In addition to The Kite Runner (which I blogged about last summer), I also read some other interesting books for this talk. I had earlier read The Storyteller's Daughter and The Bookseller of Kabul; this weekend I plowed through Syed Akbar Hyder's Come Back to Afghanistan and Nelofer Pezira's A Bed of Red Flowers.
I really enjoyed both of the latter books, especially Come Back to Afghanistan, which Hyder wrote after his sophomore year in community college, in Concord, CA (he has since transferred to Yale). Hyder's family is closely connected to the Hamid Karzai government and has played a part in the reconstruction of the country following the fall of the Taliban. Though Hyder was born in India (where his family had fled) in 1985, and had never been to Afghanistan before the summer of 2002, he benefits from fluency in Pashto and Farsi. And there's little time wasted getting to know the country; his family's connections give him a sense of history (myriad connections to the Mujahideen's resistance to the Soviets), as well as direct access to the key events associated with the difficult reconstruction of Afghanistan. Hyder has a lot of interesting things to say about why it's been so difficult for the new government to establish centralized authority, the serious funding problems that beset the country, and the failures of the U.S. military.
One of the issues that comes up is of course the prisoner abuse scandal, which affects Hyder in a very personal way when he meets a civilian CIA contractor named Dave Pessaro. Pessaro investigates an acquaintance of Hyder's named Abdul Wali in the Kunar province, who then dies during "questioning." (You can read the Washington Post's coverage of the indictment of Pessaro here.) Here are two thoughtful paragraphs from Hyder on why he actually isn't as concerned about the prisoner abuse scandal(s) as are many liberals in the U.S.:
But the prisoner abuse scandal is primarily an American obsession. In the days following Dave's arrest, not a single person sits down to discuss the situation with my father--unless you count Yossef, who, upon hearing the news, comes upstairs and says, "Hey, they announced the Abdul Wali thing." (It's not that nobody cares; it's just a hardening that accompanies the fact that thousands of Afghans died in prisons during teh Communist and Soviet eras.) I wind up working on a piece for the New York Times Magazine about my experience in the interrogation room, and I have mixed feelings about the assignment. Of all the stories I could pick to tell about Afghanistan right now, I'm not sure if this one would even make the top ten.
As horrible as Abdul Wali's story is -- and as deeply as it's affected me-- a single prisoner's death is hardly the worst of what's going on here this summer. Presidential elections, for instance, are scheduled for the fall, but the registration effort is faltering. The UN's elections workers have already pulled out of the province once and have threatened to do so again if affected by even a single act of violence. In Kunar, where landmines are not hard to come by, the dictate gives a single individual the power to disrupt the upcoming vote. Elsewhere in the country three governors have been forced to flee their posts in recent months. My father now sleeps with a Kalashnikov beside his bed so that he can shoot from the window if the compound comes under attack.
I'm not sure what Hyder might say in response to the most recent batch of torture/abuse pictures that have come out, though I imagine the logic here would hold: a lot worse has happened, and even continues to happen (witness the dozens of Iraqi civilians killed by insurgents in Iraq every week). Still, the violence exemplified in the new batch of photos is jarring (and I'm not just referring to the Salon photos; other photos are available on the internet that are even more disturbing).
But back to Hyder -- not half bad for something written by an undergraduate! (Though he did have considerable help from Susan Barton, whose co-authored.)