IT has been almost 13 years since the first missiles landed on Afghanistan as a vengeful US sought to wreak terrible retribution upon the Taliban, blaming them in part for the 9/11 attacks in New York.
Less than two years later, the pattern was repeated in Iraq, with Saddam Hussein’s regime being accused of being allied with Al Qaeda and possessing weapons of mass destruction intended for use against the West.
In both cases, the overwhelming military might of the US and its allies met with little resistance, as opposition from both the Taliban and the Iraqi regime crumbled in a matter of weeks, if not days. It was this that led George W. Bush to don a uniform and preen triumphantly on an aircraft carrier in 2003, standing in front of a massive banner that said “Mission Accomplished.”
As we now know, those celebrations of victory were premature. Today, Iraq and Afghanistan exist as nations ravaged by over a decade of conflict, with thousands of American lives and trillions of dollars failing to stem their seemingly inevitable slide into anarchy. The US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, based on faulty intelligence, championed by ideologically-blinkered neo-conservatives in the US State Department, and launched for the pursuit of strategic objectives that had more to do with oil and realpolitik than any unquenchable desire to bring freedom to the oppressed peoples of those countries, were quickly exposed for having little in the way of a plan for what would happen when ‘regime change’ was achieved.
Unsurprisingly, democracy and democratic institutions did not spontaneously emerge following the ‘shock and awe’ of the initial US military campaigns, with hundreds of thousands of civilians — caught in the crossfire between different resistance groups, sectarian militants, and foreign troops — paying for this folly with their lives.
A decade later, it was apparent that no lessons had been learnt from these debacles as French, British and American bombs rained down on Libya. Even as that country grapples with an increasingly destructive civil war being waged by forces vying to fill the power vacuum left by the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, dark clouds are gathering around Syria as Western powers contemplate military action to stem the tide of the so-called Islamic State. That the rise of the IS might have been an unintended consequence of past misadventures in the region is a vital point that seems to have been missed in the debate.
In this context, The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier is a timely, if familiar, reminder of the tremendous costs of America’s imperial hubris. Written with great clarity by Hassan Abbas, an academic at the National Defence University in Washington D.C., the book provides an overview of the multiple factors that have underpinned the resurgence of the Taliban as a force that is likely to play a central, if not dominant, role in Afghanistan as the US withdrawal from the country becomes a reality.
In a narrative that begins with an overview of the history of the Pakhtuns on both sides of the Durand Line, Abbas carefully and meticulously demonstrates how poor American planning and strategy, coupled with the duplicity of Pakistan’s military establishment and the incompetence of the Karzai government in Afghanistan, have all combined together to facilitate the re-emergence of a more brutal and criminalised Taliban that poses a threat to peace and stability in the region.
Throughout the course of the book, Abbas goes to considerable length to capture the heterogeneity of Pakhtun society, showing how its tribal structure, as well as the complex web of relationships cutting across the Afghan-Pak border, illustrates the difficulty outside observers often have when attempting to understand the region. When it has come to the Pakhtuns, crude stereotypes about their proclivity for conflict and their aversion to being ruled have often taken the place of more sober and substantive analysis of the way in which enduring tribal rivalries and traditional sources of strife, such as land and resources, have played a role in shaping the contemporary politics of Afghanistan and Fata. More importantly, for Abbas, it is also necessary to understand the role that has been played by the great powers, such as the Soviet Union and the US, in planting the seeds of the current resurgence of the Taliban.
The argument put forward by Abbas is a straightforward one: guided more by self-interest than any real desire to improve the situation in Afghanistan, regional and global players have contributed towards fomenting the instability that currently plagues the country. Having established the infrastructure through which to train the ‘mujahideen’ in the fight against the Soviets, the US abandoned Afghanistan to its fate, creating the space within which Pakistan’s military establishment could develop links with an embryonic Taliban as part of the former’s attempts to use Afghanistan as ‘strategic depth’ in the event of a war with India. When the US returned to bomb Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the role played by Pakistan, ostensibly an ally in the ‘war on terror,’ was decidedly Janus-faced; while reluctantly appearing to support the US campaign, Pakistan simultaneously provided safe havens for elements of the Taliban, cultivating them as potential assets to be used once American military involvement in Afghanistan came to an end.
According to Abbas, the problems with the US invasion were compounded by the shambolic manner in which the task of installing a new government and reconstruction were undertaken. The Karzai government propped up by the US proved to be both venal and incompetent, combining a worrying tendency to centralise power with an apparent lack of will or ability to resolve the pressing issues of governance faced by Afghanistan. The systematic exclusion and marginalisation of Pakhtuns from the government and decision-making process, coupled with Iranian and Indian involvement in assisting non-Taliban and non-Pakhtun forces, had the effect of galvanising Pakhtun opposition to both the Afghan government and the US, with antagonistic tribal rivalries being set aside to confront a common enemy.
In Pakistan, the Taliban seeking refuge in Fata were quickly able to forge connections with other groups of Pakhtun militants with similar sets of grievances, setting in motion the process that would eventually give rise to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. At present, the Taliban essentially function as an umbrella group for a plethora of organisations, including criminal interests, that have successfully taken advantage of the weakness of the Afghan government, as well as the ambivalence of the Pakistani military establishment, to enmesh themselves within the area’s political, social, and economic fabric. While religion and ideology have clearly played a role in creating and consolidating the Taliban as a militant movement, Abbas is persuasive when he suggests that ethnic and tribal tensions, as well as the presence of the United States and the interference of Pakistan, have also played a huge role in facilitating the Taliban’s return to power.
Matters have only been made worse by the paltry economic assistance provided to Afghanistan in the wake of the US invasion. Of the aid that made it to Afghanistan, much was siphoned off by a corrupt government machinery and powerful warlords, leaving little to be spent on education, development, and the strengthening of Afghanistan’s own security forces. Yet, it is here that Abbas sees the potential for a solution to the country’s problems; investment in education and de-radicalisation, coupled with institutional reforms aimed at improving the army and police, as well as the introduction of decentralised local government, are all policy proposals that Abbas puts forward as mechanisms through which the inevitability of a return to Taliban rule can be reversed.
The recommendations Abbas makes are all sound but ultimately amount to little more than wishful thinking. Other than the fact that these proposals rest upon an almost naive faith in the US’s capacity to make a positive intervention in Afghanistan, they also fail to address the root causes of the problem, namely the way in which the major external actors involved in this saga have little or no incentive to change their established patterns of behaviour; Pakistan continues to let its paranoia vis-a-vis India dictate its Afghan policy and the US continues to back elements of the Afghan government that are loath to enact reform. Most importantly of all, the Taliban themselves now occupy a position of strength from which they can dictate terms to their opponents. Until efforts are made to change these facts, there is little chance that the solutions put forward in The Taliban Revival will be implemented, let alone be successful.
The Taliban Revival is a well-written book that presents its facts and arguments with a nuance and sensitivity that is often missing from other exemplars of its genre. For readers who are new to this subject, the book will undoubtedly prove to be an invaluable source of information and insight. Those who possess a deeper understanding of the Taliban and the recent history of the region will, however, find little that is new or, indeed, surprising. Nonetheless, even if many of the points raised by The Taliban Revival have been made before, the fact that they continue to be ignored by the powers that be suggests that there may be some value to their repetition.
The reviewer is Assistant Professor of Political Science at LUMS
The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier
(WAR ON TERROR)
By Hassan Abbas
Yale University Press, US