Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban, by William Maley, ed. London: Hurst & Company, 1998. 242 pages. $19.50, paperback.
The Taliban: War, Religion, and the New Order in Afghanistan, by Peter Marsden. New York: Zed Books Ltd., 1998. 153 pages. $19.95, paperback.
The Taliban Phenomenon: Afghanistan 1994-1997, by Kamal Matinuddin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 283 pages with notes, glossary and bibliography.
An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan, by Jason Elliot. New York: Picador, 1999. 473 pages. $18.00, paperback.
As the events of September 11 continued to replay in homes and offices across the nation, the United States discovered it was completely ignorant of the plight of the Afghan people as well as the obscure Taliban militia that had laid claim to their government. With America coming to terms with the terror attacks of September 11, attention quickly turned to Afghanistan, a nation that had previously held little significance among the nation’s policy and planning set. Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaeda terror network, and their Taliban protectors are now the primary target of America’s military might, and the nation has gone to war in Afghanistan.
American interest faded quickly as Moscow’s “Viet Nam” drew to a close in 1989. When Soviet General Boris Gromov crossed into now-independent Uzbekistan, the event signaled not only the conclusion of Moscow’s 10-year occupation of Afghanistan, but the end of American interest in the Central Asian state. With the Red Army defeated and the myth of Soviet power quickly evaporating, Afghanistan had served its usefulness, and Washington quickly found other regional hotspots with which to be concerned: the Levant and Persian Gulf, the Balkans, Colombia and so on.
At first glance, it may appear that one could not find a more insignificant nation vis-à-vis American foreign-policy concerns than Afghanistan: landlocked and remotely located, politically isolated, lacking any significant natural resources, and deadlocked in hopeless internecine warfare. This said, the decade following the Soviet withdrawal witnessed the threats emanating from Afghanistan soar to the heights of established American national-security concerns. No one in any of the last three administrations, however, identified Afghanistan as a state requiring Washington’s attention.
The maintenance of Afghanistan’s territorial integrity and political stability is essential to preserving relative regional peace and security. The neighborhood is unstable; Iran, the newly independent Central Asian states, and nuclear-armed China, India and Pakistan all serve as reminders of the volatility of this part of the world. There are more refugees from Afghanistan than from any other nation. Humanitarian crises loom. Successive crop failures, droughts and one of the highest numbers of buried landmines in the world have exacerbated other concerns. Over three-fourths of the world’s heroin makes its way out of Afghanistan. The human-rights situation imposed by the Taliban makes the country a virtual gender-apartheid state. All this in addition to the fact that Afghanistan under the Taliban has become the premier location for the numerous groups bent on destabilizing large parts of the world, including Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Chechen rebels, and Kashmiri and Uighur insurgents.
These threats did not suddenly appear. They have been manifest for the last decade as Afghanistan slowly slipped into intractable civil chaos. It should not be forgotten that Russia seriously threatened military strikes against Afghanistan last summer, and that Iran nearly went to war with its Eastern neighbor following the fall of Mazar-e Sharif. Only in light of recent events, though, has global attention turned to the Afghan militia. The Taliban are as much a creation of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate as they are of the power vacuum following the mujahideens’ civil war. The lack of understanding of the Taliban and Afghanistan’s multitude of problems, unfortunately, seems to extend beyond the general public. America’s national-security and foreign-policy teams have paid precious little attention to the simmering problems of Afghanistan.
While the curtailing of Bin Laden’s capabilities in Afghanistan has been a major objective for Washington, there has been no real attempt to understand the militia that provides him with shelter and protection. By all public accounts, America did not have one single intelligence asset in Afghanistan. Moreover, according to Foreign Policy, the U.S. military and Foreign Service have only one student currently studying Pashto. Not to mention the fact that in all probability, there exist few in our government fluent in Dari, Nuristani, Pamiri, Tajik, Turkmen, Urdu, Uzbek or any of the other 20-some languages spoken in Afghanistan. At least the Soviets could communicate. Speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation, New Yorker magazine investigative journalist Seymour Hersh even stated that the United States has begun using Israeli Pashto speakers and translators. Unable to communicate, Washington will face even greater obstacles to winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
For the most comprehensive and accessible resource on the Taliban, Ahmed Rashid has produced an outstanding book. His Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism is by far the most thorough and detailed study to date, and the praise it has received and its high sales are well deserved. As a correspondent for the Far East Economic Review, Daily Telegraph and other publications, Rashid has been covering Afghanistan for over 20 years. He is able to bring his years of following intrigue in Central Asia to readers through very detailed facts, combined with a journalist’s keen ability to inform without confusing. Rashid’s Taliban benefits in large part from its many exclusive primary sources. By examining the origins, rise to power, and rule of the Taliban in ethno-linguistic and cultural terms, Rashid removes a great deal of the confusion surrounding the group’s psychological motivations. If one were to read only one volume on the subject, Rashid’s Taliban should be it.
William Maley has assembled an impressive collection of contributors for his edited volume Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban. The end result is a remarkable study that succeeds in addressing the origins and future of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. By dividing the book into sections that deal with the Taliban’s international relations, the reconstruction of Afghanistan and the militia’s future, Maley and his contributors have produced a key work that serves academics, scholars and policy makers equally well.
