South Sudan – a case study in International Intervention

Zach Vertin: A rope from the Sky: the Making and Unmaking of the World’s newest state, 2019 Peter Martell: First Raise a Flag, 2018 The Government of South Sudan: South Sudan Development Plan, 2011-2013 “Realising freedom, equality, justice, peace and prosperity for all”, 2011     South Sudan is a real place which includes grasslands […]

How to Serve Coffee

Article first published in the London Review of Books on 16 February 2017. Aleppo Observed: Ottoman Syria through the Eyes of Two Scottish Doctors, Alexander and Patrick Russell by Maurits H. van den Boogert Arcadian Library, 254 pp, £120.00, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 958856 5 The fighting that began in Aleppo on 19 July 2012 lasted four years, five months and three […]

The Rwandan Genocide

It is twenty years now since the Rwandan genocide, and I have been reading two books about it – one by the BBC correspondent Fergal Keane, and one by the American writer, Philip Gourevitch. In the spring of 1994, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans with machetes and clubs murdered a million people, including seventy per […]


Article first published in the New York Review of Books on 6 November 2014. No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes by Anand Gopal Metropolitan, 304 pp., $27.00 Ashraf Ghani, who has just become the president of Afghanistan, once drafted a document for Hamid Karzai that began: […]

Lessons from Afghanistan

  Diana Preston’s The Dark Defile describes the disastrous occupation of Afghanistan by Britain from 1839 to 1842. This is a well-known story—depicted in grand nineteenth-century canvases (Remnants of an Army), 1960s comedies (Flashman), and a flurry of books with Victorian titles, published or republished to coincide with our current Afghan mess: Signal Catastrophe, Crimson Snow, The Last Man, Retreat and […]

Afghanistan: What Could Work?

First published in The New York Review of Books, 17 December 2009. Cool poker-players, we are tempted to believe, only raise or fold: they only increase their bet or leave the game. Calling, making the minimum bet to stay, suggests that you can’t calculate the odds or face losing the pot, and that the other […]


Article first published in The Week on 14 May 2009. The author of the best-selling Afghanistan memoir The Places in Between serves as director of Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Below, he names his favorite travel books. The Baburnama by Zahiruddin Babur Shah (out of print). The 500-year-old diary of Babur, the […]

No Image

The Queen of the Quagmire

First published in the New York Review of Books, 27 October, 2007.   – Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations                         by Georgina Howell Farrar, Straus and Giroux,481 pp., $27.50 – Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell, Adventurer, Adviser […]