Afghan schism

An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/Al-Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970-2010, by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, Hirst & Co, RRP£30, 320 pages

Sir Olaf Caroe, a British colonial administrator and ethnographer of the Pashtuns, once observed that “unlike other wars, Afghan wars become serious only when they are over”. The latest Afghan war is not over but its end, at least for the US and Europe, is dimly visible over the horizon. The international military footprint is shrinking and echoes of the Soviet withdrawal – orderly, but culminating in the collapse of the Afghan government – are bouncing around western capitals.

Perhaps that is why things are getting serious. Ten years ago the then CIA director, George Tenet, declared that “the Taliban and al-Qaeda [are] really the same”. In early January the Taliban announced plans to open a political office in Qatar. One issue lies at the crux of negotiations: was Tenet correct about the group that, last year, eulogised Osama bin Laden as “a real martyr”? Or are the Taliban a nationalist movement, separable from the swirling currents of global jihad that engulfed their country in the 1980s?

Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn are well placed to offer an answer, having lived in Kandahar for five years and translated the memoirs of the Taliban’s former envoy to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef. The two young researchers bring the empathy and experience of old chroniclers such as Caroe but none of the romantic condescension towards the “wily Pathan”.

Their central thesis in An Enemy We Created is that “the issue of international terrorism from within Afghanistan’s borders may not necessarily be as big a potential problem as is currently believed”. That is because, like Tenet, we have persistently overestimated the degree of intellectual and operational agreement between two strains of jihad – one local and contingent, the other global and unyielding.

These were forged in parallel during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But, as Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn demonstrate, they had radically different influences. The urbane, educated Arab interlopers were a generation older than their largely rural Afghan hosts. They were steeped in a transnational and politically charged Islam quite alien to the parochial Deobandi tradition of the Pakistani madrassas that schooled the Taliban. “From the Arab perspective,” note the authors, “Afghanistan is almost always referred to as a place where the religious beliefs of the local people leave a lot to be desired, but should be tolerated” – not far off the views of Middle England.

The relationship between Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and bin Laden, who had been invited into Afghanistan by other warlords, was awkward and fractious. Omar was “apoplectic” when bin Laden held a major press conference in 1998: “there is only one ruler. Is it me or Osama?” The book dismantles “the oft-stated image of bin Laden sitting at Omar’s side, whispering conspiracies into his ear, playing Iago to Omar’s Othello”.

The authors seem on shakier ground in arguing that the Taliban might have been pulled back from the brink in 2001. This sits uncomfortably with their meticulous analysis of Omar’s thinking. When the Saudis had tried to extract bin Laden in 1998, careful to do so in a face-saving “Islamic” way, it became obvious that Omar had no intention of negotiating in good faith.

A decade after being routed on the battlefield, the resurgent Taliban have repeated the trick they performed in the 1990s: exploiting local grievances against a predatory government. The sobering assessment of Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn is that the insurgency is splintering, thanks in part to Nato’s strategy of obliterating its middle ranks. A “new generation of insurgents, a younger group with no recollection of an Afghanistan that was not at war, are less inclined to reach a political settlement” and far more receptive to al-Qaeda’s still potent message. Meanwhile, the Taliban flirt with their Sinn Féin moment. As dusk falls in the Afghan war, the owl of Minerva is spreading its wings.

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