Don’t Forget the Taliban

August 18, 2014

Hassan Abbas, The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014)

 

Our attention these days is torn between violent conflicts and graphic imagery from eastern Ukraine, western Iraq and the Kurdistan region, and the rubble of Gaza. Informed readers could be excused for forgetting about the International Security Assistance Force’s mission in Afghanistan or Pakistan’s daily struggle to keep violent extremism from taking root inside its borders. The notion that we live in an age of unmatched peace is rendered moot by the front page of any newspaper or website. The tides of war are not receding.

The release of Hassan Abbas’s The Taliban Revival is very timely. As a former police officer and accomplished scholar, Abbas has an informed grasp of his subject formed by intimate contact over an extended time. He has remained current with events through well-placed contacts and annual field visits. He warns the reader not to expect an upbeat story about the plot since “ignorance and bigotry, the two fundamental planks of the Taliban ideology,” are the constant undercurrent and substantially influence his subject.

The author addresses the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban separately, while noting the sometimes interactive nature between the two. He warns that “A newer generation of military operating in the field defines the ethos of the Taliban today; and it is more uncompromising than the older generation.” Yet the Afghan Taliban, despite its fissures between hardline and moderate leaders, is chiefly concerned with matters internal to its homeland. “The Pakistani Taliban, on the other hand, is more audacious and dangerous,” Abbas observes. He detects legitimate grievances, and ideology as motivation. However, he thinks that:

Genuine political and economic grievances, coupled with Pakistan’s controversial role in the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan have turned out to be the defining impetus.   Gradually they have openly started challenging the very idea of Pakistan. It is not their goal to take over Islamabad and govern there: their preferred path is to make Waziristan the capital of their cherished Islamic Emirate.

Abbas’s clear prose, access to many Pakistani officials, and academic perspective decode the contending players and passions.   As a non-expert, I found this book informative and highly readable. Abbas goes well beyond the U.S. policy focus of most Washington-based writers like Brookings’ Bruce Riedel. He also avoids the infusion of unnecessary anecdotes and acidic commentary against U.S. policy displayed in works such as Ahmed Rashid’s Descent into Chaos.

Dr. Abbas’ own background as a former Pakistani police officer colors his thinking about the desirable and the range of likely outcomes. Deeply rooted social and political realities will continue to generate violence and produce dysfunctional forces that will undercut both governments’ efforts to promote security and enhance the prosperity of their people. The Taliban Revival documents the history and political economy that undergirds the various networks of the Taliban movements. The author’s warning that Pakistan risks losing its future should be heeded, as well as his assessment that “its foundations are not strong enough to bear the burden of insecurity for long, as that destroys its economic prospects.”

It is not easy to forecast events in this violent region. Just before this book was published, on June 9, the Pakistani Taliban staged a deadly attack on Karachi’s airport, leaving 36 dead, including the 10 attackers. In retribution, the Pakistani Army initiated a much-awaited and long-needed offensive in North Waziristan, with the Pakistani forces claiming to have killed over 400 militants. But critical militants, including the Haqqani network, were allowed to slip away. At the same time, the Afghan Taliban is trying to retake Helmand, their prior stronghold, where the U.S. Marines expended much time, effort, and blood expelling the insurgents. The events were not specifically predicted by Abbas but they fit the patterns of Taliban motivation and activity he presents in the book.

In sum, this is an informed evaluation of the evolving Taliban in the so-called AfPak region, seen through the eyes of a sympathetic scholar and former policeman.   This unique perspective deserves a wide readership and the topic deserves more serious attention than it gets these days. The insights of The Taliban Revival, informed by a lifetime of involvement and erudition, are carefully presented in a measured way. Abbas’s scholarship and repeated field research is equally evident. I would recommend this book without reservation to anyone interested in the region. And let’s not forget, unlike Ukraine, Gaza, and even Iraq, Afghanistan is the only place where America still has thousands of troops deployed in a war zone.

 

F. G. Hoffman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. This review reflects his own personal views and does not reflect the policies or position of the Department of Defense.

 

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