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Reading Afghanistan: Books to help you understand the quagmire

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Stephen Harper made headlines earlier this week with his admission in a CNN interview that "We're not going to ever defeat the insurgency." The Prime Minister added, "My reading of Afghanistan in history is that it's probably had an insurgency forever of some kind."

These comments ruffled some stay-the-course feathers on both sides of the border, and will hopefully lead to a renewed questioning of Canada's participation in this war throughout society. Graham Clark, one of the comedian-commentators on Vancouver's brand new CityNews List wondered, "What, did he just look up Afghanistan on wikipedia the night before?"

As someone who has been working for the past year with Afghan parliamentarian Malalai Joya on her forthcoming memoir (A Woman Among Warlords, coming later this year from Simon & Schuster), the PM's "reading" of Afghan history surprisingly echoed her warnings to the governments of the NATO countries: "Our history teaches that if you betray our people and try to occupy our country by force of arms, you will meet our resistance and you will fail."

But, of course, neither Harper nor any of the other war advocates are willing or able to admit to themselves or to the public that the NATO occupation is of the same ilk as earlier doomed imperial efforts by the Soviets or the British. So the Afghan "surge" goes ahead, Canada is committed with troops until the end of 2011 -- the death toll keeps mounting -- and now the Obama administration is pursuing the dangerous course of expanding the war into Pakistan.

To help make sense of the Afghan quagmire, here's a short reading list for getting up to speed on the past three decades of the history of war-ravaged Afghanistan. Maybe the Prime Minister will even be inspired to continue his research.

Harper, for one, could start with rabble.ca contributor James Laxer's Mission of Folly: Canada and Afghanistan; for the rest of you, it's a valuable recapitulation of how successive Liberal and Conservative governments have taken Canada down the road to Kandahar, leaving over 100 soldiers dead.

Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence delivers an authoritative study of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the rise of fundamentalism, warlordism and the betrayal of the rhetoric of democracy and women's rights. The authors of this book, Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls, co-direct the Afghan Women's Mission which supports the courageous work of the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women (RAWA), an organization still forced to carry out its humanitarian work clandestinely.

To get an idea of the thinking of an influential Obama advisor and liberal imperialist 'nation-building' advocate, it's worth reading Ahmed Rashid's well documented and ominously titled Descent into Chaos. Rashid's tome also sheds light on (the almost wholly unreported) major developments in recent years in the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan. There's a lot of solid information here, but that doesn't mean one can endorse Rashid's conclusions. The author's history of supporting Soviet occupation is worth noting when assessing his prescriptions for more troops today.

For an understanding of the complexities of the Pakistani state, Tariq Ali's The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power is invaluable. If, as a recent Newsweek cover story suggested, Afghanistan risks becoming 'Obama's Vietnam,' then Pakistan could well be his Cambodia, and the consequences of this broadening war could prove disastrous for the whole region. It's too bad that Rashid, and not Ali, has Obama's ear on these matters.

So much of the public discourse around the war in Afghanistan, even amongst some of its critics, is covered in the muck of thinly disguised 'white man's burden,' (or white woman's burden, as the imperial trope goes these days). Richard Seymour, a young British writer, rips the humanitarian veil off of this apologia for imperialism, and traces its long history -- everybody from the infamous, inebriated turncoat Christopher Hitchens, to born-again Canadian Michael Ignatieff, to John Stuart Mill (whose 'defense of liberty' proved less than vigorous when it came to colonial subjects) gets taken to task for their warmongering in Seymour's tour de force debut, The Liberal Defense of Murder.

As you work through this reading list, you can keep up on current events by following Nima Maleki's writing here on rabble and by regularly checking the StopWar.ca blog, probably the best aggregator of English language media coverage of the war in Afghanistan, maintained by Vancouver-based researcher Dave Markland.


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