A decade-and-a-half ago, journalist Steve Coll won a Pulitzer for his book Ghost Wars, which recounted the CIA’s history in Afghanistan. Now in Directorate S, he picks up where that earlier work left off, examining years of ill-fated U.S. efforts to achieve victory in Afghanistan. Laid out chronologically in rich detail featuring not just American players but Afghan, Pakistani, and other key figures, the story that Coll tells is a bleak and appalling saga of missed opportunities, mistaken assumptions, misguided strategies, and miscast individuals. There’s so much blame to go around, spanning Democratic as well as Republican administrations and implicating numerous intelligence operatives, military officers, and diplomats. But Coll argues persuasively that what has doomed the American war the most has been the inability of U.S. authorities to understand the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, and stop its covert interference in Afghanistan aimed at enlarging Pakistan’s sphere of influence.
Manal al-Sharif’s journey in Saudi Arabia, as told in her memoir, Daring to Drive (Simon & Schuster, $26), is an extraordinary story of perseverance and transformation. Her book begins with al-Sharif’s arrest in the Saudi city of Khobar for driving while being a woman. As the events unfold, al-Sharif makes the danger she faced quite clear. A lone woman in the Saudi criminal justice system has few allies or resources, to say nothing of rights. She leaves us in suspense concerning the outcome of her trial in order to recount how she became a feminist activist. Al-Sharif endured poverty and abuse in Mecca. Over the years her burgeoning sense of self, especially as it was expressed through art and literature, was squashed under the heel of an ultra-conservative Saudi interpretation of Islam. Amazingly, all was not lost. Slowly al-Sharif became an opponent of oppression. She got an education. She learned the skills needed to obtain a highly technical job in Saudi Aramco, the nationalized oil company. She learned how to drive. She became independent in a culture that effectively forces women into isolation. Finally, when all she had achieved was again threatened by a man reminding her of her place in Saudi culture, she began to fight back. Through this incredible memoir, al-Sharif illustrates that change is possible or, as she puts it, “the rain begins with a single drop.” Even in the desert, the rain will come.
A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Shadi Hamid has studied Islamist movements for more than a decade. His first book on political Islam two years ago, Temptations of Power, explored how Islamist movements evolve over time. In Islamic Exceptionalism, he develops the premise that Islam is unique among religions for its political goals and examines how the struggle to resolve this often problematic church-state—or mosque-state—relationship continues to have profound implications for the Middle East and beyond. Tracing Islam’s governmental role from the premodern era to the advent of the ruthless Islamic State, he looks at various models or approaches that Islamist movements are trying in an effort to work through the challenge of Islam’s relationship to political orders. This book has relevance not only for the political debate underway in the U.S. but also for our understanding of events unfolding around the world.