Marsden begins with a general history of the area, starting with the Achaemenids but only going into detail with the twentieth century: with king Zahir Shah, who ruled for forty years to 1973, the 1978 coup by the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, and the Soviet invasion. He then describes the various Mujahidin "parties", their backing by Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, and the conflicts between them that followed the Russian withdrawal. This is the background to an account of the rise of the Taliban, from their first appearance in Kandahar in December 1994 down to the time of writing (December 1997). This concentrates on events within Afghanistan; a final chapter looks at regional politics, at relationships with Pakistan, Iran, and the central Asian states, and at the complications of oil pipelines and narcotics.
Three chapters focus on the Taliban ideology or creed. Marsden describes its basic features, but stresses ways in which it is not as fixed as sometimes perceived: there are drastic differences, for example, between the Taliban treatment of the populations of Kabul and Herat and those of traditional rural areas. He considers connections to outside movements — the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Wahhabism, the Iranian Revolution, and South Asian sources such as the Deoband school and Maududi — and locally to traditional "Afghan Islam" and Pushtunwali, the moral code of the Pathans. He makes no attempt, however, to provide a general introduction to Islam.
Three chapters address issues in the conflict of cultures in interactions between the Taliban and the international community, especially the West. The first looks at Taliban gender policies and the problems these have posed, especially for agencies working in education; the second looks at the Taliban's relationship with humanitarian agencies more generally; and the third considers their broader relations with the international community, especially with the United Nations (and ideologically with the Declaration of Human Rights), the European Union, and the United States. Marsden concludes by suggesting that aid agencies should try to build a "business relationship" focused on negotiations over specific problems, avoiding the constraints of "abstract notions".