Every now and then a book comes along that really helps me get a handle on current events. A foreign policy junkie like myself gets a fix constantly from the reams of info available online. But there is usually something missing. A few paragraphs and a carefully chosen photo can fill me on some event, sometimes only hours after it happens on the other side of the world. But those paragraphs usually aren’t able to capture that vital element in comprehension. I am talking about context.
That’s when Print throws open the saloon doors and swaggers back into the room. The Internet is wonderful and all, but good luck trying to parse out what’s happening in somewhere like Nigeria from a few news articles and a Wikipedia page.
Getting context and background on the shadowy enemies of Obama’s drone campaigns had proven very difficult until I found this book, The Thistle and the Drone, by Akbar Ahmed. This remarkable work takes a historical and anthropological look at the tribal groups most likely to have their sleep interrupted by a hellfire missile. It’s impressive for a number of reasons. Ahmed’s encyclopedic knowledge on the topic was acquired by his own experience as a government administrator in Pakistan’s most notorious areas. There, in the pre-9/11 world, the author learned the histories and organizations of groups like the Pashtun and Baluch. His own scholarly research further completes an expansive understanding of tribal societies and elements common to all sorts of cultures from the Scots that gave the English so much trouble so long ago, to the Chechens and Avars that resisted Russian imperial aims. Books like this only come along so often. Ahmed provides the background and nuance to center-periphery conflicts such as those raging in Waziristan and northen Nigeria. This book should be required reading, as inconvenient as its contents may be.
For more background on Pakistan and Afghanistan and the long chain of events that led to our never-ending war against people wearing sandals, I highly recommend Ghost wars : the secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll.
Any other news junkies out there that happen upon singular works that go beyond the headlines, please sound off. I am always looking for an edge, and I am sure the library has it.