in the end, what separates a greater writer from the merely good is some unknown recipe of personality, experience, life choices, plain analytical talent, and luck. there are not a few hundred journalists working in kabul or central asia, but many of them are just fed stories by local stringers, never leave the hotel bar, or just plain 'don't get it.' you can't read an iraq or afghan memoir without meeting dozens of these peripheral characters, people off on their quixotic idealistic campaigns or just trying to scratch out a living as a correspondent in some forgotten and dusty capital.
Robert D. Kaplan just "has it." what is "it?" well... Clara Bow was "it" during the 1920s. but when we look at her photo 90 years later... we're just puzzled, of course. not a bad looking girl-- but how did she enrapture a nation?
so Kaplan somehow manages to elicit drama out of dust clouds and high mountains. who else embedded with a mujahideen gang? maybe Kaplan did lay with a thousand women, maybe he did kill 10 people in his life (though never with his bare hands). the end result is of some superannuated worldweary old man deigning to talk to his innocent, inexperienced readership. somebody had to do it.