Of all the histories I have read on Afghanistan, and I have read more than a few, Tamim Ansary’s is absolutely the best. Whether your knowledge is a clean slate and you are looking for one book that will explain this complex nation, or you are fairly conversant in the country, but want a brief refresher, Mr. Ansary will lay out everything you need to know in his latest offering. Games without Rules begins with the rise of the Durrani line and brings the reader up through the present, with reporting through May of 2012.
Tamim Ansary does a number of things in his book that make it especially accessible for readers, but chief among them is linking events in Afghanistan to events with which his readers might be more familiar, such as the fact that the opening of his work, the dawning of the Durrani Empire, with its founder Ahmad Shah Baba, known as Afghanistan’s Founding Father, happened in 1747, roughly the same time as the founding of the United States of America. Over the course of reading the book the reader will also learn a great deal about the histories of India, Pakistan, and the neighboring central Asian republics, as the destinies of these nations and that of Afghanistan are all inter-linked. Another fact about Mr. Ansary’s writing that becomes quickly apparent is that this is not the writing of a dry, boring scholar of a historian. While never stooping to comedy or disdain, he manages to always keep a storyteller’s mien, full of adventure and humor and at times even anger and despair.
In addition to being written in an easily accessible style, this history is very well organized, carrying the reader seamlessly from one era into the next, clearly illustrating how each event, and not always those occurring solely within Afghanistan’s borders, caused the next to proceed. Perhaps most valuable is Mr. Ansary’s explanation of Afghanistan’s placement upon the world stage-the role that it has played over the last two hundred years, so often caught up geographically in the maelstrom between world powers, for instance, between Russia and British India.
As he takes his reader along on a journey through the various powers, foreign and domestic, who have vied for power over her people, Tamim Ansary, in a marvelously conversant manner, gives a cultural education that is unparalleled. From the cities to the furthest reaches of the valleys, the governance and social customs of the country are explained, and he uses this information to break down for the reader exactly why he feels that attempts by various foreign powers over the centuries to govern the Afghani people have not succeeded. His analysis is insightful and well-laid-out, and for those not well-versed in the subject, this book will prove especially useful in helping you to understand exactly why the political and social situation there is so complex.
My one very slight reservation for my conservative readership is that Mr. Ansary is very clearly a liberal, and that does bleed through, especially with regards to our current president. He is quite a fan of the president’s policies with regards to Afghanistan, something with which most conservatives do not agree. To give credit where credit is due, he also admits that Clinton made errors while in office. However, for the most part he does strive for partiality and is generally successful. No matter how conservative your leanings, you would be doing yourself a disservice not to read this book-Mr. Ansary’s political views only come into play in the very last section and are toned down enough that even this conservative reviewer did not find them obtrusive enough to overwhelm all the excellent material contained within the rest of the book. And I personally found his views even here to be insightful and interesting, even if I might not agree with them.
In four hundred pages of reading a person’s time will be well vested here. I give Tamim Ansary’s newest history my highest endorsement, not only for the knowledge it imparts, but for its readability. If you read one book on the modern history of Afghanistan, her culture, her politics, and her role in our global peace (or otherwise), this should be the one you reach for.
(Perseus Books Group kindly gave me a pre-publication galley of this book, but it will be available to the general public on 27 November 2012.)