By Ahmed Rashid
273 pp., Yale Nota Bene
In a few words: Ahmed Rashid's Taliban was the best book on the history and ideology of the Taliban when it was first published in 2000. It still is. In three sections that read easily and fluidly, Rashid oulines the ideological and historical origins of the Taliban, the Taliban's interpretation of Islam, and the Taliban and Afghanistan's place in "the new great game," a competition between regional and western powers for that region of the world.
Among them was John Burns of The New York Times, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 "for his courageous and insightful coverage of the harrowing regime imposed on Afghanistan by the Taliban."
"When the Taliban religious movement decided to stone to death a couple caught in adultery, it chose a blazing afternoon in late August," Burns wrote in a dispatch dated Nov. 3, 1996. "The condemned woman, Nurbibi, 40, was lowered into a pit dug into the earth beside the wall until only her chest and head were above ground. Witnesses said she was dressed in a sky-blue burqa, the head-to-toe shroud with a slit for the eyes that the Taliban require all women to wear when they are outside their homes." After the judge threw the first stone, "Taliban fighters who had been summoned for the occasion stepped forward and launched a cascade of stones, each big enough to fill the palms of their hands."
The Taliban, a Foreign Force Even in Afghanistan
That was Afghanistan under Taliban rule. And that was the Taliban that, in 1996, allowed Osama bin Laden to set up camp in Afghanistan and declare war on the United States.
Ahmed Rashid is among Pakistan's and South Asia's leading, and certainly bravest, reporters. He is to South Asia what Robert Fisk is to the Middle East--a reporter who's been covering the region for well over a generation, with more institutional history, more contacts and perspective than any of his peers. A native of Rawalpindi, the Pakistani military city, he has been covering South Asia for a dozen publications since the 1980s. Having witnessed parts of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Rashid was ideally positioned, in the 1990s, to observe and analyze the rise of the Taliban.
"Today's Taliban are only the latest in a long line of conquerors, warlords, preachers, saints and philosophers who have swept through the Afghan corridor destroying older civilizations and religions and introducing new ones," Rashid writes in Taliban.
The book is conveniently organized as a profile of the group no nation has been able to control, and no Afghan faction, or military force in Afghanistan, to defeat for long. Readers may pick and choose from chapters or sections to focus on aspects of the Taliban that may interest them most.
How "Taliban" Is Organized
The second section of the book examines the Taliban as religious and political ideology--a style of fundamentalism more pronounced, more violent and more inconsistent than Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. The Taliban challenges mainstream conceptions of Islam as much as it aims to redefine them.
Most Afghans belong to the Sunni Hanafi sect, a decentralized, liberal, non-hierarchical creed that had affinities with peaceful and tolerant Sufism, and that reflected Afghanistan's fractious cultures and geography. Afghans organized by tribes or communities had little patience for centralized government--or religious extremism. Wahhabism, for example, attempted to establish itself in Afghanistan in the 19th and early 20th century but had little success--until Saudi Arabia's oil boom in the 1970s financed a vast expansion of Wahhabi teaching in the Islamic world, particularly in South Asia. Afghans recoiled at the increasing influence of Wahhabism, considering it a foreign creed, but Saudi Arabia was persistent.
How Saudi Arabia and the CIA Helped Give Rise to the Taliban
For all of Zia's and the CIA's attempts to guide events, militias and mujahideens their way in Afghanistan (and, later, in Pakistan), both Zia's ISI and the CIA failed to understand the radical nature of the Taliban they were nurturing. "The Taliban interpretation of Islam, jihad and social transformation was an anomaly in Afghanistan because the movement's rise echoed none of the leading Islamicist trends that had emerged through the Anri-Soviet war. "They fitted nowhere in the Islamic spectrum of ideas and movements that had emerged in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1994," Rashid writes.