THE SEWING CIRCLES OF HERAT

A Personal Voyage Through Afghanistan

By Christina Lamb

HarperCollins. 338 pp. $24.95

VEILED THREAT

The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan

By Sally Armstrong

Four Walls Eight Windows. 208 pp. $24.95

(Forthcoming in January)

DOOMED IN AFGHANISTAN

A UN Officer's Memoir of the Fall of Kabul

And Najibullah's Failed Escape, 1992

By Phillip Corwin

Rutgers Univ. 241 pp. $28

Over the last two centuries, the story of Afghanistan can be read as the dramatic collapse of a tribal society under foreign invasion. Attacks by the British in the 19th century, playing their Great Game in the struggle for empire with Russia, and by the Soviets in the 1980s, devastated traditional structures and set power oscillating between weak, ineffective democratic governments and authoritarian military rule. Neighboring Pakistan has never hesitated to interfere in Afghan affairs.

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, brought another catalyst for change into the region: the United States. In last year's Afghan campaign, the most powerful and highly industrialized society in the world fought one of the world's most tribal and impoverished countries. The shock of the encounter has still to wear off. Now, a year after the campaign, three authoritative new books tell us about the costs to Kabul of battling giants. Together, they help us piece together the contemporary Afghan odyssey.

In The Sewing Circles of Herat, British journalist Christina Lamb takes us directly into the heart of Afghan and Pakistani society. It is territory she has explored before, both in newspaper articles and in her 1990 book Waiting for Allah, written after her first stint in the region, where she arrived fresh from taking her degree at Oxford. Lamb describes in this new book how she felt upon her return to Afghanistan after September 2001: "It was as if a ghost had walked across my grave. . . . Twelve years had passed since I had last breathed the air of Afghanistan. In that time large parts of its capital had been turned to rubble in fighting, tens of thousands more people killed, the regime of the one-eyed mullah had locked away its women, hanged people from lampposts, smashed televisions with tanks and silenced its music, and for the last few years even the rains had stopped. Would I still find the cobalt blue of the mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif where the white doves flew, the smell of pines on the hot Wind of One Hundred and Twenty Days in Herat, the same burst of sweetness on the tongue from the grapes of Kandahar?"

A journalist with a penchant for bold investigation, Lamb dresses as a young Afghan and climbs onto motorcyles with Afghan freedom fighters to ride across the country. One of the fighters she accompanies is the man who went on to become the new president of the country, Hamid Karzai. An aristocrat with links to the Afghan royal family, Karzai is a scholarly and philosophical man; should he fall to an assassin's bullet, the United States will suffer a major setback in the country. Here is Lamb describing her friend: "With me he would talk about English music and literature, the feeling that he had lost his youth, and his hatred for Pakistan and his life there. But the greatest passion in his voice came when he spoke of Kandahar with its orchards and running streams . . . and deep-red pomegranates so sweet and luscious that Persian princesses dined on them and lovers wrote poetry about them. He told me too of great tribes and heroic clashes and had a sense of history and being part of it unlike anyone I had ever come across. His eyes would bulge with anger as he talked of centuries-old feuds between his tribe and another."

In Lamb's pages, we read of the eponymous Sewing Circles of Herat, groups of women trying to maintain their traditional activities under the Taliban regime. We hear the story of the former Taliban torturer, who admits to breaking men's spines, then making them stand on their heads. We meet the Afghan princess in exile in Rome.

And Lamb takes us into Pakistan as well, to examine this country so intimately intertwined with its neighbor -- and so hated by it. She interviews Gen. Hamid Gul, former head of the ISI, Pakistan's military intelligence service -- and an Islamic militant known as "godfather" to the Taliban. He is "a man who had tried to play God with the fates of innocent people in another country because his own had failed to live up to its promise." In the country's North West Frontier Province, she visits the Haqqania -- commonly referred to as the "Jihad University" -- which proudly boasts that "ninety percent of personnel of Afghanistan's Taliban Movement are students of Haqqania" and "conferred the title of Mullah on the man who had once been plain Mohammed Omar," the leader of the Taliban.

Over the dozen years she has been reporting from the region, Pakistani leaders from Benazir Bhutto to Pervez Musharraf have thrown Lamb out of Pakistan, a sure sign that she has a knack for touching raw nerves. In writing of the people of this region, she is aware that she is trespassing on almost exclusively male territory. British scholar-administrators from Mountstuart Elphinstone to Sir Olaf Caroe have left behind books of the highest standard dealing with the region and its history. With The Sewing Circles of Herat, a penetrating account written in prose that sparkles, Christina Lamb joins that august company.

In Veiled Threat (forthcoming in January), Canadian journalist Sally Armstrong views Afghanistan through the eyes of its women. They once made up 70 percent of the country's teachers, 50 percent of its civil servants, 40 percent of its doctors and half the students at Kabul University. Once the Taliban came to power, as the world now knows so well, Afghan women were forced into a condition of virtual invisibility -- and often destitution, as in the case of widows who had lost their husbands in the bitter fight against the Soviets. Among the figures Armstrong profiles is a remarkable medical doctor, Sima Samar, who is now deputy prime minister of Afghanistan. Samar struggled against the Taliban through her medical practice, keeping underground schools and clinics open for women under almost impossible conditions. Her story is one of hope and triumph, as are most of the tales in this straightforward, uplifting volume.

Former U.N. official Phillip Corwin's Doomed in Afghanistan is a fast-paced diary that reads like a thriller, recounting the bloody endgame to the ill-fated Soviet invasion. Corwin was in Kabul in 1992 as part of a U.N. mission to assist in a transfer of power from the Soviet-backed communist regime to an interim authority that would hold elections. He was also an eyewitness to Kabul's fall that year to squabbling mujaheddin factions who opened the door to the Taliban's eventual seizure of power. His journal ends with the removal of Soviet puppet Najibullah in 1992 (Najibullah was executed by the Taliban four years later), but the book proper closes with both an examination of U.N. documents relating to the conflict in Afghanistan and a post-Sept. 11 epilogue that brings the story up to the present moment.

This moment marks a unique opportunity for the region. For the first time in history, the United States has direct influence in Kabul and Islamabad. Yet the Taliban are also apparently re-emerging in certain parts of eastern Afghanistan. Poppy cultivation is back, auguring a resurgence in the region's drug trade. The religious parties of Pakistan have increased their numbers in parliament tenfold in recent elections. Karzai and his nation need support. Too many Afghans have unhappy memories of Americans walking away after the Soviets withdrew, leaving them in a devastated land facing famine. It's a mistake America can't afford to make again. *

Akbar S. Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and the author of "Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society."