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A path-breaking book republished,
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This review is from: Taliban: The Power of Militant Islam in Afghanistan and Beyond (Paperback)
This is a reprint, ten years after its first appearance in 2000, of Ahmed Rashid's famous book. It had been published just before the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11, the atrocity carried out by Al-Queda whose leader, Osama bin Laden, was then living in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Suddenly the world wanted to know about the Taliban, and Rashid's hitherto obscure but thorough book shot up into the best-seller list throughout the world; it has been translated into at least 26 languages.
The Taliban appeared to have been defeated by NATO in 2001; but we know of the come-back it has made since: today NATO is locked in what seems to many an unwinnable fight against the resurgent Taliban, and a reprint now is therefore particularly appropriate. The current edition adds a chapter on what has happened since 1999; but the text of the other chapters has been left untouched, and it is a tribute to the original that, ten years on, it has needed no serious revision.
It is a very detailed book and needs close reading; but some themes stand out strongly:
1. The enormous complexity of the structure of Afghanistan, with its numerous ethnic groups. It may once have been, under the Durrani monarchy, welded together by force into a unitary state; but ever since it has been weakened by the Soviet occupation (1979 to 1989), the old ethnic rivalries have reasserted themselves with a vengeance; and even within ethnic groups, there were divisions between clans. What seems extraordinary to me is that this never produced any ethnic secessionist movements (which Rashid considers `fortunate', p.214). In addition there were new fissures: between secular, moderate and extreme religious movements, and between communists (themselves divided into rival groups) and anti-communists. Religious fissures had not been important before the Taliban arrived: Rashid says that, though the Afghans have always been the most devout of Muslims, they had, until then, been tolerant of all forms of Islam and indeed of other religions. In a dense chapter Rashid traces the Taliban's roots in and connections with the Deobandi sect in Pakistan.
2. The brutality of all parties to the conflict is horrendous. The war lords were lawless, corrupt and ruthless, as ready to form as to break and betray alliances. It was in fact their malign influence that originally won the Taliban a good deal of support, until their extremist dictatorship alienated even many of their initial supporters. Its imposition of the most savage form of the sharia and especially its dreadful treatment of women - is of course well known and is richly documented in this book. The Taliban was unwilling to cooperate or even to negotiate with any other group in Afghanistan, or even to widen its Pashtun base.
3. Outside powers - Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, the United States, Russia, the governments of the post-Soviet Islamic republics, by supporting and supplying different factions in the Afghan civil wars, bear much of the responsibility for the prolonged agony of Afghanistan. None of the factions were ever short of arms.
4. Initially the United States, strongly at odds with Iran, actually preferred the anti-Shia Taliban to the war-lords. It was the pressure of the feminist movement in the US, but above all the Taliban's refusal to hand over or expel Osama bin Laden and the gradual realization how anti-western it was that led to a reversal of US policy in 1997. That then set off the double game long played by Pakistani governments: publicly an ally of the United States but secretly unwilling and/or unable to stop the ISI (the Pakistani military intelligence service) from backing the Taliban. But already in this volume Rashid showed that the Pashtun Taliban was a potential danger to Pakistan, with own agenda of encouraging Pashtun nationalism and Taliban-style Islamic fanaticism in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federal Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA).
5. Like the warlords, the Taliban got huge funds from the drug trade: they levied a 20% tax on the income farmers get from the sale of opium. It also took an enormous rake-off from the transit of smuggled goods, with neither Pakistan nor Iran able to exercise custom controls on their border.
There are three intricate and difficult chapters about plans by two rival oil companies, one Argentinian and one American, to build oil pipelines from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and possibly even to India. The interests of all the states in the region were involved in this "New Great Game". The two oil companies negotiated with whoever might facilitate the transit through Afghanistan, be it the war lords and or the Taliban. As these chapters follow the narrative of the interminable fighting in Afghanistan, I felt that both oil companies were crazy even to consider investment in so unstable an area, and in fact nothing came either of these plans.
The powerful and prescient last chapter on `The Future of Afghanistan' of the original edition is followed by the new chapter of 29 pages which outlines the story from 2000 to 2009: the apparent defeat of the Taliban in 2001, its regrouping in the NWFP and FATA, the Talibanization of these areas, and its major resurgence in Afghanistan from 2005 onwards. This is all much more fully dealt with in the 400 pages of Rashid's 2008 book, Descent into Chaos - see my Amazon review.