x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Human terrain: Decoding the New Taliban

Books As Washington escalates in Afghanistan, Steve Coll writes, intimate local knowledge remains a scarce commodity.

A Taliban fighter with an insurgent
A Taliban fighter with an insurgent "Mobile Patrol Unit" that polices Wardak Province.

As Washington escalates in Afghanistan, Steve Coll writes, intimate local knowledge remains a scarce commodity. Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field Antonio Giustozzi, editor C Hurst & Co / Columbia Dh148 Empires of Mud: Wars and Warlords in Afghanistan Antonio Giustozzi C Hurst & Co / Columbia Dh210 The public debate in the United States this autumn surrounding Barack Obama's Afghanistan policy often seemed conceived to avoid its own subject matter. The president's advisers, members of Congress and pundits argued at length about historical analogies - Vietnam, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, even the experiences of the British Empire in the late 19th century - but considerably less about the details and nuances of the current Afghan conflict or its insurgent force, the Taliban.

If the American-led war in Afghanistan fails to contain the Taliban, it will not be for lack of resources or military talent; it will be because American leaders have failed to see and analyse the conflict's diverse human terrain. Afghanistan may be known as a graveyard of empires but it is also a graveyard of generalisations. As the US Commanding General in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, pointed out in his pessimistic assessment of the war last summer, international forces operating in Afghanistan have "not sufficiently studied Afghanistan's peoples, whose needs, identities and grievances vary from province to province and from valley to valley".

The present American approach, derived from counterinsurgency doctrine, now presumes that political and economic tactics to pacify the Taliban will prove more effective than military force. But such a politics-first strategy, premised on forging a path toward negotiations with at least some Taliban elements, will require sharp eyesight about the Taliban's strengths and weaknesses, as well as its place in Afghanistan's social, tribal and cultural topography.

For example: to what extent, if at all, are the Taliban an expression of tribal grievances? To what extent do the motivations of Taliban recruits vary? Within the southern and eastern regions where the Taliban draw their strength, which local Taliban leaders are the most credible to their followers, and which are the least credible? In the answers to these and many similar questions lies the knowledge required to draw the Taliban into peaceful political compacts and to identify those who will never compromise with Kabul.

The Taliban's resurgence, unfortunately, has coincided with a global recession and the collapse of the newspaper industry, which has in turn led to a sharp reduction in the amount of independent journalism coming from Afghanistan. As security conditions have deteriorated, field research by academics has also become less plausible. The result is a dearth of reliable, independent-minded, fine-grained, reporting about the Taliban and other local actors - precisely at the time that such work is most needed.

With Decoding the New Taliban, which he edited, and Empires of Mud, which he authored, the London-based researcher Antonio Giustozzi has made another critically important effort to address this void. (His previous book, Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban in Afghanistan, was an excellent survey of the character and strategy of the Taliban as they regrouped after being routed from power by international forces in 2001.) Decoding the New Taliban is particularly timely. It collects 15 essays by diverse authors, including Giustozzi, each covering a distinct regional or thematic aspect of the Taliban's resurgence since 2003. All of the chapters are well researched and transparently sourced. A number of the essays are of extraordinarily high quality and bring forward important new information and insight about the Taliban and their context.

These include Joanna Nathan's survey of Taliban media strategy, Martine van Bijlert's examination of the insurgency in Uruzgan, and Graeme Smith's analysis of interviews with Taliban fighters in Kandahar. Altogether, the collection offers the finest assemblage of essays about the internal diversity of the current Taliban yet assembled - a blend of scholastic rigour and journalistic relevance. The portrait of the Taliban captured here is that of a pixelated snapshot - a fuzzy, fragmented image that will require continual updating, digging and revision. One striking theme in these pages is leadership continuity. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), the formal government overseen by Mullah Omar during the late 1990s, overthrown by the American-led invasion, and then dismissed as irrelevant and defeated by Bush administration officials, effectively reconstituted itself in exile in Pakistan by 2003. Since then, with some degree of Pakistani connivance, this exiled Taliban government, operating mainly from Quetta, has built up a striking degree of coherence, internal discipline, and diverse lines of operation across the Afghan border.

Taliban personalities who held formal positions in the IEA of old have been reappointed to shadow roles within this government. Its media arm, which includes at least six different online publications, has grown so robust that, by 2008, the Taliban's leadership felt compelled to issue a statement admonishing jihadi freelancers writing or issuing CDs in the Taliban's name to "get the approval of the Islamic Emirate cultural commission". Al Qa'eda's media operations, which once were hailed as a model of innovation, today pale in comparison to those of the Taliban, who have successfully used their media wing to advance the mythmaking narrative of their prowess and to aid recruiting. They also influence Afghan perceptions of the war by pushing out streams of videos and news releases, claiming credit for successful operations and blaming the US-led coalition for civilian deaths.

Decoding the New Taliban also captures the texture of the Taliban's geographical diversity. In Afghanistan, any national political movement must account for the country's tribal and cultural pluralism. During the 1990s, and to some degree today, the Taliban's success lay in its ability to appeal to Islam as a source of motivation and identity that trumped other loyalties, particularly tribal ones. This appeal has always been contested within Afghanistan, however, even in the south and east, where the Taliban are strongest. Decoding the New Taliban provides a series of locally specific, messy narratives of political and power competition in which the Taliban's superseding religious claims interact with tribal grievances, warlords, and what can only be described as criminal rackets, such as the illicit taxation of transport and poppy.

