Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Forever War

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The Forever War

by Dexter Filkins

The Forever War by Dexter Filkins
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2008, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2009, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Stacey Brownlie

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Very Short Histories of
Afghanistan & Iraq


Iraq and Afghanistan are countries with deep histories and multiple ethnic and religious citizen groups.

The geographical area that today is Iraq is regarded by historians as the site of some of the earliest human civilizations, including the Sumerians (who lived between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia, a Greek word meaning land between the two rivers).

The division between the Shia and Sunni elements of Islam began sometime in the late 600s after Arab tribes had taken control of the area from Iranian rulers. After an approximately 500 year Arab dynasty and intervening conflicts with Turkish warriors, the land that is now Iraq became part of the Ottoman Empire in the 1600s and remained so until after World War I. The struggle between Sunni and Shia factions continued during this period.

At the end of World War I, the country of Iraq was carved out of the Ottoman Empire and became a British protectorate (up until 1920, the area had been three distinct ethnic regions). Shias and Sunnis united in revolution against British rule in 1920, producing a provisional Arab government led by a Saudi royal, King Faisal, and independence was achieved in 1932.

Iraq experienced many political changes between World War II and the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. Saddam Hussein, a member of the secular Baath party, rose to power in the 1970s and became president of Iraq in 1979. In 1980, Iraq attacked Iran, beginning a war that lasted through 1988. The First Gulf War, led by the United States, occurred in 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. International sanctions on Iraq were imposed following the first Gulf War. The United States invaded Iraq in March of 2003.

For more about the history of Iraq - see the sidebar to The End of Iraq.


Afghanistan's first known history is as part of an Iranian dynasty which was later conquered by Alexander the Great. Alexander the Great and his successors brought Greek influence to the region, while a portion of southern Afghanistan was also introduced to Buddhism through Indian influence.

Between the 200s and 600s AD, an Iranian dynasty again controlled the country. Arab Muslims began to take over the local tribes in 637 and Islamic rule continued until the conquest by Genghis Khan in the early 13th century. Mongolian power lasted until the 1500s when a northern Indian dynasty and an Iranian dynasty began to fight for control of the area. The Pashtuns, who are indigenous to Afghanistan, gained a moderate level of control in 1747 which continued until 1978.

During the 19th century, Afghanistan fought three Anglo-Afghan wars which were partly caused by Britain's desire to protect India from Russia. Afghanistan was a neutral country in World War II, but because of tension with newly-formed neighbor Pakistan, it strengthened ties with Russia in the decades after.

Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979, following a communist overthrow of the Afghan government in 1978. Guerrilla war against the communist government and Russian forces lasted for ten years. Following Russian withdrawal, Afghanistan endured further civil war which ultimately ended with the strict Taliban sect gaining control of the country in 1996. The United States attacked Afghanistan in late 2001.

For more about Afghanistan - see the sidebar to A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Article by Stacey Brownlie

This article was originally published in October 2008, and has been updated for the June 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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