The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan by ed. Robert D. Crews, Amin Tarzi

by Barry Lenser

12 March 2008


How quickly the Taliban entered the broader Western awareness. And how quickly it seemed to fade from relevance. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US military intervened in Afghanistan and, through aerial bombardment and a lean ground operation, it eliminated and scattered much of the country’s ruling Islamist regime.

The Taliban officially surrendered in December 2001, only several months after the US incursion started. The Bonn Agreement then called on Hamid Karzai to chair the interim Transitional Authority which created the groundwork for his election to the presidency in 2004. A triumphalist narrative, which the Bush administration proudly touted, emerged from these apparent successes. The Taliban had fallen, al-Qaida was fractured, Osama bin Laden was reduced to an ineffectual figurehead, and the hope for democratic stability glimmered in the Middle East.

cover art

The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan

ed. Robert D. Crews, Amin Tarzi

(Harvard University Press)

The last half decade has delivered a sobering counter-narrative. In addition to, and the situation likely exacerbated by, the failings in Iraq, Afghanistan has crumbled. As a governing leader, President Karzai is impotent beyond the limits of Kabul, while elements of the resurgent Taliban have, according to one scholar, attained control of perhaps one-third of the country. Anti-government forces have imported suicide bombings from the urban theaters of Iraq, causing casualties to mount.

Furthermore the poppy industry, long a target of US anti-drug policies, is thriving. More recently, rifts between NATO member countries collaborating in Afghanistan have highlighted a collective mood of war-weariness, most acutely in Europe. And, of course, Osama bin Laden remains at large.

The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan presents an opportunity to reflect on this uncertain state of affairs. Edited by Robert D. Crews of Stanford and Amin Tarzi of the Marine Corps University, this collection of eight essays surveys, primarily, the recent history of Afghanistan and attempts to locate the Taliban’s singular function within.

The book proposes guides and answers to questions that have occupied observers of the Taliban in both the pre- and post-9/11 worlds. How did this relatively obscure, inexperienced, and radical movement achieve a measure of control in Afghanistan that had eluded previous and qualified aspirants? Why did many Afghanis, particularly the majority Pashtuns, reach even a tenuous rapprochement with a group so unversed and incurious about local tradition? And what is the trajectory of the Taliban’s role in a nascent and fragile democracy?

A formidable cadre of academics address these issues, inter alia, with a strong grasp of historical context and ground-level detail. From the Soviet occupation to infighting among the mujahedeen to the Taliban’s notorious mistreatment of women, the analysis is informed and variegated. Too often, the writing is clinical and short on a keenness for story and narrative (PhDs, almost by design it seems, are rarely prose stylists). But the book’s central and most pressing observations come through clearly, imparting a largely grim outlook for those wrestling with what went wrong in Afghanistan and how a working peace might be salvaged.

The introduction, jointly penned by Crews and Tarzi, sketches a broad portrait of Afghanistan as a physical entity and a body politic – the forbidding topography, the tribal fault lines between Pashtuns, Hazaras, and Tajiks, and the constant meddling by foreign actors which has molded the conditions necessary for an organization like the Taliban to come into power. Tightening the focus, Abdulkader Sinno’s essay “Explaining the Taliban’s Ability to Mobilize the Pashtuns” does just as the title suggests. Sinno writes: “If history is any guide, whoever mobilizes the Pashtuns rules Afghanistan, and Afghanistan cannot be ruled without their consent.” He then argues, with great precision, that the Taliban was uniquely sophisticated in its methods of earning defections from rival groups, accommodating local leaders, and isolating alternate sources of power.

On a more populist level, they won respect by combating the destabilizing scourge of warlordism and “imposing strict discipline in what had become an extremely lawless and hazardous area.” Foreign sponsorship certainly abetted the Taliban’s rise, but this was a group whose medieval veneer belied its shrewdness in power politics.

In Fraternity, Power, and Time in Central Asia, Robert L. Canfield elucidates the humble origins of the Taliban and details the striking evolution of its mission: from solely tackling local matters to advocating international jihad. In 1994, the Taliban was simply “acting to bring order in a time of anarchy.” Canfield continues: “Their perspective was local, their horizons were limited, and their concerns were immediate.” But a confluence of forces would gradually unmake their parochial designs and inject a hot brand of Islamism into the heart of their worldview.

The best and worst of this collection narrow the analytical scope even further. “The Taliban, Women, and the Hegelian Private Sphere”, written by Juan Cole, is the most intellectually rich and focused essay in the book. He examines the Taliban’s brash and often horrific use of public spectacle – hangings, whippings, and the like – and weaves that into a discussion of “the almost complete privatization of women”, a policy nastily administered by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. With references to Hegelian theory, traditions in Anglo-Saxon law, and tenets of the Koran, Cole contends that, as the public sphere broadened to encapsulate “power, religion, and morality,” women were pushed deeper into the margins of the private realm. Sadly, to a large degree, the women of post-Taliban Afghanistan still languish under a regime of gender apartheid.

At the opposite end is Lutz Rzehak’s “Remembering the Taliban”, which considers the various genres of oral communication that Afghanis employ to transmit cultural memory. The riwayat, for instance, is a “kind of short prose story” that aims to relate and preserve the traditional meaning of significant historical episodes. Rzehak additionally reviews poetry, song recordings, and concerts as means of bridging the past to the present. He doesn’t, however, establish a firm thesis from which to seek out firm conclusions. “Remembering the Taliban” is more of a literary analysis that touches on, but fails to movingly explore, cultural memory of the Taliban.

Near the end of The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan, the essays turn their focus to the present, in part to critically assess how the United States has fared in helping to reconstruct such a shattered country. Evidently, the fateful missteps in Iraq were presaged by earlier woes in Afghanistan: insufficient troops in the early going, an over reliance on “private corporations to assume state functions,” a misreading of how local Afghanis would react to a foreign occupation, etc. Imperial hubris appears to beget more of the same.

Now, an unvarnished evaluation of Afghanistan would have to cite the growing ranks of the Taliban and the wilting efficacy of President Hamid Karzai as two bleak realities that NATO forces will not be quick to undo. If timely adjustments are not made, the horrors of Afghanistan’s recent past might fully and, perhaps, more forcefully, reawaken.

The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan


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