The Taliban and the Crisis in Afghanistan is an up-to-date collection of expert essays on the rise, fall and renaissance of the Taliban, set against the backdrop of Afghan wars that extended from the 1970s to their assumption of power in 1996 and fall in 2001.There are no apologists for the Taliban in this book (nor should there be) but several authors marvel at their astonishing success, 1994-1996, in seizing control of 80% of Afghanistan, given the fact that they began as a group of a few dozen fundamentalist mullahs and ex-mujahideen in the Kandahar area. Several reasons are adduced: authentic revulsion at the corrupt, disorderly, criminal way of life in Afghanistan after the communist collapse; rage at the ascension of non-Pashtun rulers; manipulation by foreign intelligence agencies (principally the Pakistani ISI.)
The Pashtun variable is perhaps the one American readers must focus on most closely. Pashtuns are the largest and dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan and have ruled it for most of Afghanistan's existence (dating to the 18th century.) After the communist's fall from power, Tadjiks and other northerners (non-Pashtuns) briefly assumed control of Kabul. This certainly galled Pashtuns in general and the Taliban in particular. In terms of Pakistan, non-Pashtun rule of Afghanistan also was a problem. Why? Because most Pashtuns live in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, Pakistan prefers rule of Afghanistan by Pashtuns.The current crisis takes shape are these facts: Karzai is a Pashtun who is surrounded by many "northern" ministers. In some Pashtun eyes, he is a sell-out. Hence, there is a diverse, neo-Taliban movement conducting operations to weaken his government and drive foreign forces out of the country, presumably leading to a reassertion of more "genuine" Pashtun rule.
The "foreign factor" is a permanent element in Afghan national existence because Afghanistan is an extremely poor state that has served as a buffer, or shuttlecock, between great powers since the early 19th century. To rule the country, a king or president typically has counted on foreign patronage. Today's patronage is US/NATO. Earlier patronage was Soviet, and, of course, British.
The political formula in play in Afghanistan right now (centralized power weakened by a symbolic Pashtun leader) seems destined to fail. A more federal approach is called for. Having fought for decades to survive, the northern Afghans (of Tadjik, Uzebek, and other ethnic affiliations) are in no mood to be ruled again by a strong central Pashtun-led government. But a weak central Pashutn-led government won't work in this country either. Hence, the attractiveness of the federal approach (although the Pashtun in Afghanistan, like the Sunni in Iraq, tend to think that is their right and calling to be in charge of a strong central government.)
This collection of essays, like all such collections, is somewhat repetitive and uneven. It veers between grand academic discourse and rat-a-tat historical reporting. There is no central thesis, nor is there a strong recommendation or prediction for the future. In some ways the book admirably defers to the complexity of a complex country with a complex history--much more complex than reported in the US media or addressed by US/NATO leaders.
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