Reading the Taliban
(This is an essay from our March 2014 print quarterly 'Reclaiming Afghanistan'. See more from the issue here.)
For a long time, those seeking to understand and research the Afghan Taliban movement had to rely on texts written by outsiders for most of their information. The standard accounts were widely read, but anyone seeking a more nuanced understanding was left wanting.
William Maley's Fundamentalism Reborn (1998) was the first of these, offering insight and an initial glimpse of the Taliban as rulers. Its conclusions have proved remarkably resilient, and the synoptic introduction by Maley is still frequently quoted. Ahmed Rashid's Taliban (2001) was similarly well-received and has been read by everyone from soldiers in Afghanistan to the politicians whose orders they follow.
These accounts had their limitations. The Taliban were simply too broad a topic to cover, even when research included trips inside Afghanistan pre-2001. The mixture of religious, political, historical and economic factors required better data, and above all the topic was crying out to be heard from the standpoint of the protagonists themselves. We learnt about a movement that was supposed to be 'Deobandi' in religious outlook, but we weren't told very much about what that meant. We learnt about the leadership who had all attended madrassas and studied Islam to some degree, but were told nothing of what they studied. We read of the 'informal' nature of the Taliban's government structures and processes, but were told very little of the specifics beyond one or two anecdotes.
The consequences of these misunderstandings were manifold, and they continue to influence those seeking to engage with the Afghan conflict. A misunderstanding of the connection between the Taliban and al-Qaeda soured the relationship between the Taliban and the international community (amongst other things), particularly after the attacks of 9/11. This corrosive misreading of facts continues to muddy the water, influencing regional actors' positions towards the Taliban and helping stymie the possibility for political reconciliation. A failure to understand the movement has meant that the West has spent millions – even billions – fighting the war in ways that were often counterproductive.
A new set of documents and books uncovered since 2001 go some way towards recovering this missing narrative. Finally it is possible for researchers to start to generate a picture of the movement that for so long has been cloaked in mystery. A combination of published as well as unpublished documents offer an unprecedented opportunity to encounter the Taliban on their own terms, using language of their choosing and reacting and responding to the minutiae of local governance and international relations during the period of their rule, post-1994.
Former and current Taliban affiliates have only recently begun recording their own testimonies of events that took place during their lifetimes in a systematic fashion, but there are other sources that can also be used to understand the movement. Specifically, newspapers and magazines published during the late 1990s offer more nuanced details and commentaries from Taliban leaders as events unfolded. A significant number of Taliban live in Kabul at present, many of whom are subject to UN sanctions; they too present an opportunity to gather anecdotal and incidental material on events and trends of which we currently know very little. It has become more and more difficult to conduct fieldwork and research in the context of a generally deteriorating security situation across Afghanistan, and with the increasing fragmentation of the insurgency, yet channels to current members or those who have maintained strong ties with the group are still open.
These sources allow for a far fuller and rounded portrayal of the Taliban, both as individuals and as a movement. It is only through understanding the viewpoints of those in senior leadership positions – as expressed in statements, poems or internal memos – that one can arrive at an understanding of why certain decisions were taken, and get more of a sense of the Taliban's social identity. It is not enough to view the Taliban through an Islamist lens, or a Pashtun lens for that matter. From the 1980s onwards, the Taliban's identity was subject to change, with different groups and individuals following different paths in the ever-changing environment the movement found itself in. These processes continued after 9/11, and a nuanced and detailed understanding of the evolution of the Taliban and their identity will prove to be a valuable and instructive exercise for the present situation. Most foreign forces will withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and those currently involved in the armed opposition will likely be part of Afghanistan's political future.
An understanding of the extent of foreign jihadist influence over senior Taliban structures (in particular the institution and figure of Mullah Mohammed Omar) and how this relationship developed is essential when starting to think about how this 'marriage of convenience' between the Taliban and other Islamist or jihadist groups might progress down a different path. If we assume that all groups want the same thing, we will be no closer to understanding the ways in which they rub up against each other during ideological debates, or against Pakistan. Internal friction and disagreement is very much a part of the world of armed jihad, and groups in Afghanistan are no exception. The cultural-emotional aspect of the Taliban's identity is also particularly important when trying to understand how individual actions and gestures are interpreted and how their reactions to external events are calibrated. Very little has been written on how the way in which they present themselves affects how they act and how they view themselves.
Published in 2010 to critical acclaim, Mullah Zaeef's memoir was one of the first books of its kind, certainly in the English language market if not for Pashto/Dari readers.* My Life With the Taliban offers a counter-narrative to the standard accounts of Afghanistan since 1979. Zaeef describes growing up in rural poverty in Kandahar province. Both of his parents died at an early age, and the Russian invasion of 1979 forced him to flee to Pakistan. He started fighting in 1983, during which time he was associated with many major figures in the anti-Soviet resistance, including the current Taliban head Mullah Mohammad Omar.
After the war Zaeef returned to a quiet life in a small village in Kandahar, but chaos soon overwhelmed Afghanistan as factional fighting erupted after the Russians pulled out. Disgusted by the lawlessness that ensued, Zaeef was one among the former mujahideen who were closely involved in the discussions that led to the emergence of the Taliban in 1994.