Anthony Davis’s chapter on "How the Taliban Became a Military Force" convincingly details how the Taliban was able to quickly become a viable challenger and eventual near-victor in Afghanistan’s unending wars. Drawing on his experiences reporting for the Jane’s Information Group, Davis brings coherent and intelligent arguments to bear. Many readers may find Ahmed Rashid’s chapter regarding the Taliban’s impact on the future of Pakistan very similar to portions of his stand-alone volume Taliban. Nonetheless, Rashid does not disappoint. He provides a sorely needed clarity as America continues to prosecute its Afghan campaign with the acquiescence of Islamabad. Noted French scholar Olivier Roy focuses on the future of political Islam in Afghanistan, drawing some convincing conclusions based upon the history of Islamic politics and the organic development of the Taliban. Primarily, that the Taliban are a movement derived from inherent Afghan influences.
In contrast, Peter Marsden’s Taliban: War, Religion, and the New Order in Afghanistan is much more direct and purely factual, lacking the depth of understanding and context that Rashid is able to impart. Marsden accomplishes his intention of providing an ideological baseline for the Taliban circa 1997, but he fails to probe deeper to explore the movement’s influences and development. The Taliban, perhaps more than any other Islamic political movement, is as much a product of the indigenous culture as it is a manifestation of constantly evolving outside influences and reactions to them. Marsden examines the Taliban as one of several competing forces in Afghanistan, not as the claimant to the legitimate government in Kabul. Written prior to the Taliban’s ultimate seizure of Mazar-e Sharif and the destruction of the great Buddhas at Bamiyan, Marsden’s brief study focuses mainly on the doctrinal issues surrounding the Taliban’s origins and the movement’s relations with international aid organizations. This last aspect is cast primarily within the framework of gender rights.
It is noteworthy that Marsden was addressing these issues more than three years ago. Penned like an individual case study of an Islamic movement rather than an examination of a shuttered organization trying to run a shattered country, Marsden’s account provides little insight into the hows and whys of the Taliban. Unlike Rashid, who has been able to lay bare the roots of the militia as well as its underlying motivations, Marsden chooses to focus on the difficulties faced by international humanitarian organizations in dealing with the Taliban. As the American-led campaign continues in Afghanistan, with winter fast approaching, humanitarian concerns will be of increasing concern.
Perhaps most surprisingly, The Taliban Phenomenon: Afghanistan 1994-1997 is a lackluster effort. Kamal Matinuddin, a retired Pakistani general and ambassador, could have provided much insight into the quasi-government with which Washington now finds itself at war. Matinuddin, formerly editor of the Afghanistan Report and Strategic Studies and author of Beyond Afghanistan: U.S.-Pakistan Relations, has had positions – and access – within Islamabad’s power circles. But his thinly cited and referenced work seems more often to advance the notion that the Taliban are a completely organic movement, one that has acted nearly free from Pakistani influence and impact.
In describing the Taliban’s rapidly successful militarization, Matinuddin omits any reference to Pakistani support and assistance. The Taliban Phenomenon is replete with references to former members of the communist army and KHAD intelligence service joining the nascent movement and instructing the Taliban. By contrast, Davis in Fundamentalism Reborn cites the speed, size and sophistication of the Taliban’s militarization – in addition to the dramatic introduction of tactics never seen in the Afghan theater – as evidence of Islamabad’s military and intelligence involvement. Matinuddin’s assertion of a homegrown evolution lacks conviction. While it would have been quite impossible to envision the present scenario, his conclusions and analyses are, more often than not, dead wrong. The Taliban, both then and now, is a manifestation of both Pashtun nationalism and religious zealotry. To advance the notion that this organization would be interested in sharing power with all Afghan national groups or cooperating with international bodies betrays a misunderstanding of who the militia are or what conditions led to their creation.
Curiously, Matinuddin’s narrative of the Afghan opposition is colored by a recurring thread of paternalistic Pakistani chauvinism. For instance, Matinuddin repeatedly attributes the problems of Afghanistan to ethnic issues and facets of the Afghan national character. The mujahideen’s dubious loyalties, culture of violence and proclivity to chaos are depicted as national stereotypes. This rather amateurish attempt to explore the roots of the Taliban’s ascendancy is deeply flawed.
Where Matinuddin’s book disappoints, An Unexpected Light by Jason Elliot excels. Elliot has produced a thoroughly consuming account of his travels in Afghanistan, first as a young volunteer with the mujahideen, and later as a witness to the destruction wrought upon the Afghan nation. Fluent in Afghan history and culture, Elliot is able to bring the scenes currently on cable news networks and in daily broadsheets to life. It is refreshing, and indeed uplifting, to read Elliot’s honest account, imbued with his love of the Afghan people. The book’s cover outshines that of the others discussed in this essay, which feature the same basic image on their jackets: a dour-looking, bearded, turban-clad Talib (sometimes several), clutching a Kalashnikov, usually arrayed upon a battle-scarred tank or armored personnel carrier. Light, however, features a scene of startling beauty, a daybreak of "unexpected light," establishing from the outset a perception that dispels much of the climate of danger and miscommunication.
The weeks since September 11 have seen numerous books on Islam, terrorism, Afghanistan and biological warfare climb the best-seller lists. While both the American public and policy makers have much to learn, the new war on terrorism must serve as a long-overdue wake-up call. Vast portions of the world go under-recognized and unstudied until it is much too late. Perhaps the recent horror will lead to a new awareness of potential global problems before they become international crises.