Even the clearest patterns present exceptions and sub-patterns. In Kandahar, for example, which will soon be a focus of Obama's "surge" of new troops, it has been observed that the Taliban have exploited the resentments of lesser Pashtun tribes such as the Noorzai and the Ishaqzai. Graeme Smith's ambitious, informal survey of Taliban fighters - although only impressionistic in its scale and methodology - turns up evidence to support this hypothesis, but also shows that the Taliban have won some local recruits even from President Hamid Karzai's ascendant Popolzai tribe, which has enjoyed a disproportionate share of spoils since 2001.

Such portraits of Afghanistan's fragmented tribes point up the futility of waging war by analogy. In Iraq, the US military famously used subsidies and negotiations to turn Sunni tribes in Anbar Province against al Qa'eda. But the leaders and networks of Anbar's tribes had been intact for a century, unmolested even by Saddam Hussein. When the tribes turned, they did so coherently. No such social grid is available in the Pashto-speaking south of Afghanistan after 30 years of continual warfare.

Of all the sources of specificity available here, the most important lies in Thomas Ruttig's remarkably valuable, extensive report on the Haqqani network - the first of its kind available to the public. The Haqqani network may be the single most potent element in the Taliban-led insurgency. Its strength traces to the career of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a legendary mujahideen commander during the anti-Soviet war of the 1980s. The Haqqanis hailed from near Khost, in Afghanistan, but Jalaluddin fought often from a base in North Waziristan, inside Pakistan. He proved to be not only a fierce battlefield commander but also a wily politician and fundraiser. He raised money during Haj visits to Saudi Arabia, accepted cash subsidies as a "unilateral" asset of the Central Intelligence Agency, and at the same time made himself indispensable to the Pakistan's principal intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI. During the summer of 1988, it was Haqqani who provided the territory where al Qa'eda established its first camp; Osama bin Laden once praised him publicly. During Taliban rule, Haqqani accepted a ministry in Mullah Omar's government, but always remained a semi-autonomous figure, dominant in his strategic home region along the Pakistan-Afghan border. It would not be surprising to learn that the Haqqanis have sheltered bin Laden for at least some of the period since his escape from Tora Bora in late 2001.

Jalaluddin is now an aged figure - rumours of his death circulate occasionally, only to be refuted by the release of grainy video. Command of his network is thought to have passed to his son, Sirajuddin. Ruttig, however, is careful to note that the evidence about Haqqani internal leadership is ambiguous, as is the evidence about the network's relationship with the formal Taliban led by Mullah Omar. "It seems far from clear (at least to this author) whether Jalaluddin Haqqani is really a member of the Taliban Leadership Council," Ruttig writes; he might better be considered an autonomous leader aligned with Taliban goals.

The reports of Pakistani researchers and American officials suggest that Haqqani may maintain closer ties to ISI than to Mullah Omar. What is clear is that the Pakistan Army has made virtually no effort to challenge Haqqani's redoubt in North Waziristan; in turn, the Haqqanis have been cautious about joining the Pakistani Taliban in their revolt against Islamabad. The evidence is circumstantial, but it suggests a continuing quid pro quo between ISI and its former client, constructed to provide Pakistan with options in a post-American Afghanistan, which it fears will be dominated by India. Such an informal compact with Haqqani might well seem attractive to at least some of Pakistan's generals, as Haqqani has proved to be more pragmatic, responsive and reliable in alliance with ISI over the years than has Mullah Omar, who by all accounts is a stubborn and lightly educated man who truly believes that he should answer to no authority but God's.

Haqqani's case suggests the extent to which the international community has joined a contest in Afghanistan among warlords - some aligned with the Taliban, others against. In recent months, American officials and commentators have often deplored the corruption in Karzai's government and campaign alliance. Of course, some of the figures American officials complain about have been subsidised - and may still be - by their own CIA. (Consistency has never been a hallmark of American policy in Afghanistan.) In Empires of Mud, Giustozzi applies the lenses of political science to two of Afghanistan's better-known non-Taliban warlords, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan, who remain important figures in northern Mazar I Sharif and western Herat respectively. The book's early chapters offer a narrative history of warlordism in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion to the present that is compact, readable and fascinating. Later chapters examining the political economies of Dostum and Khan are dense and at times weighed down by academic jargon. They are rich with information but likely will be of interest mainly to regional specialists.

After the Taliban's overthrow in 2001, the promotion of warlords as instruments of regional stability, Giustozzi writes, "prevented a rapid consolidation of an effective state, leaving the door open to new challenges, and left much of the Afghan countryside in a state of turmoil. This was hardly noticed in Kabul and in the capitals of the world, but was very much felt in many Afghan villages." Giustozzi's observation points to an excruciating paradox of the Obama administration's reaffirmed commitment to the Afghan war. Restive publics in the United States and Europe suggest the time available for political and military progress against the Taliban is shrinking. This faster timeline, in turn, may encourage the false expediency of promoting warlordism, as a means of sidestepping Kabul and achieving stability. The evidence in Giustozzi's books suggests how short-sighted such a strategy would be. The Taliban rose in the first instance because they offered a purifying Islamic response to the localised problems of corrupt warlordism. Their movement can only now be contained, district by diverse Afghan district, by eliminating or at least reducing the problem of warlord rule that the Taliban claim to address. And that, in turn, is a project that can only be approached through the application of intense local knowledge about Afghan aspirations and Taliban weaknesses. Giustozzi's work is a start, but much more will yet be required.

Steve Coll, a staff writer at the New Yorker, is the author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.