Reprise Books

‘Taliban’ by Ahmed Rashid

Taliban fighters patrol Kabul, August 19, 2021.   | Photo Credit: AP

What will the Taliban’s sudden return to power mean for Afghanistan? As the insurgents took over Kabul swiftly, heart-wrenching scenes played out — long queues of families at the airport desperate to evacuate, some hanging on to planes and falling to their death, the Taliban patrolling the streets with their AK-47s and rocket launchers, and babies being handed to American soldiers over the airport boundary wall. Why is the Taliban so feared?

The Taliban first took power in 1996 and four years later, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid introduced them to the world. His book, Taliban: The Power of Militant Islam in Afghanistan and Beyond, provides an acute insight into the country and its inhabitants as well as into the external powers vested in the region in a new ‘Great Game’.

Two tin trunks

Rashid goes through the history of the Taliban movement, its origins, their fundamentalism, political and military leaders like Mullah Mohammed Omar and Al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, the contradictions within, the opium trade, the role of oil reserves, as also why Pakistan, the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China have interests in Afghanistan. In an updated version that came out in 2010, Rashid narrates why, despite tightening restrictions on the Taliban in 2001, 9/11 happened. The book tries to find out what motivated the Taliban, who supported them, where they got their weapons and funds, and how they arrived at a violent interpretation of Islam.

He recounts anecdotes about Mullah Omar, who kept money in a tin trunk to hand out to commanders and plaintiffs: “As success came, another tin trunk was added — this one containing American dollars.”

With excessive secrecy around their political structures, little is known about the Taliban. In the 20 years of the American invasion after 9/11, the insurgents seem to have melted into the background to regroup and resurface as suddenly as they had the first time. When the Americans launched attacks in Afghanistan, many Taliban leaders reportedly fled to Quetta in Pakistan, and the new Taliban ‘emir’, Hibatullah Akhundzada, is said to have close ties with the ‘Quetta Shura’.

If Afghanistan is a country of contradictions, the Taliban are a manifestation of that. A handful of the fierce Islamic warriors had fought the Soviet Red Army in the 1980s as mujahideen, more had battled against the regime of President Najibullah who hung on to power after the Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, but the vast majority, says Rashid, are young Quranic students, drawn from the hundreds of madrassas set up in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.

Extreme interpretation

The Taliban dramatically appeared in Kandahar at the end of 1994. Drawn from the Pashtun ethnic group, they “galvanised Pashtun nationalism. The Pashtuns had ruled Afghanistan for some 300 years but had lost out recently to the country’s other smaller ethnic groups” who are still fighting the Taliban in the north.

The Taliban also implemented an extreme interpretation of Islamic law that appalled many Afghans. All girls’ schools were closed, and this brought education to a standstill as most of the teachers were women. Every conceivable form of entertainment including music, TV, videos, cards, kite-flying and most sports and games were banned. The punishment meted out to those found guilty was barbaric.

In the sequel to TalibanDescent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia — Rashid explains why the NATO and the Americans failed so badly. The two books make sense of complexities on the ground that have led to sharp divisions.

Tracing the Taliban’s quest for power, Rashid argues why the world turning away from Afghanistan could have dangerous consequences, as we are witnessing now. The books also foretell, sadly, how hope in Afghanistan can be quickly crushed. “The crossroads of Asia on the ancient Silk Route” is caught once again in a cycle of war and destruction.

The writer looks back at one classic every month.

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2021 12:50:35 AM |

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