Readers often ask me to suggest books that can help them understand the swirl of events in the Mideast and South Asia.
There’s a surfeit of material out there, but here are several books I’ve found helpful in getting beneath the surface of the news.
Anyone trying to decide whether a nuclear deal with Iran is in U.S. interests should read David Crist’s deeply researched and fluidly written account of the shadowy struggle between Washington and Tehran: “The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran.”
What makes Crist’s book so fascinating are the details he’s compiled of the U.S.-Iran cold war (sometimes hot war) that the two sides have waged since the 1980s. Iran’s revolutionary guards and their proxies have engaged U.S. forces and allies from Lebanon to the Persian Gulf, Gaza, and Syria — and especially in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even more intriguing are Crist’s details of failed political overtures by both sides.
U.S. administrations — including President Obama’s — have tentatively offered olive branches to Tehran, but, so far, none has succeeded. The occasional outreach from Tehran has either been rebuffed by Washington or retracted before any deal was closed. Most tantalizing is what might have happened in 2003, when a nervous Tehran signaled it might be open to a grand bargain after the Iraq war. That feeler was withdrawn after President George W. Bush labeled Iran a member of “the axis of evil.”
The book ends before the current Iranian charm offensive by President Hassan Rouhani, and Crist is pessimistic about the prospects for rapprochement. But if read closely, his history offers clues as to how a nuclear deal might yet be sealed.
Next is “I Am Malala,” the fascinating memoir of the now-famous 16-year-old Pakistani girl shot in the head by the Taliban because she crusaded for girls’ education, and openly criticized their distortion of Islam. Hers is a gripping story of growing up in the remote and beautiful Swat valley, where Pashtun culture undervalues girls, but where her progressive father bucked tradition, started his own school, and promoted her education.
What makes this book so important is not just the universal value of Malala’s cause — which should have won her the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s the relevance of her story to one of the most vexing security questions in today’s crazy world: how to prevent violent Islamists from disrupting, or taking control of, a nuclear-armed Pakistan.
This courageous girl can’t return home from England (where she is still recuperating) because the Taliban still wants to kill her. Far from being praised as a heroine in her homeland, she faces prejudice from those who should know better: Two Pakistani federations of tens of thousands of private schools have banned her book as anti-Islamic and pro-Western.
Malala speaks for those brave Pakistanis who oppose fanaticism and for all the girls who will suffer if the militants win.
If you want a clearer idea of why the Pakistani elite is so prone to anti-American conspiracy theories, read Husain Haqqani’s “Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding.” A former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Haqqani is an expert on the relationship of Pakistan’s army and intelligence agency to religious militants, whom the ISI has cultivated so it can use them against India.
This well-written, insider account details the long, sick history of U.S.-Pakistani relations, in which we’ve paid their military to help us fight terrorism, even as they provided safe haven for the Afghan Taliban and Osama bin Laden, while training Pakistani terrorists to attack India. Neither “ally” comes off well.
Haqqani’s critique of this distorted relationship has made him persona non grata at home, where many Pakistanis prefer conspiracy theories to self-reflection. His book is a plea for a more honest U.S.-Pakistani interaction that might save his homeland from becoming a failed state.
Finally, as we head toward 2014 and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, I can’t recommend highly enough another beautifully written memoir, this one by a young Afghan businessman, Qais Akbar Omar, titled “A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story.” This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the lives of middle-class Afghans, what they suffered under the Soviets and the Taliban, and what they fear when the Americans exit.
Don’t wait for Christmas. These books deserve to be read now.