I saw the first tourists arriving in Afghanistan this summer. I saw their incredulity at the graveyard of crumpled aeroplanes at Kabul airport and at the Hazara suburb of the city that looks like Berlin in 1945. The question everyone asked was: how did this happen? How did a country famous for its hospitality and poetry sleepwalk back into the Middle Ages? In future the tourists will be carrying this book. As an account of how the country got into its present state, and of the making of the grotesque regime of the Taleban, it could not possibly be bettered. Lamb saw much of the tragedy at first hand and has known well or interviewed the main protagonists, from the current head of state, Hamid Kharzai (with whom she travelled to the front line during the jihad), to Benazir Bhutto (who invited her to her wedding).
She describes how the US subcontracted the war against the Russians to Pakistan, which meant its sinister secret service, the ISI. Benazir Bhutto admitted to Lamb that she did not know what they were up to when she was prime minister. Many in the ISI were motivated not just by hatred of communism – the author records that the ex-head of the ISI has a commemorative piece of the Berlin wall in his sitting-room – but also by Islamic fundamentalism. The Americans may have imagined they could use one but not the other. The ISI dished out billions of dollars of weaponry throughout the 1980s to create seven competing mujahedin factions. The ISI also had a rational realpolitik reason: they wanted to see a Pashtun regime in power in Afghanistan. If power was held by the more civilised Persian-speakers of the north, the Pashtun south would start agitating again for their own state of Pashtunistan.