1990s, but Ahmed covers more than that. Connecting the Taliban to the oil and gas industries, this book shines a light on how the Taliban affects the world beyond Afghanistan.
3. ‘A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice’ by Malalai Joya
When the Taliban are in power, a chief concern remains how the women in Afghanistan will be affected by their reign. Under Taliban rule, women can not leave the home unaccompanied by men and cannot choose whether or not they want to wear burqas, garments that cover most of their bodies at all times.
Moreover, during the Taliban’s past rule women and girls were not allowed to attend school and receive an education. A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice by Malalai Joya tells the personal account of one woman who dared to learn despite the oppressive regime she was living under.
4. ‘Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10’ by Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson
Lone Survivor is one of the first primary sources from the war in Afghanistan to break into the cultural consciousnesses. The book details the training process one goes through to become a Navy SEAL. It was a team of SEALs that eventually captured Osama bin Laden, so there’s a lot of insight into the American military contained within this work’s pages.
The book goes on to tell of a mission where Marcus Luttrell’s entire team was slain in battle — except for him. With unfiltered honesty, Luttrell’s story is one that will remind you to never give up.
5. ‘My Life with the Taliban’ by Abdul Salam Zaeef
We wanted to include another book about the Taliban because reading about multiple perspectives can help one develop a more thorough understanding of the topic at large. Abdul Salam Zaeef was a founding member of the Taliban, and My Life With the Taliban is a memoir about the group’s formation and development.
Like Ghost Wars, Zaeef starts in the late 1970s, but gives a different perspective on the Taliban’s rise to power through the 1990s. Zaeef was eventually captured and turned over to U.S. forces, who, in turn, detained Zaeef at Guantanamo Bay. Guantanamo does not always get brought up in the conversation surrounding conflicts that involve the U.S., but we’re glad Zaeef brings that into the fold.
6. ‘Overcoming: Alone Against the World’ by Hamid Zaher
There are a lot of people talking about Afghanistan right now. Few of these voices are from queer people who know firsthand what it’s like to grow up there. In Overcoming: Alone Against the World, Hamid Zaher shares a queer perspective on life in Afganistan.
Zaher was essentially exiled from Afghanistan and experienced Islamophobia in addition to discrimination for being queer. You don’t need to like memoirs or books off the beaten path to be informed by this one.
7. ‘Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces Fighting the Forever War’ by Jessica Donati
In 2015, the Afghanistan War became the longest-running foreign conflict in American history. While its end seems unclear, Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces of the Forever War by Jessica Donati grapples with just how long the war in Afghanistan has been and spotlights the stories of the people still fighting it.
Former General David Patraeus, who spent a lot of time overseeing the war in Afghanistan, called the book “powerful, important, and searing.” There hasn’t been enough time for a book to be released that covers today’s most current events, but this one focuses on the Obama and Trump eras, which significantly impacted what’s happening now.