I'm currently reading The Punishment of Virtue, by Sarah Chayes, and enjoying it immensely. Chayes covered the fall of the Taliban as an NPR correspondent in and around Kandahar. She left Kandahar in mid January, 2002, and returned a few months later, not as a journalist, but as a field director for Afghans for Civil Society. She has lived in Afghanistan episodically since then and has a unique perspective on Afghan society and politics.
Chayes has done three interviews with Terry Gross on the NPR program Fresh Air. All of them are riveting, but I really urge you to listen to the most recent, from February 2009. Chayes argued (just at the outset of the Obama administration) that the U.S. should drastically increase its military presence in Afghanistan, as a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for bringing stability to Afghanistan.
Chayes clearly loves living in Afghanistan, and her words resonate with my own experiences of living in India. Rather than residing in the "journalist colony" in Kandahar, she lived just outside of town with an Afghan family, enabling her to largely escape the kind of western bubble I found so stifling during my first trip to Hyderabad. She also shares my dismay with the state of U.S. and western society. As she was about to leave Quetta in January 2002, she was asked by Hamid Karzai's uncle, Aziz Khan, to return to help rebuild Afghanistan. She relates her feelings at this request:
...this was, unwittingly, what I was waiting for. Well before 9/11, a part of me had been casting about for such a sense of potential as I was feeling now. I could no longer bear to watch our Atlantic democracies go through the motions, in a business of democracy, while half our people didn't even vote. That couldn't be right. Through my reporting, I had gained the conviction that somewhere out there, from one of these post-conflict disaster areas, a phoenix was going to rise. Someone from some other place - not America or Western Europe - was going to winch us up out of this rut.I have one stylistic complaint about the book: the references are relegated to the back of the book, rather than footnoted the bottom of the referencing page. Chayes' footnotes are very much worth reading, and I wish they more easily accessible.
The evolution in U.S. military thinking that leads Chayes to call for in increase in troop levels in Afghanistan is skillfully chronicled in The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army, by Greg Jaffe and David Cloud. This is an interwoven account of the careers, through early 2009, of John Abizaid, George Casey Jr., Peter Chiarelli and David Petraeus, four key officers in the U.S. response to 9/11. For someone like me who has never served in the U.S. military, this book provides a terrific description of how the system operates, and especially how West Point culture and the "up or out" career path affect military policy, for both good and bad. We're very fortunate to have a system that produces leaders like these, especially Petraeus and Abizaid. It's tragic that the civilian leadership of the Bush era fell so far short of their quality.
Update: I removed the link to Chayes' web site, www.sarahchayes.net, because it seems to contain malware. Thank you, paz, for pointing this out.
Updated Update: The URL now belongs to someone else entirely. But here's a link to the 2010 version of www.sarahchayes.net, courtesy of the Internet Wayback Machine,