Min Taliban Ilah Taliban (“From Taliban to Taliban – An Eyewitness Account of an Aid Worker in Afghanistan”), by Khaled Mansour, Al-Maraya, 2022. pp. 224
In September 1994, the Taliban (literally: “students” in Pashto), a movement of conservative Muslim students from the Pashtun area of eastern and southern Afghanistan, emerged in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. Two years later, in September 1996, Taliban took over the capital Kabul from President Burhanuddin Rabani. Rabani, of Tajik ethnicity, was viewed as an anti-Pashtun, the largest ethnic group of Pakistan with over 40 percent of the overall population. Tajik are the second largest ethnic group of the country with over 25 percent of Afghans.
For five years, Taliban ruled Afghanistan under strict conservative rules. After the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, the Taliban were accused of supporting and housing Al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden, who masterminded the attacks. Less than three weeks later, on 7 October 2001, the US invaded Afghanistan with a promise to eradicate terror and help Afghans re-build their modern state that had collapsed following the Soviet invasion of December 1979 in support of the pro-Soviet government.
In September 2020, Doha hosted talks between the US and Taliban leaders that led to an agreement on the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan. The withdrawal was executed a year later on 30 August 2021 in a shockingly chaotic fashion. And in September 2021, the world woke up to Taliban’s second reign – amid uncertainty over the future of the country and fears that women would lose the gains they had made.
In his over 200-page book, Khaled Mansour, a writer and former UN worker, attempts to dissect and de-stereotype the story of Taliban and to contextualise it within the historic, social, and political topography of Afghanistan.
The book walks the reader down two parallel tracks: Mansour’s own experience in Afghanistan starting in 1999 in a UN mission, and the contemporary story of Afghanistan.
The starting point of the story, according to Mansour’s book, is complex, but a key point is the 1978 military coup that established a pro-Soviet regime. The infamous Soviet invasion came a year later, followed by the US-masterminded and Saudi-funded jihad by the Mujahideen that threw the Soviets out in 1989, not long before the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.
A civil war between the diverse ethnic groups, with diverse international support, took Afghanistan into a chaotic, protracted conflict.
This history explains how the Taliban managed to gain power. According to Mansour, the Taliban disarmed many of the warring factions of the diverse ethnic tribes in the mid 1990s. Better security conditions – less random violence, including the widespread kidnapping of children – were all reasons that Taliban’s rule was accepted across parts of the country. This is not to mention the ethnic element.
However, things took a destructive turn when the Taliban rushed into an alliance with Bin Laden. Bin Laden, who had fought the Soviets in the 1980s, returned to Afghanistan in 1996 to lead Al-Qaida from bases in the mountains of Afghanistan.
The book also offers a concise explanation of the thick connection between the Taliban and Al-Qaida, and the wider Islamic Awekening (Sahwah Islamiyah). It explains the convoluted relationships that connects both Al-Qaida and Taliban on one hand and the security and intelligence bodies of the influential neighbouring and distant countries alike.
Mansour’s most convincing argument is that it was the conservative social context that allowed for the rise and rule of Taliban. Mansour reminds his readers that “the roots of the social constraints imposed on women in Afghanistan” were not Taliban-made. He also reminds the reader that after the first ouster of Taliban, “under the US-protected governments,” women continued to wear the chador, which “was not the making of but was made mandatory by Taliban rule” and to suffer, “especially in rural and poorer areas, from very strict restrictions that are much harsher than those imposed on women in most other” Muslim-majority countries.
According to Mansour, it was this almost inherently conservative make-up and the wide spread of traditional Islamic madrassas in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan that helped the call of Taliban “who actually combined the conservative read of Islam with the conservative [and at times coercive] social norms.”
Having been in Afghanistan when the Taliban destroyed two monumental sixth-century statues – the Buddhas of Bamiyan – Mansour recalls that the issue was not controversial locally. In fact, he said, even some opposition groups mocked the international fuss over the issue.
As nonjudgmental and de-stereotyping as it is, Min Taliban Ilah Taliban does not makes the case for the rule of Taliban. It is not either a plain protest against the interventions the Soviet Union or the US.
The book is rather an explainer for how the Taliban came to power. It is certainly also an open indictment of the failure of the US to work on addressing the roots of the political and social issues of Afghanistan. “It did not happen in the late 1980s after the Soviets were expelled from the country or later after the US invasion post 9/11 to take down Al-Qaida,” he writes.
MinTaliban Ilah Taliban is a testimony of the poverty, frustration, and unfairness that Afghans have been going through since the late 1970s “with hardly any development prospect.” It is a book with a masked sympathy that the former humanitarian worker seemed to have felt while on duty. It has forward looking analysis that anticipates a different style of rule by Taliban in its second reign that started two years ago from that of the mid-1990s.
“In its second edition, Taliban will not be a copy of its first edition, in view of the experience that its leaders had accumulated. However, the anticipated change will not for the most part touch the conservative norms and policies, either on religion or on politics, particular with regards to the relations with Shia’, the application of an ultra-conservative read of Sharia’ or the status of women with view to [the right to] education, work and legal equality,” Mansour established.