Foreign correspondent and author of The Lion's Grave John Lee Anderson spent time in Afghanistan in the late 1980s when the mujaheddin were fighting the communist-backed government in Kabul. He returned to Afghanistan two weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11 and stayed for several months. The result is a first-hand account of the conflict between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, a story about bandits, assassinations, conspiracies, treachery and political machinations which all go to make it a highly informative and gripping read.
Anderson is a top-class veteran foreign correspondent with a cool, detached yet engaging literary style. But what makes The Lions Grave genuinely enlightening, what makes it a valuable book, are the interviews and conversations Anderson conducts and records along the way. Anderson's interviews with Taliban and Northern Alliance fighters, students, intellectuals, government officials, ordinary villagers, are also miniature life histories. They are stories about the how and why a very diverse set of individuals came to be where they are today. It is largely by means of these stories that Anderson relates the now fully humanised recent history and politics of Afghanistan.
The one person Anderson doesn't talk to, the most important figure in the book, is Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir. During the 1980s Massoud led a band of mujaheddin in fighting off seven major offensives by Soviet forces before defeating the regime the Soviets had left in power, becoming Defence minister and eventually vice-president of the new Islamic State of Afghanistan. After the coming of the Taliban Massoud led the coalition of tribal-based guerrilla forces called the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, or as they are more familiarly known, the Northern Alliance.
The inclusion of e-mail exchanges between Anderson and his New Yorker editor lets the reader in on the practical problems that go with the job of war correspondent but they also function as a more immediate and sometimes dramatic counterpoint to the main narrative. In the final section of the book Anderson gives a detailed description of the circumstances of Massoud's death--Massoud was killed by suicide bombers posing as journalists two days before the planes hit the World Trade Centre--and investigates the events and allegations leading up to and surrounding the assassination itself. Also included are some reflections of life in Afghanistan after the melting away of the Taliban and a discussion of the future prospects for the country. Overall this is an undemanding yet superb and highly educative set of despatches. --Larry Brown