Ahmed Rashid observed and documented the rise of the Taliban before the rest of the world took much interest. His revised work is a record of their rise from the ashes of the Soviet adventure of Afghanistan, with the story being taken to 2009 in an additional chapter. Along the way, he clears up some common misconceptions – especially the claim that the movement is a mere puppet of the Americans, the Pakistanis, or both. The Americans and their allies undoubtedly contributed to the chaos and disorder that befell Afghanistan in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal and provided the conditions for the Taliban to arise; the Pakistanis sponsored them materially with weapons and money. But the Taliban were no one’s puppets, not the CIA’s, not the Pakistanis' ISI. Pakistani military intelligence has doubtlessly attempted to manipulate the movement for its own ends but the relationship between the two should best be described as the puppet master who finds himself in an endless and dangerous tussle with his would be puppet.
The movement has its roots in the children of the displaced Pashtun diaspora in Pakistan. The recruits, young men and boys without roots either in the Afghanistan or Pakistan, or the broader culture and history of Islam, and living without the company of girls and women, make ideal recruitment and cannon fodder. It also provides a potent combination of sanctity and brutality, offering an escape from anomie and deracination of the refugee camps. The Taliban are not a gang of bandits – they are morally motivated. There is nothing paradoxical in this. Like many groups, they define themselves in opposition to those who do not belong. Their violence, whether against symbols, such as Buddhist statues, or against other people whom they consider infidels, such as Shia Hazari, is, as far as they are concerned, high-minded and pious. They are making the world a better place. The road to hell is indeed paved with the most pious of intentions. This ideological zeal explains the movement’s misogyny for which they gained worldwide notoriety in 1990s: as Rashid explains, the purpose of the Taliban’s oppressive strictures on women in the 1990s was to appease the purist zeal of the rank-and-file. The pleasures of women might dilute the solidarity of the group. From our perspective, this is loathsome; from the Taliban’s, it is entirely rational.
The analysis of the roots of the Taliban seems persuasive though perhaps he plays down the indigenous, Afghan sources of the Taliban’s motivation, and exaggerates the roles of outside influences like Saudi Wahhabi evangelism. Commentators like Rashid often aver that movements like the Taliban have nothing to do with mainstream Islam. There seems to be a reluctance to accept that the Islamic faith is capable of producing such phenomena like the Taliban and some of the roots for their motivation may be traced to both the Afghan and broader Islamic mainstream. Taliban recruits are not brainwashed. They have no doubt been indoctrinated but it is only possible to become indoctrinated within a framework that is accepted and understood. Islam performs this function in the way (say) evangelical Protestantism could never do. This is not to say that every Muslim is a possible suicide bomber. It is to say that the claim that the motivation of the Taliban has nothing to do with conventional Islam is not a plausible one. The fact is, if the Taliban rank and file did not believe that their actions are sanctioned by god, then they would be unlikely to carry on making the sacrifices that they do. Tens of thousands of them have died and they died – and continue to die - because they believe.
Rashid brings the analysis up to date, to the end of the 2010s, showing how the Taliban has bounced back from the edge of defeat, in part by having a seeming endless source of recruits to replace heavy combat casualties but also adapting more sophisticated political and media strategies – 21st Century means to serve 8th Century ends. NATO leaving the country will not bring peace. The Taliban’s roots are Pashtun, which in itself inspires fear and loathing among Afghanistan’s other ethnic groups. Such groups are likely to seek military assistance from sympathetic countries like Russia, India or the Central Asian republics, none of which has any wish to see a triumphant Taliban. Meanwhile, Pakistan will vainly try to co-opt the Taliban as part of an unwinnable geopolitical game against India. Pakistan’s security elites’ fixation with matching India militarily means the real challenges of social and economic development inside Pakistan are ignored. The country’s nuclear bomb cannot stave off power cuts or deal with natural disasters. Rashid makes clear that the possible consequence of such folly is the Talibanisation of Pakistan itself. Though the future is not ours to see, the prospects for an end to Afghanistan’s miseries seem remote as ever.