Zaeef then details his Taliban career as civil servant and minister who negotiated with foreign oil companies as well as with Afghanistan's own resistance leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud. He was ambassador to Pakistan at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and his account discusses the strange 'phoney war' period before the US-led intervention toppled the Taliban, when he was allowed to remain in Pakistan, but with his activities severely restricted. In early 2002 Zaeef was handed over to American forces in Pakistan, notwithstanding his diplomatic status, and spent four and a half years in prison (including several years in Guantánamo) before being released without trial or charge. Zaeef's account was unusual for being mostly an unmediated account, in his own words and without excessive editorialising. This book was followed by a number of other memoirs.
Vahid Mojdeh's Afghanistan Under Five Years of Taliban Sovereignty had been circulating as a Word document for several years, and was published in Dari and Pashto at around the same time as Mullah Zaeef's account. It was translated into English but never published. He offers an account of the Taliban movement, seen through the prism of the Taliban's Foreign Ministry where he worked as an official. It offers insights based on the people he met and the meetings that were held. Although he wasn't a Talib, his insider perspective is valuable nonetheless.
In particular, he offers useful information on the relationship of the Taliban's foreign policy officials with the Chinese and the Chechens, a topic on which little research has been conducted so far. This includes a compelling behind-the-scenes account of how (and why) the Taliban offered recognition to Chechnya in January 2000 – a mixture of provocation and protocol, as it transpires. He also offers stories about all the key players, from Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil to other senior figures within the Taliban's foreign policy apparatus. Those who have interviewed him know that he retained many stories from his time. The book was published in Dari a few years ago, in a climate in which it wasn't clear how it would be received. He has, in any case, now fled Kabul and is believed to be on the run, following allegations by the National Directorate for Security of collaboration with the Taliban. Nevertheless, the book holds some value even if we have to take it with a pinch of salt and assume that the stories might include exaggeration or fabrication.
Indeed, this is a central problem for research on the Taliban. The movement is often so opaque that a few memoirs with some entertaining stories are taken as fact in the absence of other useful information. It is often hard to confirm the narratives recounted in these memoirs. Mojdeh is not a Talib himself, so he is less tainted by the 'you are justifying your own movement' brush, but a question mark hangs over his book, too.
Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil wrote a book of his own (Afghanistan and Taliban) around the same time that Mullah Zaeef was working on his. Mutawakil's book is short and wide-ranging, covering things he didn't see (for example, the jihadi backgrounds of many of the Taliban's leaders) to those events at which he was present (such as his stint as Foreign Minister). He takes fewer risks in what he writes than Zaeef or Mojdeh, but this is perhaps a reflection of his character more than anything else. He also writes of all the main events afflicting the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan during the late 1990s, albeit with less candour than others. The book has been published in Arabic, Pashto and Dari, and has reportedly sold well, although it is sometimes difficult to find in bookshops in Afghanistan.
The most recent of this batch of first-person accounts is I am Akbar Agha.** Following the tradition of Zaeef's My Life With the Taliban, Sayyed Mohammad Akbar Agha's memoir tells a story of war, friendship and political intrigue. Starting in 1980s Kandahar, the difficulties and successes of the mujahideen come through clearly as Akbar Agha struggles to administer a group of fighters. He details the different groups fighting in Kandahar, their cooperation and the scale of the Soviet Union's efforts to crush them. Not directly a participant in the post-1994 Taliban government, Akbar Agha offers a sometimes-critical account of the administration built up by many of the former fighters. After the fall of the Islamic Emirate in 2001, Akbar Agha was involved in the Jaish ul-Muslimeen opposition group, and for the first time he has revealed his account of what happened during the kidnapping of UN aid workers in 2004. I am Akbar Agha ends with an analysis of the problems afflicting Afghanistan and outlines a vision for the political future of the country post-elections and post-2014.
My own work on the history of the Taliban movement has required me to visit and interview a number of Talibs, both those who are active and those who may tentatively be categorised as 'former' Talibs or affiliates. Many of them are now writing their memoirs. There are also a number of archive projects – some private, others with institutional backing – that will offer future generations a reference point in their study of the Taliban, and for a reevaluation of the movement's publications and printed words.
One other narrative that made its way onto the international scene was Sami Yousafzai's 'Taliban's Oral History of the Afghanistan War', an important account of the post-2001 period from the mouths of those involved. As Yousafzai explained in an interview, he wanted to get away from stories about the Taliban that were "written in the drawing room". The real audience for the piece, he said, was not the Afghans or Pakistanis who had lived through the events. Rather, it was international readers who needed exposure to the realities through the unmediated words of the actors involved.
These recent narratives and memoirs have helped reveal the improvisatory nature of the movement, a group that had very little experience and was forced to make up a lot of its policy ad hoc. We are able to get a sense of the kinds of fears the senior leadership had in the early years of their rule, particularly the fears of disintegration and disloyalty that have endured into the post-2001 period. Above all, though, we are able to build a picture of a movement filled with human beings: people taking decisions, making calculations, doing all the little things that are, taken piecemeal, understandable. Even a limited engagement with Taliban-authored writings shows that there is enough complexity to these individuals to caution against simplifying and essentialising what they stand for. The Taliban are more than the caricatures we so often choose to describe them as. Trying to engage with a movement or country whose reality we barely comprehend serves nobody, as is evident from the reality of present-day Afghanistan. Without an appreciation of the agency of the individuals involved in the movement, it will be very difficult to understand what continues to drive the conflict in Afghanistan.
~Alex Strick van Linschoten is a writer and researcher in London, Karachi and Kabul, and is finishing a PhD at King's College London. He has edited and written three books on the Taliban, and tweets at @strickvl.
* The author worked with Mullah Zaeef on the book as co-editor along with Felix Kuehn.
** The author was involved with its publication as co-editor.