For many, the Taliban, with their strident pre-modern worldview and violence, are an embodiment of barbarity. For many others, they are a local guerrilla force, rooted in tribal beliefs and united by an Islamist ideology, who forced the mighty United States to withdraw from Afghanistan. Either way, the Taliban’s history has been enmeshed with that of modern Afghanistan’s complex, conflict-ridden past and present.
They rose from nowhere in the first half of the 1990s when Afghanistan was descending into chaos and civil war after the collapse of the communist regime. They were in power from 1996 to 2001, until their Islamic Emirate was toppled by a U.S. invasion. Twenty years later, they recaptured Kabul on August 15, 2021, when the U.S. was scrambling to evacuate its soldiers. As the Taliban mark the first anniversary of their recapture of power on August 15, they are already reshaping Afghanistan according to their worldview.
Dozens of books have been written about the rise, reign, retreat and return of the Taliban. One of the most widely read books about the group was written by Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. His 2000 book, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, traces the origins, ideology and leadership of the group. While in the 1990s everyone was curious to understand the Taliban’s rise to power, in the 2010s, the focus had shifted to their insurgency. The U.S. invasion brought down the Taliban regime in 2001 and a new Islamic Republic was founded in Afghanistan. But the Taliban regrouped and continued to wage an insurgency against both the American troops and the Afghan government. American journalist Carlotta Gall’s The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-14 is an attempt to map the Taliban’s resistance and the support it was getting from Pakistan’s military establishment.
Steve Coll is another American journalist, who has written extensively on Afghanistan. His 2004 book, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, offers exhaustive details about the different phases of Afghanistan’s decades-long civil war — the U.S.-backed Mujahideen resistance against the Soviets, the post-communist civil war between warlords and the rise of the Taliban. In Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (2018), Coll offers a credible narrative on the double game Pakistan was playing in the Afghan war. A critical addition to this list of important books on Afghanistan is Bette Dam’s Looking for the Enemy: Mullah Omar and the Unknown Taliban.
Dam, a Dutch journalist who has covered Afghanistan extensively, originally published this book in March 2019 and an updated English version was out in December last year. Starting with her first trip to Afghanistan, Dam takes the reader to the inner workings of the Taliban and the most unknown details about its mysterious yet notorious leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Dam has travelled extensively in Afghanistan and interviewed dozens of people, including close associates of Omar, Afghan villagers, government officials and international diplomats.
Her narrative challenges the mainstream views of the Taliban and their leader. She also questions some of the arguments in Rashid’s book such as Pakistan’s role in Taliban’s rise. According to her version, the Taliban rose as a movement from the hujras (religious schools in Afghanistan) backed by some influential local families against the truck mafia in the lawless Kandahar of the post-communist Afghanistan. The Mullah Omar she depicts is a pious, simple, Sufi leader who wanted to unite and stabilise the civil war-stricken Afghanistan under the banner of Islam. She also questions the Western narrative that Omar had close ties with Osama bin Laden and often points to the West for its failure in understanding the Taliban regime.
Dam’s narrative, however, seeks to absolve Omar from some of the atrocities the Taliban have committed. The picture of Omar she has drawn up is also heavily dependent on the interviews given by his disciples or neighbours. She writes Omar did not want violence against Mohammad Najibullah, the former Communist President who was lynched by Taliban militants in Kabul after they entered the city. She writes Omar wanted Bin Laden to leave Afghanistan and was not provided with credible evidence by the Americans over his terrorist links. Bin Laden himself had claimed responsibility for some of the major terrorist attacks al-Qaeda carried out in the 1990s, and he had issued two edicts from Afghanistan, calling for global jihad. Dam’s Omar appears to be a helpless Mullah who did not favour Laden’s version of Islamist ideology. We are talking about a Mullah who waged a ruthless war against the anti-Taliban warlords and the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani to establish his Islamic emirate. Despite all the minute details Dam provides about Omar’s supposed detachment from Laden, there is nothing to suggest why Omar didn’t use force against the Arab jihadists if he did not want them in Afghanistan. The book also has scant references to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Taliban’s No. 1 enemy in Afghanistan who was assassinated by al-Qaeda just days before the September 11 attacks. Regarding the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas, she says Omar was initially against destroying the statues and changed his mind for some unknown reason.
She quotes someone who says Omar wanted to show his middle finger to the West by destroying the statues. But what kind of a leader would destroy 6th century monumental statues with dynamites before the camera just to teach the West a lesson?
Dam’s Omar is also a simple Islamic leader who wanted unity and opposed unreasonable violence. But his supposed simplicity did not prevent him from wearing the holy cloak, which Muslims believe belonged to the Prophet Mohammad, and appear on top of a mosque in Kandahar while reasserting his authority. Despite his calls for unity, the movement he built remained almost entirely Pashtun (it still is), violent and anti-woman by any yardstick of basic human rights and dignity.
Despite these contradictions, Looking for the Enemy is an important book. It also offers insights into the transfer of power within the Taliban in 2001, how their offer for surrender was accepted by a powerless Hamid Karzai but rejected by the Americans and the last days of Omar. To understand today’s Taliban’s, it is imperative to understand the man behind the movement. That’s what Dam offers in the book.