on 20 December 2002
I felt very ignorant of the situation in Afghanistan and reading this book has proven to me that I really was! It is addictive reading, I found. With a new baby I have little time to read but squeeze in some time just before bedtime to read a couple of pages. I understand the people and groups involved, the complexities of the history of Afghanistan, the geography of that whole region just by reading this book. My son dropped it into a sink of water and I have just re-ordered it. All that knowledge and I had only got as far as page 134! An excellent, informative book. Heavy going at first, with lots of historic detail, but perservere, it's worth it. I watch the news now with a whole different perspective on the situation in that region as a whole.
on 21 November 2001
Ahmed Rashid writes a seemingly objective analysis of this fascinating movement. Throughout history when looking at the start of a movement it is never a simple result of one man leading a people. Movements and people are thrust to the fore by circumstance. Rashid does an excellent job of explaining these circumstances and the results of Pakistan's and America's approaches to Afghanistan. I wasn't aware of the extent of oil influence in Afghanistan.
I was working in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1991-2 and remember the hope of my Afghan pupils when the Communists were finally defeated in Kabul. A six year old pupil gave me a note one morning with "Afghanistan is free" in Pushtu. A short while later these hopes were dashed as the civil war continued and people in the camps near me were resigned to calling Pakistan home. We started to see new refugees in Peshawar, affluent Kabulis with their left-hand drive cars.
Sadly a beautiful people of a beautiful country have been permanently damaged by the continual selfish interests of various groups. Compromise for the sake of the country and the future has never been considered.
Afghanistan: Sterai mashai
on 23 February 2013
There is plenty of information in the book, and it's organised in vertical slices, each one related to a single issue: pipelines, religion, smuggling mafias and so on. This is good, as each single aspect of the Afghan and Taliban story is presented on its own, and fully developed within a single, manageable unit. I think some chapters could even be read on their own.
On the other hand, each 'story' overlaps with the others, so there are scenes or particular events pop up many times, in different parts of the book (for example, the massacre of the Azaras in Mazar-e-Sharif). This gives a feeling of deja-vu (or deja-lu, to be precise).
Luckily, the author provides in an Appendix a very detailed Taliban timeline. I would suggest keeping a bookmark on it, and referring to those pages on a regular basis. In this way, as you go through the chapters, you will be able to place what you are reading in the right context, and see how it relates to what is described in other parts of the book.
on 24 December 2012
This was a fascinating account of how the Taliban was originally formed, its members, leaders and aims. For me (and this is personal, I know) it went over the same ground too many times from only slightly different perspectives
But I learned a lot and would recommend it to anyone else who thought that after the Afghans had kicked out the British Army in the late nineteenth century we should have left them to their own devices.
on 4 May 2014
If you want to understand the history behind the Taliban then this book is for you.
It takes you back to the warring tribal factions through the Russian invasion and the reasons why the Taliban was formed. Then it explains how they 'governed' the country with there laws e. g the executions, removal of limbs. The law that allowed the family of the murdered relative to either accept blood money or dictate that the culprit be put to death.
The foreign humanitarian system that tried to rebuild the country after the Russian withdrawl by e.g. rebuilding a football stadium to allow the youths to have somewhere to play to retrieve their childhood only for it to be used by the Taliban as a place of execution being shot between the goalposts with a stadium packed with people including children.
This give a flavour of the book but it goes into detail about the Taliban's other activities and how it became so 'successful'.
on 1 May 2014
I am working in Afghanistan and wanted to read up on some of the recent history which has shaped the country. This book was recommended by a colleague as a detailed, but easy to digest history. I too have found it invaluable. It is clearly written, easy to read and events are well described and explained.
If you want an introduction to the politics behind modern Afghanistan, this is an excellent place to start.