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The Best Books and Films to Understand the Decades-long Conflict in Afghanistan

Libros y películas para entender el conflicto de Afganistán

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In recent weeks, following the withdrawal of the U.S. Army and the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, many have sought to soak up through books and films what is happening in the Middle Eastern country and why it has reached this situation after 20 years of international troop presence in the country.

However, to understand these books and films it is necessary to contextualize the conflict in Afghanistan, since this country was at war long before American troops and their international allies entered its territory in December 2001 (after the 9/11 attacks) with the aim of dismantling the Al Qaeda terrorist network and removing the Taliban from power to make this country a safe place.

To understand what has happened and is happening there, one has to go back to the 1980s, when the former Soviet Union invaded the country militarily, which triggered a 14-year war. After its end, in 1992, a period of political instability began in the country in which a group of mujahideen guerrillas — armed jihad (holy war) fighters — took control and laid the foundations for what would later become the Taliban.

A good reflection of part of this history is shown in the film The Beast of War (1988) directed by Kevin Reynolds. Set in 1981, it narrates the terrible attack that a Soviet tank unit carried out against a Pashtun village harboring a group of mujahideen fighters, which subsequently pushes the latter to go after one of the vehicles in search of revenge.

The third part of the Rambo saga (Peter MacDonald) (1988) does not overlook the Afghan-Soviet conflict either, indeed, the final scene of the film has a dedication to the Taliban who helped Sylvester Stallone’s character rescue Colonel Trautman from the hand of the Soviets: “The film is dedicated to the brave Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan”.

From the other side of the trench, Russian filmmaker Ali Khamraev released in 1983 the film Hot summer in Kabul, in which a Russian doctor travels to Afghanistan during the war and sees firsthand the carnage caused by the Islamist mujahideen towards the Russian socialist government.

Literature is not far behind, either. The 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, Svetlana Alexievich published in 1989 Boys in Zinc a controversial story about Soviet troops who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s, whose dead returned home in zinc coffins while their country did not acknowledge the existence of the conflict.

The intrusion of American troops into Afghanistan after the attack on the twin towers on September 11, 2001, and their stay in the country for 20 years has also been reflected in literature and film.

Inspired by real events, Osama (Siddiq Barmak, 2003), tells the true story of a young girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to work, as the men in her family had died, her mother, grandmother and herself could not even leave the house, they were doomed to starve to death.

The 2004 Golden Globe-winning film was the first to be filmed entirely in Afghanistan since the first rise to power and subsequent fall of the Taliban.

A similar story is told in the animated film The Breadwinner (Nora Twomey, 2017, Oscar nominee for Best Animated Film) based on the novel by Deborah Ellis, and in whose production Angelina Jolie participated. It tells the story of Parvana, a young girl who must care for her family when her father is wrongfully imprisoned.

Yasmina Khadra’s famous novel Les hirondelles de Kaboul (“The Swallows of Kabul”) was turned into an animated film directed by Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec, where a loving couple in the summer of 1998 dream of a better future, despite violence and hardship.

The novels The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, And the Mountains Echoed, by the Afghan American doctor Khaled Hosseini, form a unique triptych to understand the Afghan conflict, the Taliban radicalism and the null rights that women have under this regime.

Although she is not Afghan, Pakistani Malala Yousafzai — Nobel Peace Prize 2014 — knows first-hand what it is like to confront the Taliban (she was shot in the head for defending her right to go to school). After leaving the country, the young woman wrote I am Malala, an autobiography that she dedicates to all girls.

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